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Revisiting the Obama Legacy

9 min read.

His whistle-stop low-key visit to Kogelo may have puzzled some, his rousing speech marking Madiba’s centenary may have been pitch-perfect, but while Obama was a class act (especially when compared to Trump), his capitulation to Wall Street, his foreign policy blunders in Libya and Syria, his drone counter-terrorism and his sustained attack on independent media and whistle-blowers raise disturbing questions about his real legacy. By RASNA WARAH.  

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Revisiting the Obama Legacy
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Unlike his last visit to Kenya in July 2015, when large sections of Nairobi were effectively under lockdown and when the country virtually came to a standstill when the “son of Kogelo” returned to his “homeland”, Barack Obama’s “homecoming” this week did not generate as much excitement or gushing tributes. This was expected, as the former United States president was not in Kenya on an official visit but was here to open a centre for youth in his father’s village, a brainchild of his half-sister Auma Obama. Besides the “welcome home” slogans that usually accompany such visits, Obama’s presence in the country hardly generated the kind of euphoria that was evident the last time he came to Kenya – this time the euphoria was more apparent in South Africa, where Obama delivered an inspiring lecture on the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday after his Kenya visit.

Not to mention that his visit coincided with a highly controversial and embarrassing summit in Helsinki that saw President Donald Trump essentially throw his own intelligence services under the bus in the presence of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who himself spent some time as a KGB intelligence officer. The contrast between the megalomaniacal, misogynistic and fundamentally dishonest Trump and his predecessor – the charismatic, intelligent and eloquent Obama who has rock star appeal – was painfully evident. When Obama works a room, you can be sure he will gain more converts. His messiah-like messages have silenced even his most vocal critics. On the other hand, Trump’s utterances generally elicit shock, followed by a deep sense of trepidation. After that bizarre summit in Helsinki, Americans and the world are grappling with the idea that the US president might have been “captured” by the Russian state.

And unlike Bill Clinton and Trump, there is also no whiff of a sexual scandal surrounding Obama. Obama never really knew his Kenyan father, who abandoned him when he was just a toddler, but this childhood trauma does not seem to have had a damaging effect on his own relationship with his wife Michelle and his two daughters. Everyone knows, and can see, that he is a man who is deeply committed to his family and is not threatened by strong women.

Obama brought a rarefied dignity to the Oval Office. He will be remembered for his reflective leadership style and the seriousness with which he took his responsibilities as leader of the most powerful nation on earth. He has definitely earned a name in the history books for not just being the first black (or rather, mixed race) president of the United States, but also for mending decades-old fences with countries such as Cuba and Iran. He will be remembered, among many of his other accomplishments, for advocating for the rights of all people, be they racial minorities, gays, people with disabilities or women.

Obama never really knew his Kenyan father, who abandoned him when he was just a toddler, but this childhood trauma does not seem to have had a damaging effect on his own relationship with his wife Michelle and his two daughters. Everyone knows, and can see, that he is a man who is deeply committed to his family and is not threatened by strong women.

However, there are many things that Obama failed to accomplish, and many things that he actually made worse. Despite his African heritage, he failed to bridge the racial divide in America; some believe that race relations may have worsened under his tenure, perhaps the result of a backlash against his presidency and against black people’s aspirations for equality. This backlash is probably what got his successor Trump elected. Racism has now become an epidemic in America, and has demolished the myth that the US is a land where everyone – regardless of race – enjoys equal freedoms and rights. While it was not Obama’s job to fix centuries-old prejudices in America, he failed to address the issue of racism in America forcefully.

But it is Obama’s foreign policy that has left many of his supporters puzzled. Obama strengthened Clinton’s “no American boots on the ground” policy in foreign conflicts by intensifying drone attacks in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which are believed to have led to many civilian deaths and which are said to have led to more radicalisation. Most people are not aware of the fact that Obama used more drones against terror suspects than his predecessor George Bush, who was more prone to engage American troops in direct combat in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are many things that Obama failed to accomplish, and many things that he actually made worse. Despite his African heritage, he failed to bridge the racial divide in America; some believe that race relations may have worsened under his tenure, perhaps the result of a backlash against his presidency and against black people’s aspirations for equality. This backlash is probably what got his successor Trump elected. Racism has now become an epidemic in America.

When Barack Obama became president, the American public believed that the US government would focus on the economy and scale down its wars and counterterrorism operations. However, while Obama did bring back troops from Iraq, as he promised, the war on terror became more clandestine. He increased the use of drones that targeted suspected terrorists (which also led to several deaths of innocent civilians, including children) and continued with mass electronic surveillance. Yet despite the billions spent on intelligence and security, groups such as the Islamic State still managed to take root under his watch. And Guantanamo Bay, the US detention facility in Cuba established for terrorist suspects, still remains open, though the number of detainees have fallen significantly from about 700 under George Bush to just 40 today.

A few years ago, The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration had built a “constellation of secret drone bases” in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, including one site in Ethiopia, ostensibly to help the US better able to monitor and control terrorists, and also allow the superpower to gain access to the region’s natural resources. Drone activity in Somalia apparently intensified in the country between June and September 2011, weeks before Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in October 2011. Obama’s supporters may argue that targeted drones are less damaging than direct conflict, but those who have suffered from these attacks do not quite feel the same way.

The Obama administration’s support of opposition groups in Syria has also been criticised for turning what might have been a short civil war into a long-drawn conflict that gave birth to terrorist organisations (which masqueraded as moderate Islamist rebel forces) such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. No one knows yet how or where the chips in Syria will fall, but history may judge Obama harshly for his intervention there.

But perhaps Obama’s most harmful intervention in a foreign country was his decision to support a “regime change” in Libya. While most agree that Muammar Gaddafi was a dictator, under his strong-man leadership style Libya remained a stable and prosperous country. When US, British and French warplanes bombed Libya in the name of defending human rights and when Gaddafi was killed, the country descended into chaos and anarchy as factions fought each other for supremacy, just like what happened in Iraq when George Bush decided to lead a regime change there.

The countries that participated in the Libyan bombings are not likely to admit this but there would be no flood of refugees entering Europe via Libya if Gaddafi was still in charge. His regime kept Europe safe from human traffickers who are now exploiting vulnerable Syrians and poor Africans and making a fortune in the process. I am sure this uncomfortable truth doesn’t sit well in Obama’s conscience and will haunt him for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Obama’s decision to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Could it be that this killing was extra-judicial? Bin Laden’s sons have accused Obama of violating basic legal principles by killing an unarmed man, shooting his family and disposing the body in the sea. Bin Laden’s son Omar, who has publicly denounced violence of all kinds, has raised the question of why his father was not arrested and tried in a court of law, but his voice was muted by the self-congratulatory stance of the Obama administration and its cheerleaders who viewed the killing as justified in line with the US government’s war against terror.

Critics of Obama also point out that press freedom worsened under his leadership and whistleblowers were unfairly vilified – despite Obama’s stated commitment to protect freedom of expression. Salon.com commentator Glenn Greenwald has said that the Obama administration launched a broad (and possibly unprecedented) war on whistleblowers and investigative journalists, including harassing WikiLeaks supporters by detaining them at airports and seizing their laptops without warrants.

Former New York Times reporter David Shipler has chronicled the many ways the Obama administration created an atmosphere of fear among journalists and ordinary citizens, including by renewing the notorious Patriot Act that enhanced the US government’s surveillance powers and gave security agents authority to comb databases and emails of suspected criminals and terrorists. Shipler claims that press freedom weakened under Obama and that the US president allowed draconian search-and-seizure methods used by the very dictators he often denounced.

“The most odious aspect of this Climate of Fear is that it fundamentally changes how the citizenry thinks of itself and its relationship to the Government. A state can offer all the theoretical guarantees of freedom in the world, but those become meaningless if citizens are afraid to exercise them. In that climate, the Government need not even act to abridge rights; a fearful populace will voluntarily refrain on its own from exercising those rights,” said Greenwald, who gained notoriety after his disclosures of classified documents by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden that were published in The Guardian newspaper in 2013.

Former New York Times reporter David Shipler has chronicled the many ways the Obama administration created an atmosphere of fear among journalists and ordinary citizens, including by renewing the notorious Patriot Act that enhanced the US government’s surveillance powers and gave security agents authority to comb databases and emails of suspected criminals and terrorists. Shipler claims that press freedom weakened under Obama and that the US president allowed draconian search-and-seizure methods used by the very dictators he often denounced.

Meanwhile, Snowden is still holed up in Russia because he fears he will be arrested if he returns to the United States. Snowden revealed to the world how the terrorist bogeyman has been used to conduct mass surveillance and to spy on civilians through mobile phones and the Internet. These activities are clearly unconstitutional and violate the US Bill of Rights, but they are tolerated because the American public has been made to feel sufficiently afraid to not ask too many questions.

In The Rise of the American Corporate Security State, Beatrice Edwards, the Executive Director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, shows how the withdrawal of Americans’ rights, including their right to privacy, has been accomplished because Americans have been repeatedly told that they are facing imminent danger. Americans have thus willingly surrendered their civil rights because they are frightened. This clampdown on civil rights intensified during George W. Bush’s administration but became more secretive under Obama’s.

The nexus between government and big corporations has also been strengthened. The war on terror has been extremely lucrative for private corporations providing security and intelligence services. Edwards believes that clandestine electronic warfare is not going to go away any time soon, as the business of intelligence has proved to be extremely profitable for certain corporations. US corporations and the US intelligence agencies are bedfellows in the deal. What’s worse, because this war is silent and invisible, Americans don’t know where or when it is being waged. This is a truly chilling scenario.

Since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence, of which 70 per cent is spent on contracts with private corporations. And because security contracts are deemed to be “secret” in the interest of national security, no one knows what the money is spent on. Edwards shows how increasing budgets for security and intelligence agencies have coincided with greater protection for rogue bankers and financial institutions, as happened during the 2008 financial crisis when Obama bailed out the very institutions that created the crisis in the first place. While Al Qaeda leaders became the targets of intense manhunts, illegal detention and execution, the millionaires who made thousands of people homeless and crashed the economy got away scot-free. Meanwhile, whistleblowers such as Snowden were deemed traitors for exposing unconstitutional and illegal surveillance of civilians around the world.

Edwards admits that Obama is not entirely to blame for this state of affairs because every US president is hostage to the big corporations and to what she calls “the Deep State”, a rogue branch of the US government that does not respond to the president, Congress or the courts. (Trump has given the Deep State a new meaning by referring to all those opposed to his policies as belonging to it.)

Since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence, of which 70 per cent is spent on contracts with private corporations. And because security contracts are deemed to be “secret” in the interest of national security, no one knows what the money is spent on […]increasing budgets for security and intelligence agencies have coincided with greater protection for rogue bankers and financial institutions, as happened during the 2008 financial crisis when Obama bailed out the very institutions that created the crisis in the first place. While Al Qaeda leaders became the targets of intense manhunts, illegal detention and execution, the billionaires who made thousands of people homeless and crashed the economy got away scot-free.

Apologists for Obama claim that he is a pragmatist and could only do so much in a country where partisan politics and Congress determine government policy. Others say that Obama is just an American liberal, not the revolutionary that so many imagined him to be, and so cannot be judged for the radical reforms he failed to bring about but who can be credited for maintaining the model of freedom and democracy that is cherished by the majority of Americans.

The real struggle that Americans and the world faces is not about privacy versus security but about democracy versus tyranny. When large numbers of people around the world willingly give up their rights and freedoms in the name of counterterrorism, they create the perfect conditions for the emergence of dictatorship.

However, Edwards says that the real struggle that Americans and the world faces is not about privacy versus security but about democracy versus tyranny. When large numbers of people around the world willingly give up their rights and freedoms in the name of counterterrorism, they create the perfect conditions for the emergence of dictatorship.

This dictatorship has now manifested itself in the Donald Trump presidency – which may lead future historians to ponder whether Obama’s presidency set the stage for this alarming state of affairs. Obama is no doubt a wiser and much more intelligent president than Trump, but he did not manage to reverse or extinguish the dystopian ideology that led to the rise of Trumpism and its tendencies towards fascism that the world is now witnessing.

Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Referendum Without a Constitutional Moment: The Kenyan Story

With the country in the grip of a global pandemic and grappling with an ailing economy, is constitutional reform a priority when it’s not clear that the country is facing a constitutional moment?

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Referendum Without a Constitutional Moment: The Kenyan Story
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When they met and shook hands in March 2018, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga pledged to address a number of issues that, to them, bedevil Kenya’s politics. A plan, formally referred to as the Building Bridges Initiative to a New Kenyan Nation—or simply, BBI—was announced in front of an audience that had witnessed a rather chaotic turn of events in the preceding months.

Raila had successfully contested Uhuru’s presidential victory at the Supreme Court and proceeded to boycott a repeat poll, citing lack of a competent and impartial electoral commission. Two months before the two leaders met, Raila had also made real his threat to take a symbolic presidential oath as the “people’s president” in defiance of Uhuru. A joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that the police had behaved appropriately in some instances but, in many others, had shot or beat protestors to death.  Meanwhile, pressure from civil society organisations and the international community to find a political settlement was piling even as a debt-burdened economy was threatening to stall. Uhuru, like former president Mwai Kibaki before him, was probably worried about tarnishing his legacy.

Uhuru appointed an advisory committee in a matter of weeks. The members of the committee were instructed to make actionable proposals to address the BBI agenda, including proposals to review Kenya’s now ten-year-old constitution. The BBI’s nine-point agenda included ethnic antagonism, lack of a national ethos, devolution, divisive elections, security, corruption, shared prosperity, responsibility and inclusivity, as the main areas requiring intervention. It didn’t matter that protestors, including Raila himself, had singled out electoral malpractice as the main problem.

It wasn’t lost on many that nine days prior to the 8 August poll, the body of Chris Msando, the head of information, communication and technology at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), had been found on the outskirts of Nairobi. Very few people, if any, thought that the Kenya 2010 constitution was the poisoned chalice.

Since then, the BBI bandwagon has threatened to change the constitution. It has taken particular issue with the winner-takes-all system, a feature that the 2010 constitution had actually been designed to dampen by diluting the powers of the presidency and distributing them across parliament, and devolving some responsibility to the 47 newly-established county governments.

Despite its pure presidential system, some supporters of the BBI have even argued that the 2010 constitution did not create an imperial presidency, that, in fact, it created a system of checks and balances on how the president should exercise his/her authority. In addition, the terms of reference for the Committee of Experts (CoE) who wrote the 2010 constitution were strikingly similar to those that, ten years later, were assigned to the BBI task force. Similar to BBI, the idea of building bridges and creating a national ethos had also been at the heart of the CoE’s mandate.

The constitutional draft that the CoE proposed (now Kenya’s constitution) not only received the popular vote during a referendum, but it also received the support of a broad section of the country’s political leadership, Raila and Uhuru included. What the 2010 constitution has not received since its promulgation is fidelity and adherence to its spirit.

A key weakness of constitutions the world over is their dependence on traditions put in place by human beings, which often makes them vulnerable to prevailing political interests. In Kenya’s case, the problem has never been a constitutional one in nature, but the result of deliberate efforts by Uhuru Kenyatta, and the Kibaki administration before him, to undermine the constitution and to reassert direct presidential control over devolution and over the other arms of government, the legislature and the judiciary.

I have written elsewhere about the significance of the reduction of the role of county governments by central government bureaucrats—the most significant structural change in Kenya since the 1960s—to simple units of administration and development, while minimising their political features. In this way, feelings of exclusion and marginalisation, underpinned by unaddressed historical injustices, have continued to exist despite constitutional change. Measures that would enable real participation in matters of governance and policy at the local level are frowned upon. Dismissed. Ignored.

Assertive County Governors are viewed as a nuisance that should go away. Responsibility over land administration, education, mega-infrastructure and parastatals has remained in the hands of the central government, and as such, under the direction of the presidency. In fact, matters of devolution have been domiciled within a national government ministry. Despite the establishment of a National Police Service Commission and an Independent Police Oversight Authority, police officers have continued to function outside the law with the express direction and support of higher-ups, with some shooting suspects dead in broad day light. President Uhuru Kenyatta has violated the constitution he wants to amend by refusing to swear in 41 judges appointed by the Judicial Service Commission. A resolution to the land question remains as distant as ever, despite the establishment of a National Land Commission.

These multiple assaults on the constitution and the law by executive fiat mean that it would be very difficult to remove an incumbent president from office through an electoral process, and in 2017 many paid the price of attempting to do so with their lives.

The question is, what has changed since then? Why has it become necessary to review or change a document that was written to avert the very conflict that the BBI task force was assigned to address? Also, should constitutional reform be prioritised when it’s not clear that the country is facing a constitutional moment but is in fact grappling with a global pandemic, an ailing economy, and a political leadership that has a penchant for behaving badly?

The theory

The theory of the “constitutional moment” refers to lasting constitutional arrangements that result from specific, emotionally shared responses to shared fundamental political experiences, or when there are unusually high levels of sustained popular attention to questions of constitutional significance. The constitutions of the United States, nineteenth-century Belgium, post-apartheid South Africa, and the Kenya 2010 constitution come closest to demonstrating this theory.

In the absence of a constitutional moment, a constitutional review usually serves other—more technical—goals and cannot be considered to be a fundamental choice regarding the political design of a country. One of the drawbacks of a constitution that emerges without the blessing of a constitutional moment is that it does not contribute to a sense of union, or the formation of identity, among the members of the society to which it applies.

In short, absent of a constitutional moment, the BBI is beginning to look, feel and behave like no more than a mere pact between the elite.

It is unlikely that the BBI will constitutionalise ordinary politics. Without popular enthusiasm for a new constitution, many Kenyans will perceive the plan to be no more than a pragmatic form of protection of the interests of the elite.

And this, since the handshake in 2018, is what has been taking place.

The problem

For Raila’s supporters, the BBI promises their leader a place in a future government. Uhuru’s supporters continue to be divided over the plan, as some remain suspicious of Raila’s intentions, and others believe that the BBI will consolidate Uhuru’s legacy at the end of his second term in office. For the supporters of the Deputy President, William Ruto, the BBI is meant to frustrate his efforts to succeed his boss come the next elections in 2022.

In an environment devoid of political trust, it is unlikely that the BBI will put an end to political tensions and instability in the country. In fact, a cursory survey of social media language during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that extreme views and divisive political rhetoric are on the rise.

It is therefore more likely that the BBI will amplify the country’s ethnically polarised politics, setting the stage for future conflict. In this way, the BBI has quickly moved from building bridges to becoming the agent of their imminent destruction.

Kenya’s political class is yet again employing constitutional change as a tool to fight its traditional factional wars.

The results can only be disastrous.

The outcome

Raila Odinga, now BBI’s primary mover, has insisted that it is time to proceed to a referendum. Together with Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila has declared a second BBI report released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published on November 2019) to be final.

In his address to the Siaya County Assembly, Dr Adams Oloo, the BBI Steering Committee Vice-Chairperson and a close Odinga ally, intimated that only Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga have the final say on any further amendments to the document.

It is not clear whether it will be possible to complete the constitutional process in time for the embattled IEBC to effect the necessary changes ahead of the August 2021 referendum—which the IEBC estimates will cost Sh14 billion.

The electoral commission, whose term the BBI report has reduced from six to four years, has itself expressed reservations over the document.

Religious leaders and internally displaced people have also weighed in: the possibility of creating an imperial presidency and the fact that their concerns have not been addressed are, to them, key concerns. After promising the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group (PPG) that their concerns would be included in the document to be put to a referendum vote, Raila has backtracked, insisting that no changes will be introduced to the document after all.

The political struggles undergirding the BBI process have been laid bare. All language regarding consensus building has been thrown out. The main protagonists, in the wider race to succeed Uhuru Kenyatta in 2022, are Raila Odinga and William Ruto.

For the Ruto camp, a “Yes” vote in the referendum would be a disappointing measure of their popularity. For the Odinga camp, a delayed referendum would not leave them with much time to gauge Ruto’s and their own strength in the run-up to the 2022 polls.

Caught haplessly in the midst of these struggles, of course, are Kenyan citizens. They are now meant to forget that the Jubilee Administration had promised to tackle four big agendas –  affordable universal health care, food security, manufacturing and affordable housing –  now a near laughable prospect, given the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous economic record that preceded it. A Jubilee politician has bragged that the BBI is a clever innovation to save the Big Four Agenda from completely turning to ash.

Broadly, the proposals of the second BBI report seem to have tightened control around the presidency. If successful, the president gets to appoint a prime minister from parliament who will also be the leader of the largest political party or the largest coalition of political parties. The president will also appoint two deputy prime ministers and cabinet ministers drawn from within and outside of parliament. The report has also recommended the disbandment of the National Police Service Commission and the creation of a National Police Council to be chaired by a cabinet Sscretary, that is, a presidential appointee. It has also established the office of an ombudsman within the judiciary, to be appointed by the president. A number of (early Christmas) gifts have been presented to various key players, perhaps as seductive (and useful) distractions from the proposed tyrannical changes.

Changing the 2010 constitution will not be easy given the high constitutional guardrails. It requires securing both a majority of the votes in a referendum and a majority of votes from members of the 47 county assemblies. In this way, the BBI report proposes an increase of the minimum revenue distributed to county governments from 15% to 35% of national revenue. Members of county assemblies will be allocated 5% of county revenue for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, modelled on the Constituency Development Fund. Businesses set up by young Kenyans will be tax-exempt for the first seven years of operation. The number of members of parliament has been increased, with an additional 27 new senators and 10 new members of the national assembly. The second runner-up in a presidential contest will be named the Leader of the Official Opposition, with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget.

All this is in complete disregard of the debt overhang that Kenya has found itself in since 2013. In fact, the external debt has grown by 15.6 per cent to Sh3.7 trillion between March and August 2020. Over the same period local debt expanded by 9.7 per cent to Sh3.4 trillion. The overall cost of running parliament is already 2 per cent of the national budget, and that of running the Executive has increased by 20 per cent over the last two years alone. As the government suspends health insurance for COVID-19 patients in the midst of a second, spiking wave, no one is talking about the possibility of the proposed referendum facing funding shortfalls.

In their response to the first constitutional draft that was published by the Committee of Experts in 2009, Kenyans cautioned against the creation of a bloated government—a concern that is still close to their hearts. This also means that Kenyans are not opposed to the existence of an opposition, per se, but that the loser of an election needs to feel that they have lost fairly. The dispute during every electoral cycle is usually over the sloppy manner in which elections are conducted, coupled with a high trust deficit often cultivated by politicians.

The solution, in my view, is to respect the law and cultivate a culture of constitutionalism. The Kenya 2010 constitution is not perfect, but it is also true that the leadership has not adhered to its letter and spirit.

Reviewing the constitution less than a decade after it was first promulgated may be right and proper, but one may ask, what is the constitutional moment this time?

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Make Amazon Pay

The Progressive International is mobilising with Amazon workers and their allies around the world. Here’s why.

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Make Amazon Pay
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Amazon’s size and power place the corporation at the very center of the crises of climate breakdown and economic inequality that grip our planet. The growth of CEO Jeff Bezos’s astronomical wealth — up $100 billion since March, now surpassing that of any other human in history — is directly proportional to Amazon’s human and environmental costs: his corporation mistreats its workers, wrecks the climate, and undermines the public institutions underpinning our democracies along the way along the way.

Taking on Amazon, therefore, will require more than curbing Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth or calling for corporate social responsibility. It will require a global movement that is organized along every dimension of Amazon’s expanding empire: for workers, for peoples, and for the planet.

That is why today — Black Friday — an international worker-activist coalition begins a planetary mobilization to #MakeAmazonPay. From Sao Paulo to Berlin, Seattle to Hyderabad, activists will project this rallying cry onto key Amazon sites, putting the corporation on notice that its days of impunity are over. Bringing together unions, environmentalists, and citizens around the world, this coalition exercises the only power that can meet the force of transnational capital: solidarity.

Amazon’s size and power place the corporation at the very center of the crises of climate breakdown and economic inequality that grip our planet.

In just a few years, Amazon has established itself as a key node in the circuitry of globalized capitalism. Having first revolutionized the links between production, distribution, and consumption on its digital platform, the corporation’s cloud infrastructure and e-commerce give Amazon controlling influence over huge swathes of social and economic life across the planet.

Amazon’s network of corporate power extends through our workplaces and into our lives. Producers and suppliers have no choice but to partner with Amazon to retain or gain access to consumers. Consumers, for their part, feel that they can hardly avoid Amazon, unless they are willing to wait longer and able to pay more. Through mass surveillance technology like Alexa, Echo, and Amazon Ring, the corporation has infiltrated millions of households and collected their most intimate data.

Across this network sits Amazon Web Services, which has played a key role in the operation of extractive industries and law enforcement; as well as Amazon’s recent ventures into sectors like financial services, food provision, and health care. Amazon has, in effect, become a wholly unaccountable, predatory transnational private state – or, indeed, a 21st-century empire.

In the absence of a common movement to challenge it, Amazon has managed to expand its empire to all corners of the global economy. But the tide is beginning to turn. Tech workers’ recent participation in the global climate strike was followed by important concessions by Amazon management, and transnational labor alliances led by UNI Global Union and Amazon Workers International have managed to integrate previously diffused worker resistance. Internationally, public advocacy groups have moved the urgent need to break up Amazon towards the heart of policy debates.

Taking on Amazon, therefore, will require more than curbing Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth or calling for corporate social responsibility. It will require a global movement that is organized along every dimension of Amazon’s expanding empire: for workers, for peoples, and for the planet.

These efforts show us the way forward. To Make Amazon Pay its debts to workers, the planet, and society, we must pursue a three-point strategy:

Firstly, recognize the international and intersectional nature of the Amazon struggle. Secondly, organize across national borders and narrow spheres of activism. Thirdly, politicize this struggle by taking it straight to legislative arenas around the world.

These are the goals of the campaign that launched today.

With respect to the first, our coalition’s Common Demands are global in their scope. We realize that Amazon’s power depends on its ability to exploit differences in national jurisdictions to drive on the global race to the bottom on social and environmental protections.

We recognize, too, the intersections of Amazon’s injustice. The environmental injustice of Amazon’s pollution, for instance, disproportionately affects people of color. The corporation’s monopolization of the cloud computing sector, meanwhile, is the basis of its close ties with Big Oil. Our coalition therefore brings together the environmentalists of Greenpeace and 350 with groups like Data 4 Black Lives, the Athena Coalition, and the Hawkers Federation of India.

With respect to the second point of strategy, today’s action unites workers across Amazon’s supply chain — from the tech workers in Amazon’s Seattle headquarters and warehouse workers organized by UNI Global Union affiliates, the Awood Centre, and Amazon Workers International, all the way to supply chain workers in garment factories in Bangladesh.

And with respect to the third, our coalition does not demand that Jeff Bezos change Amazon’s business model out of the goodness of his heart. Instead, the movement aims to build legislative power that can put an end to the “Amazonification” of our economies and societies. We invite progressive lawmakers across the globe to join us, and stand with this global movement to Make Amazon Pay.

The mission of this campaign is as simple as it is radical: to win a different world. A world in which corporations that primarily serve the interests of their CEOs are replaced by cooperatives that serve the interests of the many. A world in which economic activity does not lead to climate destruction, but to environmental reconstruction and flourishing. A world in which markets are governed by democratic institutions, rather than vice versa. Solidarity is the vehicle to deliver this world. Making Amazon pay is where we start.

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Is the BBI a Trojan Horse Disguised as a Guardian Angel?

The Building Bridges Initiative fails to inspire because it offers simplistic solutions to problems that have more to do with poor leadership than with Kenyans’ inability to be responsible citizens.

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Is the BBI a Trojan Horse Disguised as a Guardian Angel?
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I have resisted commenting on the recently launched Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report, mainly because in Kenya today if you oppose the BBI, you are labelled as being in Deputy President William Ruto’s camp, and if you support it, you are seen as being on the side of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his new ally, former opposition leader, Raila Odinga. And since I do not belong to either of these groups, I was afraid that by commenting on the report, I might inadvertently be labelled pro-Uhuru or pro-Ruto.

Critics of the BBI have mainly focused on whether amending the constitution through the BBI process is, in fact, unconstitutional as it would bypass many of the requirements for amending the 2010 constitution, which are onerous and virtually impossible to fulfill without a national consensus. Some critics, like the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, say that by giving the president power to appoint a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers, the BBI is calling for a return to an imperial presidency.

On the other hand, supporters of the BBI – particularly the “handshake” stakeholders and many commentators in the mainstream media – have lauded the BBI for being the magic pill that will unite the country and spur social and economic development.

Intellectual surrender 

Having now read the abridged version of the BBI report, I can conclusively say that it has failed to address the biggest crisis facing this country – that of poor leadership. The most offensive and egregious section of the report is undoubtedly the opening Validation Statement, which places the responsibility for all that is wrong with this country squarely on the shoulders of Kenyans – not on our leaders, who got us into the mess we are in in the first place.

The report states: “Kenyans decried the fact that Kenya lacked a sense of national ethos and is increasingly a nation of distinct individuals instead of an individually distinct nation. And we have placed too much emphasis on what the nation can do for each of us – our rights – and given almost no attention to what we each must do for our nation: our responsibilities.”

As Wandia Njoya pointed out in a recent article, what the BBI has effectively done is told Kenyans that they are to blame if their rights are violated. And if moral and ethical standards have dropped across the country, it’s not because the country’s politicians have lowered moral and ethical standards and have set a bad precedent, but because Kenyans just don’t know how to behave properly. It’s called blaming the victim.

It suggests that Kenyans are somehow wired to be evil or corrupt, that decades of state-inflicted brutality against citizens – an offshoot of a neocolonial dispensation where citizens are treated as gullible and exploitable subjects – has nothing to do with the culture of impunity we find ourselves in. That the contemptuous way in which we are treated by state institutions – at police stations, in public hospitals, in government offices – is somehow our fault. And that the example of how to behave was not established by the state and its officials that consistently fail to deliver justice to Kenyans and turn a blind eye to violence committed by state and security organs, especially against the poor. Remember, this is a country where a chicken thief can end up spending a year in jail, but a minister who has stolen billions from state coffers can get away scot-free.

Njoya writes:

We are told that discussing history is blaming colonialists and refusing to take responsibility for our own actions. That discussing ethnic privilege and patronage is attacking every single member of that ethnic group. That discussing patriarchy is blaming men. That explaining systemic causes of problems is explaining away or excusing those problems. Every public conversation in Kenya is a war against complex thinking. We have reached the point where Kenyan public conversations are pervaded by this system of intellectual simplification.

Hence the BBI’s proposal to set up a new commission to address “indiscipline in children, breakdown of marriages and general erosion of cultural values in today’s society”. Presumably, this commission will take on the role of parents, school teachers and community leaders “by mainstreaming ethics training and awareness in mentoring and counselling sessions in religious activities and through community outreach programmes”.

What is being implied here is that if only Kenyans were more religious, they might not behave so badly. (I wonder if the drafters of the report know that Kenyans are among the most religious people in the world. Yet we are consistently ranked as among the most corrupt countries on the planet.)

The BBI report recognises that ethnic divisions have polarised the country, but it does not acknowledge that ethnic polarisation is the result of a political leadership that forms opportunistic tribal alliances for its own advantage and is happy to pit one ethnic community against another in order to win elections.

Moreover, its recommendations on how to reduce ethnic animosity appear to be based on the idea that if you force different ethnic communities to live in close proximity to each other, Kenya will miraculously become a society where all ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony.

There is also this misguided belief that if the people in authority are from an ethnic group that is distinct from the ethnic group that these people lord over, there will be more accountability (a model borrowed from the Kenya Police and the colonial and post-colonial district and provincial commissioners’ templates). Hence the Ministry of Education should “adopt policy guidelines that discourage local recruitment and staffing of teachers”.

Many sociologists and behavioural scientists might argue that, in fact, if you want more accountability and cohesion in a community, the leadership should come from that same community. So, for instance, if police officers belong to the same ethnic community that they serve and protect, they are more likely to be more accountable to that community because any signs of misconduct on the part of the officer will be perceived as having a direct bearing on the welfare of that community. A bribe-taking officer is more likely to be reprimanded by his community because it is his community that suffers when he takes a bribe. A Kalenjin police officer posted in Malindi, for instance, will not care what the Giriama community he is extorting bribes from or is brutalising think of him because he is not part of them and is not accountable to them or to their community leaders and elders. This accountability is further diminished by the current practice of police officers regularly being transferred to different localities.

Similarly, in schools, particularly those in remote or marginalised areas, it is important that the teachers be from that community because they also play the role of mentors and role models. We are more likely to follow in the footsteps of someone who looks like us and who has a similar history than someone who doesn’t. Which is why Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has opened the doors to leadership for so many girls and women of colour in the United States.

This is not to say that the BBI report glosses over the problems facing marginalised communities. On the contrary, it makes it a point to highlight that “the marginalised, the under-served and the poor” are suffering and are in urgent need of “an immediate helping hand and employment opportunities to help them survive”. What the report fails to recognise is that the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was designed to ensure that such communities are not condemned to perpetual poverty. Devolution was supposed to sort out issues of marginalisation by ensuring that previously marginalised communities and counties are empowered to improve their own welfare. By making them recipients of hand-outs, the BBI has added insult to their injury.

Thankfully, the report does recommend that previous reports by task forces and land-related commissions, including the Ndung’u Land Commission and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), be implemented. My question is: If President Uhuru Kenyatta did not implement the recommendations of the TJRC, which handed its report to him in May 2013 shortly after he assumed the presidency, what guarantees do we have that he and his BBI team will implement the recommendations now? The president has also failed on his promise of a Sh10 billion fund for victims of historical injustices. What has changed? Clearly not the leadership (and here I mean the entire leadership, not just Uhuru’s).

Silences and omissions

Moving on to another marginalisation issue: women’s representation. We all know that Parliament has actively resisted the two-thirds gender rule spelled out in the constitution. So what epiphany has occurred now that suddenly there is an urgent desire to include more women in governance institutions? If Parliament had just obeyed the constitution, there would not be a proposal in the BBI to ensure that no more than two-thirds of members of elective or appointive bodies be of the same gender. It would be a given.

And yet while BBI gives with one hand, it takes with the other. The BBI task force proposes that the position of County Women’s Representative in the National Assembly be scrapped.

What’s worse, the BBI actually appears to welcome the recommendation of “some Kenyans” that Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) commissioners be appointed by political parties. Really? If you think that the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections were fraudulent and chaotic, then wait for serious fraud and possible violence in an election where the electoral body’s commissioners represent party interests. (If I had my way, I would disband the IEBC altogether and put together a non-partisan body comprising foreign officials to run elections in this country. Maybe then we would have some hope of a free, fair and corruption-free election.)

The BBI is also silent on the role of the IEBC in vetting candidates, and ensuring that they adhere to Chapter Six of the Constitution on leadership and integrity. Let us not forget that many of the candidates in the last two elections had questionable backgrounds, and some were even facing charges in court. Why did the IEBC not ensure that those running for office had clean records?

On the economy, or what it calls “shared prosperity”, the BBI, emphasises the role of industry and manufacturing in the country’s economic development but is silent on agriculture, which currently employs about half of Kenya’s labour force and accounts for nearly 30 per cent of Kenya’s GDP, but which remains one the most neglected and abused sectors in Kenya. It’s a miracle that our hardworking and much neglected farmers are able to feed all of us, given that they receive so little support from the government, which consistently undermines local farmers by importing cheap or substandard food and by providing farmers with few incentives.

Besides, it is highly unlikely that Kenya will become a factory for the region, let alone the world, like China, because it simply does not have the capacity to do so. Why not focus on services, another mainstay of the economy?

The BBI also talks of harnessing regional trade and cooperation and sourcing products locally but, again, we know this is simply lip service. If Uhuru Kenyatta’s government was keen on improving trade within the region, it would not have initiated a bilateral trade agreement with the United States that essentially rubbishes and undermines the country’s previous regional trade agreements with Eastern and Southern African countries and trading blocs.

On the yoke around every Kenyan’s neck – corruption – the BBI’s approach is purely legalistic and administrative. It wants speedy prosecution of cases involving corruption and wastage of public resources and it wants to protect whistleblowers. (Good luck with the latter. In my experience, no whistleblower protection policy has protected whistleblowers, not even in the United Nations.)

BBI also wants to digitise all government services to curb graft. But as the economist David Ndii pointed out at the recent launch of the Africog report, “Highway Robbery: Budgeting for State Capture”, if corruption is built into the very architecture of the Kenyan government, no amount of digitisation will help. Remember how the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) was manipulated to steal millions from the Ministry of Devolution in what is known as the NYS scandal? Computer systems are created and run by people, and these people can become very adept at deleting their digital footprints from these systems. As the former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko, pointed out, when corruption is factored into the budget (i.e. when budgets are prepared with corruption in mind), corruption becomes an essential component of procurement and tendering processes. So let’s think of more creative and innovative ways of handling graft within government.

Which is not to say that the BBI task force has not struggled with this issue. There are various proposals to amend public finance laws to make the government more accountable on how it spends taxpayers’ money. But we know that these laws can be undermined by the very people responsible for implementing them, as the various mega-corruption scandals in various ministries and state institutions have shown.

A Trojan horse? 

Many Kenyans suspect that perhaps the real and only reason for the BBI is that it will allow for the creation of new powerful positions – such as that of prime minister to accommodate both Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta – and will set the stage for a return to a parliamentary system of governance instead of the current presidential “winner-takes-all” system. But while the latter might appear to be a worthwhile endeavour, the fact that former opposers of the new constitution and the parliamentary system now appear to be endorsing both suggests that there is something more to this than meets the eye. As Prof. Yash Pal Ghai has repeatedly stated, the constitution endorsed at Bomas was premised on a parliamentary system and was only changed at the last minute to accommodate a presidential system. That is how we ended up where we are now.

It also appears strange that those who benefitted most from the presidential system now want to change the constitution.  As Waikwa Wanyoike, put it:

Worse, those hell-bent on immobilising the constitution have done so by conjuring up and feeding a narrative that it is an idealistic and unrealistic charter. Because they wield power, they have used their vantage points to counter most of the salutary aspects of the constitution. Uhuru Kenyatta’s consistent and contemptuous refusal to follow basic requirements of the constitution in executing the duties of his office, including his endless defiance of court orders, stands out as the most apt example here.

Yet all this is calculated to create cynicism among Kenyans about the potency of the constitution. Hoping that the cynicism will erode whatever goodwill Kenyans have towards the constitution, the elites believe that they can fully manipulate or eliminate the constitution entirely and replace it with laws that easily facilitate and legitimise their personal interests, as did Jomo Kenyatta and Moi.

If indeed we want to go back to a parliamentary system through a referendum, then we should hold the referendum when the current crop of politicians (some of whom, including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, were opposed to the 2010 constitution in the first place) are not in leadership positions because many Kenyans simply don’t trust them to do what is in Kenyans’ best interest. After all, a fox cannot be relied on to guard a chicken coop.

Already the president has urged Parliament to pass laws that conform to the BBI proposals – this even before the proposed referendum that will decide whether the majority of the country’s citizens are for or against the BBI’s raft of recommendations. In other words, the BBI proposals may become laws even before the country decides whether these laws are acceptable and are what the country needs.

Are the goodies proposed in the BBI, such as providing debt relief to jobless graduates and allocating a larger share of national revenue to the counties, just enticements to lure Kenyans onto the BBI bandwagon so as to ensure that the current political establishment consolidates its hold on power? Is the BBI a Trojan horse disguised as a guardian angel? Only time will tell.

One possibility, however, is that a groundswell of public opinion against the BBI might just overturn the whole process.

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