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SGR by the Numbers: Some Unpleasant Arithmetic

9 min read.

In the beginning was a fiction – that the Chinese railway would freight 22 million tonnes a year, and in so doing, replace the trucking business. Turns out – and this from the government’s own internal assessments – that the maximum amount of annual freight on the SGR is 8.76 million tonnes, almost a third of what was promised. Interest alone on the $3 billion debt is in US$200 million (KSh 20 billion) per year, which works out to KSh 45,000 – KSh 60,000 per container. Contrary to official assurances, explains DAVID NDII, the railway will require both State coercion and a massive public subsidy to stay in business.

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SGR by the Numbers: Some Unpleasant Arithmetic
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“Unpleasant arithmetic” is a popular economists phrase coined by Thomas Sargent, the 2011 economics Nobel Prize laureate and Neil Wallace in an influential 1981 paper simply titled “Some unpleasant monetarist arithmetic” that sought to demonstrate that monetary policy is a useless anti-inflation tool. The deadpan title had a double meaning, the truly horrendous math and the unsettling policy implications. The good news is that Kenya’s standard gauge railway (SGR) arithmetic turns out to be unpleasant only in one dimension. The bad news is that it is the money end of the business, not the math.

It is helpful to start by putting the scale of the project in perspective.

UK’s Crossrail project, an expansion of the London commuter rail system has been billed as Europe’s most expensive infrastructure project, with a price tag of US$ 23 billion, five times the cost of the Mombasa-Naivasha SGR. But the project amounts to less than one percent of UK’s $2.6 trillion dollar economy (37 times Kenya’s), and 3.5 percent of government revenue. The UK borrows long term domestically at between 1.5—2.5 percent per year. If we take the higher figure, the interest cost of financing the Crossrail project is about 0.1 percent of government revenue. The most expensive infrastructure project in Europe increases the UK’s public debt by less than one percent of GDP and puts no pressure on the government budget.

When it was starting in 2014, the $3 billion outlay for the Mombasa-Nairobi segment amounted to 5.4 percent of GDP and 11 percent of government revenue. The cost to completion (Mombasa to Malaba), estimated at US$8 billion at the time, was in the order of 15 percent of GDP and 73 percent of government revenue. If we were to finance it from floating international bonds, the interest cost on the $4.5 billion dollars we’ve borrowed already would translate to 2.5 percent of government revenue, 28 times the cost of Crossrail’s debt burden on UK’s taxpayers.

But the Chinese bank loans have a higher revenue burden than bonds since we have to pay both interest and principal. We now know that the cost is in the order of KSh 50 billion per year currently, equivalent to four percent of revenue. That translates to 45 times CrossRail’s debt burden on UK taxpayers. Moreover, as noted, the UK borrows domestically, with no currency risk. The shilling has depreciated 18 percent since we borrowed, raising the interest cost by KSh 3 billion a year.

When it was starting in 2014, the $3 billion outlay for the Mombasa-Nairobi segment amounted to 5.4 percent of GDP and 11 percent of government revenue. The cost to completion (Mombasa to Malaba), estimated at US$8 billion at the time, was in the order of 15 percent of GDP and 73 percent of government revenue.

To contemplate a project of that scale, you need a very high degree of certainty of its viability. It is otherwise reckless.

The key selling point of the SGR project is that it would get the huge trucks off the road. It would also be cheaper and faster. The public was told that it would haul 22 million tonnes of freight a year. As this column pointed out then, this was always doubtful.

A typical locomotive hauls of between 3000 and 4000 tonnes of freight. We now know that the SGR locomotives’ capacity is 3000 tonnes. The 22-million ton target works out to 20 trains a day, a train every 80 minutes. But the government has also marketed passenger services, which brings you down to a train an hour. It matters that over 90 percent of the freight is imports. If it was equally divided between imports and exports, you would need half the departures. But with virtually all freight going one way, a departure every hour both ways on a single track is a stretch.

We now know courtesy of a study by government policy think tank, KIPPRA, that the operational capacity of the railway in terms of the rolling stock already acquired and configuration of the line (e.g. provisions for trains to pass each other), is twelve trains a day, with provision for four passenger and eight freight trains a day, with a capacity of 8.7 million tonnes a year.

Besides falling far short of the so called design capacity, this raises a serious question about the viability of extending the railway to Uganda. Currently, the volume of transit cargo coming through the port of Mombasa is close to eight million tons, just about the same capacity as the railway. Thus, the current operational capacity cannot serve both the domestic and transit cargo—it is one or the other. To serve both will require expanding the capacity on the completed section to at least double what it is, escalating the already exorbitant cost even further. In a decade or so, it will still come down to a question of domestic or transit freight. If the railway will have been extended, it will only make business sense to carry transit cargo, begging the question why Kenya would have borrowed so much money to build a railway for other countries.

The railway has been sold as a commercially viable project, that is, it would pay for itself. This column challenged this claim from the outset. In the first of many columns, I maintained that the railway could not pay, and that the debt would be paid from the public purse. This has now come to pass.

Currently, the volume of transit cargo coming through the port of Mombasa is close to eight million tons, just about the same capacity as the railway. Thus, the current operational capacity cannot serve both the domestic and transit cargo—it is one or the other. To serve both will require expanding the capacity on the completed section to at least double what it is, escalating the already exorbitant cost even further. In a decade or so, it will still come down to a question of domestic or transit freight. If the railway will have been extended, it will only make business sense to carry transit cargo, begging the question why Kenya would have borrowed so much money to build a railway for other countries.

The only feasibility study I have seen was done by the contractor China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). It is possible that the lenders could have conducted their own feasibility studies as other development financial institutions do, but if such exist, they are a closely guarded secret.

The CRBC feasibility study has a chapter titled economic evaluation, though it is unlike any investment appraisal I have come across. It asserts that the project has “high profitability” and “financial accumulation ability”, but there are no cash flow projections to back this up. It presents Net Present Value (NPV) of three different configurations of US$ 2.0, 2.4 and 2.6 billion as evidence of viability, leaving one at a loss to understand how this justifies borrowing US$3.2 billion for the project. NPV is the current value of the future earnings of a project and should be higher than the cost of the project.

Be that as it may, the railway’s economic justification turns on cheap freight. The study asserts that the railway would turn a profit with a tariff of US$ 0.083 a ton per kilometre (8 US cents). Containers weigh between 20 and 30 tons, hence the study’s tariff at the time translated to between US$ 830 and US$ 1245 (Ksh. 70,000 to Ksh. 100,000) to freight containers from Mombasa to Nairobi. It puts road haulage cost at US$ 0.10 to US$ 0.12 (10 to 12 US cents), hence the proposed SGR tariff would have been 20 to 45 percent cheaper than trucking.

The only feasibility study I have seen was done by the contractor China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC)…It has a chapter titled economic evaluation, though it is unlike any investment appraisal I have come across. It asserts that the project has “high profitability” and “financial accumulation ability”, but there are no cash flow projections to back this up. It presents Net Present Value (NPV) of three different configurations of US$ 2.0, 2.4 and 2.6 billion as evidence of viability, leaving one at a loss to understand how this justifies borrowing US$3.2 billion for the project.

According to the Economic Survey, the source of official statistics, in 2012, when the feasibility study is dated, railway freight revenue was Ksh. 4.40 a ton per kilometre, which works out to $0.052 cents. In effect, the SGR claimed that it would make freight cheaper, while in fact its break-even tariff was higher than the railway tariff prevailing at the time. Even the postulated tariff advantage over trucks is flawed because it covers freighting to the inland container depot (ICD) and does not include the additional cost of moving the containers from the ICD to the owners’ premises.

If the tariff advantage over road could be defended, the correct way to measure its economic benefits would be the cost savings, the difference between the “with and without” scenarios. We now know, courtesy of the KIPPRA study, that the actual operational capacity of the railway is 8.76 million tonnes. If we assume, heroically, trains operating at full capacity for the 25 years used in CRBC’s feasibility study and the maximum cost saving ($0.037 a ton per kilometre) we obtain an Internal Rate of Return of 2.4 percent, against a standard benchmark opportunity cost of capital for development projects of 12 percent.

More importantly, the returns are highly sensitive to the railway’s cost advantage over trucking. If we use the lower-bound trucking cost of $0.10 which reduces the cost advantage to $0.017, the project’s Internal Rate of Return (IRR) falls close to zero, the NPV drops to $580 million and the benefit cost ratio (BCR) to 0.2. The IRR is the discount rate at which the NPV of a project is zero and is used to compare a project’s return to the cost of capital. The BCR is simply the benefits over costs and should exceed one for a viable project. A BCR below one means that the project is an economic liability.

The parameters of the feasibility study have already been blown out of the water by exchange rate movements. The 12 US cents trucking tariff used in the study was KSh10.15 in 2012 (at Ksh 84.50 to the dollar). Today KSh 10.15 translates to 10 US cents which as we saw, makes the railway an economic liability. The problem with the SGR is that the bulk of its costs are in foreign currency— indeed, its approved tariffs are dollar-denominated. Trucking has less foreign currency exposure and it is indirect. If the shilling depreciates, the railway loses cost advantage. This is exactly what has happened. As of mid last year, trucks were charging between KSh 70,000 and 90,000 to transport a 40-foot container from Mombasa to Nairobi, which works out to between $0.05 and 0.07 a ton per kilometre compared to the feasibility study’s break-even rate of US$ 0.083.

Over the long haul, currencies adjust to the inflation difference between a country and its trading partners, which for the Kenya shilling translates to depreciating by five percent per year on average. So far the government is relying on coercion to put cargo on the train, even though it is charging what it is calling a discounted tariff. Raising prices is going to be a difficult proposition. We can also expect the prices and operational efficiency of trucks to continue improving, while the railway is stuck with its current locomotives for decades. The price advantage will continue moving in favour of trucking.

With the installed operational capacity of 8.76 million tonnes, interest on its debt which is in the order of US$200 million (KSh 20 billion) translates to 4.6 US cents a ton per kilometre which works out to KSh 45,000 – KSh 60,000 per container. Add operational costs, and it is readily apparent that there is no competitive tariff that would enable the railway to service its debt. Moreover, it is difficult for the railway to operate at full capacity all the time. In effect, the railway will require both coercion and a massive subsidy to stay in business.

We are now compelled to confront the question: what is the economic rationale of establishing a subsidized public monopoly to replace a competitive industry? With cost advantage more or less out of the question, we are left with two arguments. One, that road haulage does not factor in the public costs of building and maintaining roads— including the disproportionate damage that heavy trucks inflict on the roads. The second is that road haulage cannot cope with the projected freight growth, in effect, that the railway line is a necessity, regardless of the cost. Let’s look at each in turn.

The contention that road haulage is implicitly subsidized is simply untrue. Freight trucks do exact a heavy wear and tear toll on the highway, but they also pay their fair share for it. The government is presently collecting KSh 18 per litre of fuel, which translates to Ksh 3,200 per Mombasa-Nairobi trip for a prime mover consuming 180 litres of diesel. Current freight container traffic on the road is at 1.2 million twenty-foot equivalent (TEUs), we are talking fuel levy revenues in the order of KSh 3.5 billion a year. When you add other users, the Mombasa-Nairobi section is generating upwards of KSh 5 billion in fuel levy funds – KSh 10 million per kilometre. It is enough to maintain it. In fact, if the government were to leverage it (i.e. float a bond and pay interest from it), it would be able to finance a phased expansion into a dual carriageway.

What is the economic rationale of establishing a subsidized public monopoly to replace a competitive industry?

The other is that the road would not be able to cope with the growing freight volume and a railway. International evidence suggests otherwise. In the EU for instance, the rail’s share of freight has fallen from 60 percent in the 70s, to just under 20 percent today, despite determined efforts by governments to reverse it. Railways have struggled to offer the flexible logistical requirements of the distributed just-in-time supply chains of a globalized information age. It is, after all, a nineteenth-century technology. Which is why I get rather amused when I hear the building of the “standard gauge” rail (a “standard” established in 1886) being characterized as a giant technological leap into the future.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Dark Money: Pandora Papers Show UK Must Tackle Its Corruption-Enabling Industry

As long as we have countries that are willing to receive these illicit monies, then it [corruption] will keep happening

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The new head of the Word Trade Organization has delivered a damning critique of Britain’s supposed fight against international corruption, accusing the UK of harbouring a “cottage industry” of financial enablers who cater to corrupt public officials overseas.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was appointed WTO director-general in March and has twice served a Nigeria’s finance minister, said the Pandora Papers showed how UK bankers, lawyers and estate agents help corrupt officials and wealthy individuals in her home country — and in other graft-blighted nations — invest in expensive London real estate through anonymous offshore shell companies.

Delivering the 2021 anti-corruption lecture for Transparency International UK, Okonjo-Iweala earlier this week said: “When public monies are stolen, they are often sent abroad to countries not generally thought of as corrupt, where a cottage industry exists of bankers, lawyers, accountants and others, who launder and sequester the ill-gotten funds.”

She added: “The Pandora Papers — like the Panama Papers before them — shed light on this shadow economy of tax avoidance, luxury homes and shell companies.”

Okonjo-Iweala has for decades been a pioneering campaigner on anti-corruption and transparency issues, both in Nigeria and internationally. For her efforts, she has received death threats and, in 2012, her mother was briefly kidnapped.

In October, Finance Uncovered and Premium Times published the results of its investigation into wealthy Nigerians who anonymously owned UK property. The investigation was based on thousands of leaked shell company documents from the Pandora Papers, Panama Papers and other data sources.

It identified 233 houses and apartments in the UK — worth £350m at current property prices — which had been secretly bought by 137 wealthy Nigerians using 166 anonymous offshore shell companies.

Among those found to have invested in UK property were a senior manager at the Nigerian Ports Authority, one of the longest serving members of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, a former finance commissioner for Lagos State and a major government contractor in the power generation industry.

It is not illegal to secretly buy UK property through anonymous offshore shell companies and documents reviewed by Finance Uncovered found no evidence that funds used to buy UK property amounted to proceeds of corruption or other criminality. In fact, many UK enabler firms routinely advised their Nigerian clients to invest in UK property through offshore companies in order to legally avoid tax.

Also among the real estate identified by Pandora Papers journalists were five UK properties linked to Nigeria’s former aviation minister Stella Oduah — a onetime cabinet colleague of Okonjo-Iweala who is now the subject of corruption charges in Nigeria, which she has denied.

So too were several London properties that, according to U.S. court filings, were bought by oil tycoons allegedly as bribes for the benefit of Diezani Alison-Madueke, then Nigeria’s minister for petroleum resources and yet another former cabinet colleague of Okonjo-Iweala.

Alison-Madueke was arrested in London by UK law enforcement officers in 2015 but has denied wrong-doing. No charges have been brought but investigations into her affairs remain ongoing.

As well as naming several otherwise hidden property investors, Finance Uncovered and Premium Times published further details concerning Nigerians investing in UK real estate in the form of an interactive map.

One in six of the 233 UK properties identified by Finance Uncovered and Premium times were owned by anonymous offshore companies that were once the subject of law enforcement interest — including search warrants, freezing orders, money laundering investigations and suspicious activity reports.

Since 2016, the UK government has been promising to introduce a public register of who owns offshore companies that have bought residential property in Britain. However, ministers have failed to bring the necessary legislation before parliament.

Instead, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has fast-tracked other measures, such as the introduction of eight freeports, which many experts say could increase the flow of dark money to the United Kingdom.

Okonjo-Iweala said she was surprised that findings from the Pandora Papers had not yet generated more impact, suggesting the pandemic crisis may have drawn political attention away. However, she added: “Refusing corruption will be an important part of building back better our economies and societies, so it is an issue we cannot afford to neglect.”

In particular, she called on the UK and other countries that have become well-known destinations for corrupt and laundered funds to provide more efficient means for repatriating stolen assets.

She added: “I think real estate is really the key. There is a huge amount in the UK, in France, in Switzerland, all these countries. And not very much is being done about it, still today.”

In a further challenge to developed countries, she suggested one way to restrict corrupt money flows would be to outlaw anonymous shell companies. “You should challenge lawyers to stop all this helping tax evasion and shell companies. Why don’t we outlaw shell companies? If you want to put money or assets somewhere, put them under your name. Why do you create a shell company and hide all these things?”

Praising the work of Transparency International, Okonjo-Iweala also suggested NGO groups could do even more to help pressure developed countries into anti-corruption measures. Specifically, she suggested TI’s widely-cited Corruption Perceptions Index — which ranks countries in order of the perceived propensity for corruption — should be complemented by a second index that ranked the countries that received proceeds of corruption.

“As long as we have countries that are willing to receive these illicit monies, then it [corruption] will keep happening,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “So that’s why I have been pressing TI that, please, let’s start an index. We need an index of countries that receive corrupt funds. Let’s rank them, and see who is at the top, who is second, who is third. That will help us get a hold of all this because I’m sure no one will want to be listed like that.”

A long-standing campaigner on anti-corruption, Okonjo-Iweala used her time in a previous post at the World Bank, to help set up the Stolen Assets Recovery initiative (StAR), a measure designed to help developing countries retrieve funds stolen by kleptocratic regimes. That initiative followed on from her tireless pursuit through the courts of money looted from Nigeria by Sani Abacha, the country’s military dictator from 1993 to 1998.

Okonjo-Iweala, 67, was appointed as director-general of the WTO in March, becoming the first woman and first African to lead the organisation. Earlier, she had two spells as Nigerian finance minister, though most of her career was spent at the World Bank. She has also held board positions at Standard Chartered Bank and at Twitter.

The Pandora Papers is a leak of almost 12 million documents, largely made up of administrative paperwork from the archives of 14 law firms and agencies that specialise in offshore company formations.

The leak was obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and seen by more than 600 journalists, including reporters at Finance Uncovered and Premium Times, as part of an investigation that took many months and spanned 117 countries.

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Sino-African Relations: Cooperation or a New Imperialism?

The relationship between Africa and China hinges on the question of cooperation and development. Kristin Plys, Amenophis Lô and Abdulhamid Mohamed ask if we should celebrate this relationship as the South-South development that the Global South dreamed of in the mid-20th century, or are contemporary Africa-China relations a new imperialist dynamic?

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Author and activist, Vijay Prashad elucidates in The Darker Nations, the ‘Third World’ is not a place, but a political project. In the mid-twentieth century, at the height of US hegemony, the Global South imagined political, economic, and social emancipation. One important incarnation of this was the Bandung Conference in 1955 where representatives of 29 newly independent Asian and African states met to promote what is now termed, South-South cooperation, in other words, the idea that African and Asian states could come together for economic and cultural cooperation and together oppose colonialism and imperialism.

Bandung was eventually institutionalized in the Non-Aligned movement, a forum that opposed US and Soviet intervention in the Global South. Non-alignment was not without its critics, however. Muammar Qaddafi of the non-aligned movement said, “The world is made up of two camps: the liberation camp and the imperialist one. There is no place for those who are non-aligned. We are not neutral and totally aligned against the aggressor… Long live the liberated. Down with imperialism.” As he saw it, the Global South was not comprised of states who were beholden to US imperialism, states who were beholden to Soviet imperialism and states that opposed either influence. For Qaddafi, there were only those states who are against imperialism and for liberation and those states that are imperialist.

Our understandings of contemporary imperialism, however, are shaped by the lived experiences of US hegemony and the particular way in which it supplanted European colonial rule with new dependent relationships of exploitation of the same character but through new forms of politico-economic relationships between the United States and the Global South. But with the crisis of US hegemony starting in the 1970s, and now with a more pronounced global crisis since 2008, of, perhaps, the capitalist world-system itself, imperialism as we know it will also necessarily change. Forms of power and hierarchy need to be remade so that they can continue as they lose moral authority.

The United States has lost its moral authority for global rule providing openings for a new hegemonic power to emerge and lead the world-economy in overcoming the current crisis. For example, in the transition from British hegemony in the 19th century to US hegemony in the 20th, imperialism persisted, but the form it took changed. Formal colonialism lost its moral authority leading to the important development of flag independence across much of the Global South. But in the absence of formal political rule through colonialism, the United States innovated new articulations of imperialism during the Cold War and beyond.

Any new hegemon, as part of its rule, must convince the rest of the world that it is acting in the best interests of the inter-state system. Part of the establishment of that consent to rule entails forming dependent relationships with the Global South that appear to be in the best interests of the Global South. With the rise of a new world-hegemon, imperialism must necessarily be remade to look like aid, cooperation, and solidarity. This helps the rising hegemon establish a global moral authority as it appears to be acting in the moral interests of the entire world economy. In these phases of world-history where a new hegemon is on the rise, it is critically important that we distinguish true South-South cooperation that has the potential for national liberation from a new incarnation of imperialism in its guise.

Authoritarianism and exploitation

When we examine this distinction between South-South cooperation and contemporary imperialism on the ground, it is essential to examine the local political conditions that create an imbalance of power. Therefore, we must better understand the contemporary dynamics of African sovereignty.

While the 21st century began with revolutions to oust decades of postcolonial authoritarian rule in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, and elsewhere, these efforts were short lived. Counter-revolutionary forces, particularly those led by right-wing nationalists and conservative religious leaders too often became the eventual beneficiaries of toppled authoritarian regimes. In recent years we have witnessed more counter-revolutions and coups across the continent, in Chad, for example. States succumbing to authoritarianism have become more prevalent and we seldom observe revolutions that have been successful at installing long lasting democratic states committed to promoting the interests of African people.

In this fraught context of authoritarian rule across the continent, it has been easier for imperialists to usurp African sovereignty. Just as European and North American states have found authoritarian rule in Africa more amenable to their politico-economic interests so too has the Chinese Communist Party. In Zambia, copper mining accounts for 65% of the country’s export earnings. Most of the mines are owned by the Chinese state, though a few are mining companies with headquarters in Canada. Foreign mining companies have been able to create pockets of Chinese state sovereignty within Zambia where labour laws are notoriously lax, wages low, accidents and deaths of workers, prevalent. When workers have combined and protested these conditions, they have been met with violence, not from the Zambian state, but from Chinese management who has met workers’ demands by deploying violence without consequence. In 2010, a manager at the Collum Mine shot and killed 13 workers who organised against poor safety standards.

The Lamu Project to build a deep-water port connecting East Africa to Asian export markets is another example of loss of sovereignty. Initially, the Lamu port was to be funded jointly by the Kenyan, Ethiopian and South Sudanese states but because of funding issues and occasional attacks on port construction by Al-Shabaab, Kenyan Defense Forces sought loans from China which were supported through the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ programme, a policy to not only aid China in gaining further access to African resources and markets but also enable the Peoples Liberation Army Navy to establish a counter-terrorism base in Northern Kenya. Ports are crucial to African development as 90% of East African exporters depend on seaports to remain viable, but if Kenya defaults on the debt they have incurred, which seems likely, the Lamu port will soon become yet another space of Chinese state sovereignty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Land grabbing through creating pockets of Chinese state sovereignty and through control of strategic assets has helped China obtain cheap natural resources needed for industrial production, while railroads, other infrastructure, along with access to seaports allows for the extraction of these resources from Africa. Regime change has not been successful in disrupting this dynamic because the movements for regime change have mostly focused on ousting political leaders, but as a result of European and North American imperialism and also through the support of the domestic bourgeoisie, sovereignty in most African states rests with the military. Recent revolutions have done little to disrupt that dynamic or to create states that will serve the interests of its people.

Return to a Pan-African internationalism

There is a difference between globalization done on the terms of more powerful states, and a horizontal internationalism based on solidarity. Africa-China relations in and of themselves could bring great benefit to both regions, but as long as there remains a power differential in African states’ individual dealings with China, it will remain a tie that will ultimately result in economic benefit for China and the exploitation of Africa. One possible solution could be to have negotiations around Chinese development projects in African states done as a regional bloc through a Pan-African union rather than country-by-country.

But beyond this, what we, as an internationalist left can do is decentre the role of the state in Africa-China relations. If civil society and leftist groups in both China and across the African continent could work together across borders it could put pressure on states to realise common social injustices in both China and various African contexts such as the importance of opposing authoritarian regimes that fail to serve the best interests of the people and promoting workers’ rights through a labour internationalism. We can also envision linkages between other Chinese and Pan-African civil society organizations around issues common to the African and Chinese contexts.

Frantz Fanon famously described the ‘Third World project’, as a rejection of the goal of ‘catching up’ to Europe and North America, and instead, saw as its primary goal to innovate a new way of thinking. Fanon believed in the creativity of revolutionary Pan-Africanism and the Global South, that new forms of politics could be envisioned and enacted that would provide solutions to the longstanding social problems.

Internationalism from below

There’s a tendency within the Global North left to see any political development that opposes Western dominance as something to celebrate. But in thinking through the complexity of contemporary Africa-China relations it is evident that we need to be more discerning about the dynamics of power involved in movements that may claim to be South-South cooperation and/or anti-Western. They may yet be an embodiment of the unequal power dynamics and politico-economic exploitation we stand firmly against.

Propaganda, both from the West, and from China, obscures the power dynamics at play on the ground in Sino-African relations. The ability of propaganda to muddy our understanding of the dynamics at play makes organizing around these issues particularly difficult and controversial. But we need to remember, as Pan-Africanists based in Canada or anywhere else for that matter, that just because something is anti-West doesn’t make it liberatory. We need to be thoughtful and discerning in how we think about power and history in our contemporary context.

The central issue facing us going forward with this conversation is how we can pay closer attention to the dynamics of power in politico-economic relations between states without falling into the Sinophobic tropes of most Western states, but also recognising that there is not an equal and symbiotic relationship between African states and Chinese developmentalism.

Perhaps the first step is, instead of celebrating the ties between an authoritarian Chinese state and non-democratic regimes across Africa, we should instead think creatively about what we can do to build more liberatory South-South cooperation between civil society and left movements in Africa and China. Through these common goals of fighting shared social struggles, a truly horizontal Afro-Asian solidarity can be envisioned and enacted.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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African Epistemic Self-Affirmation Is the Ultimate End of Decolonization

Islamic scholarship in Africa and the meaning and end of decolonization in the work of religious studies scholar, Ousmane Kane.

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During the 2018 Miriam Makeba keynote address to the General Assembly of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), the largest and oldest pan-African body of African scholars, Professor Ousmane Kane told his peers that they needed to take religion seriously. This entreaty expressed a basic idea and an urgent project. The idea was that social science, having been elaborated through the secular-modern separation of the spheres of life, has relegated “religion” to the domain of the marginalized specialist. In contrast to the political, the economic, and the sociocultural, religion has become a matter of individual belief and practice within the regime of expertise that governs life globally.

This regime has sometimes been called coloniality. Kane, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, proposed, however, that all social science needs to consider religion if it is to truly understand contemporary Africa and its problems, implying that in Africa, religion is no private matter. “Religious developments in Africa deserve serious attention from African intellectuals, and especially pan-Africanists,” he said. The developments to which Kane referred might be summarized as the emergent publicity of religion, the decentralization (and/or erosion) of authority, and the integration into global networks throughout the African continent. This emergence has proven modernization and development theory to be patently false; religion has not eventually disappeared or become irrelevant for public life. In short, African theory needs to catch up to Africans in their decolonization of the mind and spirit.

The publication of Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts, edited by Kane, adds to a growing wave of academic work on the histories, cultures, and meanings of Islamic thought in Africa. It features established and emerging voices of the field that takes on the project of overturning many long-held fictions about Africa in the modern imagination. African historicity and mobility, dynamics of orality and literacy, evolving Islamic education, and popular vernacular poetic expression are themes that frame a diverse set of contributions that offer a fair representation of the major issues of the field.

Alongside recent monographs, edited volumes, and translations Islamic scholarship in Africa explores a robust and active field. It is a work that is current, forward-looking, engaged with global issues and directed to a general audience. The bibliography is broad and the glossary of terms are of benefit to the non-specialist. Given that the individual essays in this volume reflect many distinct research agendas, sites, and objects of inquiry, I will not attempt to summarize their contents. Instead, I focus on the broader issue of the decolonization of knowledge flagged for the reader’s attention in both Kane’s introduction and the conclusion by the former executive secretary of CODESRIA, Ebrima Sall.

Questions of decolonization

Sall situates the volume, along with the broader proliferation of academic works on the topic, within CODESRIA’s now decades-long project to bridge knowledge divides within Africa. These divisions are defined by differences in research language, intellectual training, and presumed racial identity. In particular, Kane’s research agenda to recognize the intellectual contributions of Muslim African scholars actualized many of the Pan-African principles of the organization. His Non-Europhone Intellectuals, published as a CODESRIA working paper in 2003, set forth the terms for a new field that would eventually come to be known as Timbuktu Studies. This field has solicited interest and support from international foundations, African governments, and a global network of university-based researchers.

We might ask, however, how does this interest in Islamic scholarship sit in relation to African studies more broadly? The objections that followed Kane’s keynote in 2018 highlight some common resistance to this work. The responses from the floor, as I recall them, were somewhat predictable. Some asserted that Islam was not modern. Others found that the neglect of African traditional religions by Kane was an inexcusable lapse. For them, if social science is to take religion seriously in Africa, it should be truly African religions upon which they must focus their seriousness. Islam and Christianity, they argued were either copies of originally African ideas or antagonistic to what was authentically African. “African” for them, it seems, meant autochthony. It meant differences from other geo-racial types and their specific religiosities that are ultimately products of colonization. These objections were predictable because they form opposing positions, based as much on epistemic commitments as points of view that frame the problem of religion in Africa. Kane and others have responded to such ideas exhaustively.

For example, Islam, from its origins, has been African, from the first hijra, or exodus, to Abyssinia through to the very rapid spread to Fustat, or what is now Cairo, and then with the history of the mostly peaceful and gradual spread of Islam in West Africa. And yet, the idea of Islam’s coloniality, if we can stretch the term so thin, persists. Much like the ideas about primordial African orality, they form discursive structures that seem impervious to empirical invalidation. It is indeed an old idea that West African Muslim scholars have been refuting since at least the 17th century Timbuktu scholar Ahmed Baba, and echoed in the 20th century by Senegalese polymath Shaykh Musa Kamara. Perhaps, that is a good thing for the future of the field.

All of this being said, one wonders beyond the scope of Islamic Scholarship in Africa, how might Timbuktu Studies deal with some of the thornier issues that have emerged in the long history of developing an epistemological alternative. Specifically, I am thinking here of the field’s relation to the older project of the Africanization of knowledge, which sought to consider Africa in indigenously African terms and the Islamization of knowledge/Islamic social sciences, which sought to establish modern social scientific method on Islamic foundations. Is the study of Islamic scholarship in Africa simply a continuation, an evolution of these two separate projects, or does their convergence make a qualitative leap that makes it distinct and uniquely promising? There might also be a generative encounter between Timbuktu Studies with Critical Muslim Studies such as that coming out of South Africa, emanating as it does from post-Rhodes debates on decoloniality.

Decolonization has become a big tent, a broad term enveloping many meanings, a concept that approaches protean status. Much like “religion” and “modernity” it bears different significations that correspond to conflicting epistemological, disciplinary, and political commitments—each one ultimately seeking different objectives. For a radical, anti-historical but utopian decolonial project, Islamic Scholarship in Africa might not satisfy the performance of rupture. However, this volume is vital if one is willing to agree with Sall and Kane, as I do, that African epistemic self-affirmation is the ultimate end of decolonization.

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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