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Sweating the (Not-So) Small Stuff: Millennials and the Informal Sector

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In Kampala, as elsewhere on the continent, the status parade celebrating the tiniest successes costs a fortune. What if those resources were turned to more profitable pursuits? MARY SERUMAGA, musing on Millennials, the informal sector and a Twitter exchange, has an epiphany in a matatu.

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One reaction to David Ndii’s op-ed, HUSTLER NATION: Jobless youth, millennial angst and the political economy of underachievement, caught my attention being at once amusing and instructive:

It was instructive because Ndii began his piece by explaining the concept of the demographic dividend about which we hear so much. He pointed out that the ratio of dependants to potential earners in Kenya had fallen by 36 percent since the 1980s. With fewer retirees and children to support there is more available for investment. That demographic shift, he said, was a potential avenue for Kenya and other countries with a youth bulge to increase incomes through investment.

He went on to point out that a demographic dividend is not triggered automatically by numbers. Reaping the dividend requires an enabling environment which involves a range of factors including political stability, a favourable investment climate, and an educated youth, “not trained, but trainable”.

It goes without saying that for most of Africa one should not assume political stability as a constant. At the same time, said stability is relative. Yet everywhere, human enterprise continues. No African country has yet turned off the lights and shuttered-up the place.

Ndii’s article focuses on investment possibilities more than on politics. Far from suggesting an automatic progression from the youth bulge to reaping its dividends, the article is devoted instead to how to make the best of a bad situation. When we think of investment, everyone from the leaders down assumes big projects, big money, and therefore, big foreign investors. Ndii argues that the dividend can be reaped by leveraging the income–generating capacity of the informal sector which is the dominant sector of the economy. One would add that the informal sector is only informal because government services do not extend to the grassroots. But a farmer is a farmer, a taxi driver a taxi driver, a vendor a vendor etc, whether s/he is registered, banked and has a PIN or not. The money s/he earns is legal tender.

The third requirement, a trainable youth, is available in abundance.

So where can the youth get the money to invest? I got an idea in a matatu. A young girl on her way to work was chatting to another passenger. She had her own business. She got the capital from her father who, having thrown graduation parties for her four elder siblings, had had the bright idea of giving this youngest child the cash – not much, just under $200.

These parties are not merely elitist preoccupations; in Uganda and elsewhere, even families of the most humble means insist on a party for whatever final certificate their child has managed to obtain. Ditto weddings, pre-wedding introductions, post-wedding parties, lavish last funeral rites, printing “Save This Date” and “Thank you” cards, massive white marquees and tiny ones seating just the bagole (the graduands) and lots and lots of flowers. The list of ways in which to fritter away resources is endless.

In Kampala, restaurants, hotels and the National Theatre now charge a fee for holding meetings at their premises because every Saturday there are fundraising committees spread out on the grounds, devising ways and means of extorting cash from every last relative and friend. So ubiquitous are parties that it makes more economic sense to hire out vacant plots as ‘Venues’ rather than attempt to build on them.

In Uganda and elsewhere, even families of the most humble means insist on a party for whatever final certificate their child has managed to obtain. Ditto weddings, pre-wedding introductions, post-wedding parties, lavish last funeral rites, printing “Save This Date” and “Thank you” cards, massive white marquees and tiny ones seating just the bagole (the graduands) and lots and lots of flowers. The list of ways in which to fritter away resources is endless.

At the same time, Sunday supplements in the newspapers often feature ‘magicians’ – youths and older people who have managed to establish cocoa or other non–traditional produce plantations for the domestic and export markets.

What if investment funds were set up each graduation season and money invested in those rather than in celebrations? What if we imposed restraints on ourselves without waiting for austerity measures to be imposed from outside?

In what is it possible to invest?

As an investment target, Ndii gives the example of increasing production capacity in an existing sector – beef production. The details speak for themselves. There is under-utilised capacity in many other sectors.

The Ugandan numbers for milk and dairy products also paint a picture of unrealised potential. Unrealised because the initiative was left to the State. Very much like the cotton and coffee sectors on which the economy was built and which kept British textile manufacturers and their coffee industry afloat, milk is mainly produced by smallholder (informal sector) farmers. Milk vending was and remains mainly informal through kiosks. Because 80 percent of the general population is not connected to the power grid (the figures are probably higher among farmers), milk producers cannot keep the milk fresh. Even if they had refrigeration, frequent power outages make it necessary to use fuel–driven generators, an extra expense.

What if investment funds were set up each graduation season and money invested in those rather than in celebrations? What if we imposed restraints on ourselves without waiting for austerity measures to be imposed from outside?

It occurred belatedly to the government that ordinary Ugandans may want to participate meaningfully in the profits from the milk industry. Money was invested in milk coolers. Cooling and post-production plants were to be established all over the country to serve small holders – precisely the thing envisaged in 1967 when the Dairy Corporation was established with funds from the public purse. Under the Structural Adjustment Programme, however, the Dairy Corporation was mysteriously transferred to a Thai investor in 2004 for a nominal one dollar after the competitive bidding process for it was cancelled by President Museveni. No reasons were ever given. It is pointless to try to understand it – it doesn’t make sense.

In 2008, dairy farmers produced close to four million litres per day. Processing capacity at the time was just under 300,000 litres per day and even then only one-third of that capacity was being utilized (Wozemba & Nsanja, 2008[i]). If it can’t be made into cheese or another milk product, the produce from the second daily milking is thrown away. An acquaintance from Burundi tells me that his family used their excess milk to fertilize their banana plantation.

Money was invested in milk coolers. Cooling and post-production plants were to be established all over the country to serve small holders – precisely the thing envisaged in 1967 when the Dairy Corporation was established with funds from the public purse. Under the Structural Adjustment Programme, however, the Dairy Corporation was mysteriously transferred to a Thai investor in 2004 for a nominal one dollar after the competitive bidding process for it was cancelled by President Museveni.

As with all displacements of smallholder interests in favour of large monopolies, the bargaining power of milk producers was weakened by the sale of the Dairy Corporation, forcing producers to rely on a handful of foreign and domestic private milk processors for all post-production services. They simply cannot negotiate competitive prices for their milk.

Some of the slack has been taken up by the Masaka Archdiocese, which has established one cooling plant and has plans for five more. In the absence of the State, is it not possible for young citizens to dominate this sector rather than an oligarchy? If at least as much time is spent on examining this proposition as is spent organising the social binges celebrating academic success, perhaps some progress could be made.

Some of the slack has been taken up by the Masaka Archdiocese, which has established one cooling plant and has plans for five more. In the absence of the State, is it not possible for young citizens to dominate this sector rather than an oligarchy? If at least as much time is spent on examining this proposition as is spent organising the social binges celebrating academic success, perhaps some progress could be made.

The exchange between Ndii and Yebei was amusing because it was so predictable. In response to the piece, a proposition for self-employment was floated. The clue is in the phrase – breeding cattle is not rocket science. It was ignored and a solution to unemployment, especially among graduates, was now demanded. When no further suggestions from the author were forthcoming, party and inter–generational politics kicked in. The ‘affront’ was felt on Facebook where the view was expressed that the issue at play is selfish, privileged older people especially MPs and policy–makers. As though Millennials are not old enough and numerous enough to send representatives to Parliament.

The Alternative

The alternative is not good. Ndii: “If these factors are not there (i.e. the enabling environment), and the requisite investment fails to materialize, a demographic transition can turn into a political nightmare.” A la Zimbabwe, the Arab Spring and other places.

It really is up to us – we dialogue or die.

[i] David Wozemba & Nsanja Rashid, Study on Dairy Investment Opportunities in Uganda, 2008, for SNV (a Dutch NGO).

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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Twitter: Let It Burn!

Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.

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Twitter: Let It Burn!
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Elon Musk finally bought Twitter. Although everyone expected the move to quickly prove foolhardy, the speed of the implosion has been impressive. The latest gaffe is a failed attempt to monetize verification by requiring paid subscriptions for them, which has led to all manner of comical impersonations (one macabre highlight was a “verified” George W. Bush account tweeting “I miss killing Iraqis. “Tony Blair” responded with “Same tbh”). Some are watching with shock and horror and wondering if Twitter can be saved. But, when sulfur and fire rains, it is best not to look back.

Africa Is a Country managing editor, Boima Tucker, put it best some years ago: “Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation.” The thing to reckon with is the extent to which we have exaggerated the emancipatory potential of networked communication and social media, partly owing to our own psychic overinvestments in it. Which is not to deny that it has never shown democratic and egalitarian potential, but that’s never been what Twitter is forThere can be no right platform in the wrong world.

What was Twitter for then? In the New York Review of Books, Ben Tarnoff describes it as a “network of influence.” In a world characterized by the economization of everything, social media is the place to commodify the self, to transform one’s unique traits and personality into a product for public display. The main imperative online is to “stay on brand,” to cultivate an appealing enough persona in the endless “production of new genres of being human.”

The key contradiction of social media use, of course, is that even though these platforms appear to us as complete products that we participate in and consume, we are the ones responsible for ensuring their possibility in the first place. As the media scholar Christian Fuchs notes, “Digital work is the organization of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. These products can be online information, meanings, social relations, artifacts or social systems.” Thus, it is us who create the value of these platforms.

In a better world, these digital communications platforms would be democratically owned and operated. But one also wonders if in a better world they would be as necessary. Perhaps, when we are less socially disaffected, living in societies with social provision, an abundance of recreational public goods and less exploitative, dignifying work, then we would all have less reason to be online. For now, the question is: in a time when this ideal is nowhere close to being within view, how best can we use platforms like Twitter as tools to get us to that world?

The possible answers here are murky. Twitter seems like a critical piece of infrastructure for modern political life. Musk is not alone in thinking of it as a marketplace of ideas, as something like a digital town square. Yet, and especially in Africa, Twitter is not as popular a platform, and even on it, a minority of Twiteratti exert an outsized influence in terms of setting the discursive agenda. But setting aside the question of who is excluded from the digitalized public sphere of which Twitter is a cornerstone, the important question is whether the quality of political debate that takes place is healthy or desirable at all. Granted, it can be fun and cathartic, but at the best of times, amounts to hyper-politics. In Anton Jager’s explanation, this:

can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinized for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicized, but little is achieved.

We would lack critical self-awareness if we did not admit that Africa Is A Country is a venue whose existence greatly benefits from an online presence—so it goes for every media outlet. Tarnoff points out that “… if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses.” To lack an online presence is to reconcile oneself to irrelevance. Although, the news cycle itself is a disorienting vortex of one topic du jour to the next. It makes difficult the kind of long, slow, and sustained discourse-over-time that is the lifeblood of politics, and instead reduces everything into fleeting soundbites.

Nowhere is the modern phenomenon of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “pointillist time” more apparent than on Twitter. For Bauman, pointillist time is the experience of temporality as a series of eternal instants, and the present moment’s connection to the past and future “turns into gaps—with no bridges, and hopefully unbridgeable.” The consequence of this, is that “there is no room for the idea of ‘progress.’” Living through a mode where everything seems to be happening all at once, is both to experience time as what Walter Benjamin called “a “time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new,” but curiously, at the same time, for everything to feel inert, and for nothing to seem genuinely possible.

For a while, notions of historical progress have been passé on the left, associated with Eurocentric theories of modernity. Now, more than ever, the idea is worth reclaiming. The Right today is no longer straightforwardly conservative, but nihilistic and anti-social, thriving on sowing deeper communal mistrust and paranoia. These are pathologies that flourish on Twitter. The alternative to media-fuelled hyper-politics and anti-politics is not real politics per some ideal type. Politics, in the first instance, is not defined by content, but by form. The reason our politics are empty and shallow is not because today’s political subject lacks virtues possessed by the subjects of yore. It’s because today’s political subject is barely one in the first place, lacking rootedness in those institutions that would have ordinarily shaped an individual’s clear sense of values and commitments. The alternative to digitized human association, as noted by many, is mass politics: only when the majority of citizens are meaningfully mobilized through civic and political organizations can we create a vibrant and substantive public sphere.

AIAC editor Sean Jacobs observed in his book, Media In Post-apartheid South Africa: “the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes is the decline of mass political parties and social movements.” Whether Twitter dies or not, and if it does, whether we should mourn it or not, should be beside the point for those committed to building a world of three-dimensional solidarity and justice.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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COP 27: Climate Negotiations Repeatedly Flounder

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world

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As COP 27 in Egypt nears its end, I find it difficult, almost impossible, to talk to my children about climate change. The shame of our monumental failings as a global community to address the greatest crisis our planet has consciously faced weighs too heavy. The stakes have never been higher, the moral quivering of political leaders has never been more distressing.

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” goes the famous commandment from George Orwell’s political allegory Animal Farm. It applies with particular acuity to international negotiations, where each country has a seat, but seats hold very different weights. The outcome of the Sharm-El-Sheik conference will in large part depend on what Western governments are willing to commit to and follow up on. Rich European and other Western countries are historically responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. The moral case for them being the first-movers and the biggest movers on cutting emissions is crystal clear, and genuine commitments on their part may hold the key to opening up the floodgate of policy innovation towards decarbonization in other countries.

In this context, viewed from the Global South, recent events in the country that still held the COP presidency until it was handed over to Egypt appear as signs of the madness that grips societies before a fall. In her short time as head of government in the UK, Liz Truss spoke as if she lived on another planet that did not show signs of collapsing under the battering of models of economic growth birthed under the British Empire, gleefully pronouncing that her three priorities for Britain were “growth, growth and growth.” Her successor, Rishi Sunak, announced that he would not attend the COP 27 climate summit because he had to focus on the UK economy. The silver lining is that Truss did not last long and Sunak was shamed into reversing his decision. In a scathing rebuke, the Spanish environment minister called the shenanigans of British political leaders “absurd” and pointed out that elections in Brazil and Australia show that voters are starting to punish leaders who ignore climate change.

I see another silver lining. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that Europe was warming twice as fast as other parts of the world. A similar report was not issued for North America, but other studies indicate faster than average temperature increases across the continent’s northeastern coast, and its west coast was home to one of the most striking heat waves last year, with a memorable summer temperature peak of 49.6°C recorded in British Columbia, Canada.

Professor Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary-general, emphasized that the findings highlighted that “even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events.” In other words, the report should make Europeans think it could happen to us, with “it” being devastating floods on the scale of what Pakistan and Bangladesh recently experienced, or the hunger-inducing droughts afflicting Madagascar and the Horn of Africa. While some may find it dismal that human beings remain relatively unmoved by the plight of other human beings considered too distant or too different, this is a part of human nature to reckon with. And reckoning with it can turn a sentiment of shared vulnerability into an opportunity for the planet.

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries to pay developing countries loss and damages to fund their transitions to greener energies and build crucially needed climate adaptability to limit deaths. Underlying such a position is a centuries-old smug belief that Europe and North America will never need to depend on solidarity from other parts of the world. The WMO report calls into question such hubris, as did the Covid 19 pandemic before that.

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world. Europe and North America, where barely 15% of the world population resides, accounted for more than half of COVID deaths. Turning the normal direction of disaster statistics upside down, high- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for four out of five Covid deaths globally. While some scientists still pose questions over the real death toll in low-income countries, I was grateful to not live in the West during the pandemic. In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Senegal where I spent most of my pandemic months, I often encountered “COVID refugees,” young Europeans who had temporarily relocated to work remotely from Africa to escape pandemic despair at home.

We are at a point in our failures to fight climate change where fiction writers and other experts of human nature are often more useful than scientists in indicating what our priorities should be. Many fiction writers have turned their focus on what will be necessary for humans to remain humane as societies crumble. Before we get to that stage, let us hope that political leaders and delegates keep remembering that climate disaster could very concretely befall them personally at any time. Let us hope that the sense of equal—or more cynically, unpredictable—vulnerability instills a sense of global solidarity and a platform to negotiate in true good faith. Let us hope that we can start talking to our children again about what we adults are doing to avert the disaster that looms over their futures.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Specter of Foreign Forces in Haiti

The so-called ‘Haitian crisis’ is primarily about outsiders’ attempts force Haitians to live under an imposed order and the latter’s resistance to that order.

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What actually happened on the nights of October 6th and 7th, 2022, remains unclear. What reverberated was the rather loud rumor of the resignation of Haiti’s acting prime minister  Ariel Henry. He was a member of President Jovenel Moïse’s pro-US Pati Ayisien Tèt Kale (PHTK) party. (Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.) Had Henry truly resigned? Or was it just a well-propagated rumor? Could it have perhaps been both at the same time: that Henry might have indeed resigned but had been coerced to stay, thus making the news of his resignation spread like gossip that the governmental communication machine had fabricated for public consumption?

Nevertheless, we witnessed the following the next day: in Henry’s address to the nation, he first requested the intervention of foreign military forces in Haiti. He then made a formal request to the United Nations. This call was picked up by international organizations, particularly the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. In the media coverage of the events, no relationship was established between the (rumored) resignation of the de facto Prime Minister and his request for military intervention. Was it a way to keep our minds occupied while waiting on a response from the international community? Or was the military intervention a promise made by the international community to Henry for the withdrawal of his letter of resignation?

Media coverage has seemingly obscured what happened on October 6th and 7th by choosing to focus solely on the request for military intervention, obscuring a chain of events in the process. Was the same request addressed to the UN and the US administration? Or were these two distinct approaches: one within a multilateral framework and the other within a bilateral framework? Supposing it was the latter, what does this tell us about the Haitian government’s domestic policy, about US foreign policy toward (or against) Haiti, or even about geopolitics (as part of a white-hot world order)—especially in light of US Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols’ visit to Haiti, his ensuing meetings, and the presence of US Coast Guard ships in Haitian waters?

At least one thing’s for sure. Since the request for formal intervention and the presence of the US in the form of its warships and its emissary, the question of military intervention has been swiftly framed as a discourse on the supposed “consensus between Haitians.” In reality, it refers to the convergence of interests between the representatives of the de facto Haitian government; the representatives of the Montana Accord (agreed on between civic and political groups in the wake of Moise’s assassination); and the president, Fritz Jean, and prime minister, Steven Benoit, agreed on as part of that accord. The message is clear: If you do not want a military intervention, side with Ariel Henry, who initiated the request himself. Any posture of self-determination must undergo review by Ariel Henry and his crew.

In these circumstances, there can be no self-determination. It is as though those truly responsible for the military intervention (which was already underway) aren’t those who asked for it, but rather those who were unable to thwart it by finding an agreement with the former group. In this sense, the “nationalist” label (the current catchall term which, among other things, is being made to include any praxis refuting the colonial apparatus) refers to doing everything possible to avoid military intervention—and that means doing exactly what the representatives of the “Colonial Capitalist Internationale” want.

American presence in Haiti—in the form of warships and a high-ranking emissary—takes after historical colonial endeavors such as the Napoleonic expedition for the reestablishment of slavery (1802) and King Charles X’s fleet, sent to demand ransom for Haiti’s independence (1825). Yet, in this case, the point is not to put pressure on those who hold the keys to institutions, but rather to avoid losing control in a context where those in government are not only misguided, but also display the greatest shortcomings in managing the lives of the population for the better. The US’s current presence thus more closely echoes the language of the English warship HMS Bulldog, sent to shell the city of Cap Haitien to support President Geffrard against the anti-government insurrection of Salnave.

The Henry government uses the same grammar as its tutelar powers to discuss the current situation. Much has been made of “efforts deployed by the United States and Canada”: they have consisted in flying police equipment into Haiti on Canadian and US military cargo aircraft. Henry and the Haitian National Police offered warm, public thanks for material paid for with Haitian funds some time ago; indeed, these deliveries have come very late, and only thanks to pressure from Haitian civil society actors. More problematic still, the presence of foreign military planes at the Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince has served both as evidence of an ongoing military intervention and as a subterfuge to obtain such an intervention.

This request for intervention, while it seeks to obfuscate this fact, nevertheless exposes the political illegitimacy of the Henry government—made up of members of Henry’s PHTK and former members of the opposition. Its illegitimacy doesn’t rest on the usual discussion (or lack thereof) and confrontation between the governors and the governed, nor on the classic power play between the political opposition and the authorities in place; rather, it is the result of the absolute rejection on the part of Haitians of an order controlled and engineered by the PHTK machine in Haiti for over 10 years with one purpose in mind: defending the neoliberal interests and projects of the Colonial Capitalist Internationale. The request for intervention reveals the fact that the rejection of the PHTK machine is but one part of a broader rejection of the neoliberal colonial order as it has manifested itself in various anti-popular economic projects, which themselves were made possible by many attempts at reconfiguring Haiti socially and constitutionally: consider, to name but a few, the financial project of privatization of the island of Gonâve, the referendum to replace the 1987 Constitution, and others.

For the first time since the US military intervention of 1915 (the centenary of which was silenced by the PHTK machine), we are witnessing a direct confrontation between the Colonial Capitalist Internationale and the Haitian people, as local political go-betweens aren’t in a position to mediate and local armed forces (whether the military, the militias, or the armed gangs) aren’t able to fully and totally repress unrest. In this colonial scenario—drafted in the past five years, maintained and fueled by the geopolitics of “natural disasters,” epidemics, pandemics, and the presence of gangs (simultaneously functioning as the armed extensions of political parties and materializing “disorder”)—the only possible solution to chaos is military intervention by foreign forces.

Yet one cannot pretend that such an intervention will help the Haitian people, and no agreement crafted in the language of the colonial system can stifle popular demands and aspirations which, in the past twelve years, have built what Haitian academic and activist Camille Chalmers calls a real “anti-imperialist conscience.”

What of late has breathlessly been labeled the “Haitian crisis” must instead be identified as the highest point of the contradiction which has brewed throughout the PHTK regime: between the International Colonial Capitalists’ will to force us to live under an imposed order and our resistance to that order.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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