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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.

David Ndii
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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans.

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Racism and exclusion have always been at the heart of France’s neocolonial project in Africa. What is new, however, is the pervasive and active discursive process of making invisible, and therefore containment, of the violent reality of France’s policies and its devastating consequences for France’s racialised citizens as well as the African populations on the other side of the Mediterranean. Today it is important to consider what France has become: to slightly stretch the words of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a one-dimensional society where repressive and exploitative forces of domination and injustice that have been at the heart of France’s national consciousness challenge any possibility of a genuine vision of change.

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans. The state, the media, and the academy in France actively embody the role of new agents of state neocolonialism to reject any resistance against racism and Islamophobia through complex methods of containment and abstraction.

Race blindness for instance becomes an effective tool to safeguard the neocolonialist foundation of France’s state apparatus and contain any possible threats to its national consciousness. As writer Lauren Collins observes, “There is a common belief that there cannot be racism in France because in France there is, officially, no such thing as race. The state, operating under a policy of “absolute equality,” does not collect any statistics on race or ethnicity.” By doing so, the state apparatus in France ignores its racialised and ethnic citizens and represses their rights to be fully acknowledged.

State neocolonialism in France has been impregnated in its national consciousness to the extent that its networks of domination and dehumanization have blurred the traditional distinctions that are made on the basis of colour and between racialised and ethnic citizens emigrating from Africa. In France, to draw upon Fanon’s analysis that racism is fundamental to the economic structures of capitalism, the political infrastructure is also a superstructure: you are French because you embody France’s state neocolonialism, you embody France’s state neocolonialism because you are French. The French state no longer presupposes certain racial and aesthetic characteristics of the ideal citizen: Black African intellectuals and brown Maghrebi media pundits can also be incorporated as new agents of state neocolonialism. In contemporary France, Africans are not othered and excluded on the basis of race, ethnicity, or colour, but rather on the basis of their politics, culture, and religion.

When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, decided in October 2019 to share his views on immigration and Islamophobia, he chose the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuellesdeclaring that “the failure of our (economic) model coincides with the crisis of Islam” and adding that this crisis leads to the emergence of more radical forms of political Islam. Macron criticized a demonstration in support of the right to wear veils as “non-aligned Third-Worldism with Marxist tendencies” (he used the word “relents,” which can be translated to hint or trace, but also to stink or stench). This interview was published a few days after a mosque shooting in Bayonne, in south-west France. No terrorism offenses were brought by the French government against the white shooter.

The media’s complicity overwhelms any possibility of a meaningful public debate. At its basic form, the process of invisibilisation in a one-dimensional society involves the dispersal of productive energies through diversion and abstraction so to ensure that a revolutionary momentum is as unattainable as the end of capitalism itself.

This complicit relationship between the media and the state in France is carefully exposed in Serge Halimi’s Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (translated to The New Watch Dogs, 1997-2005). Halimi, the chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, lays down a seething critique of a “capitalist” press and media in France that are heavily influenced by the elite interests of politicians and powerful corporations and likely to manufacture propaganda to serve their agenda.

This is exemplified by the controversial debate in France around returning works of African art, stolen during colonial times, to the continent after the publication of the report by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron, which recommends to cancel the project of long-term loan of items to African museums and to support the full and unconditional restitution of the looted heritage back to Africa. The glaring discrepancies in reporting the ambivalent position of the French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, a right wing politician, regarding the return of the stolen artifacts to Africa highlight the dangerous complicity between state institutions and the media in France. There were two opposing reports of this event: on the one hand, major French media outlets celebrated the efforts of the French government to return 26 works of art to Benin. Radio France International, for example, chose the title: “Restitution of works of art in Benin: France goes a step further” while Libération opted for: “Restitution of works in Benin: Paris says it works for a quick return.” But once we dive into these articles, we are faced with the many approximations and “possible scenarios” under which France will actually return the art. The conditional supplants the affirmative, and what remains is the strong belief that much has been left unsaid.

On the other hand, The Art Newspaper, a leading global art magazine, commented differently on the same event: “France retreats from report recommending automatic restitutions of looted African artefacts” ran the article. Here, what is emphasized is the strong opposition of France’s powerful gallery owners and art collectors against any form of permanent restitution and the pressure they put to change the “restoration without delay” decision into a “temporary return.” The new scenario, according to the minister’s comments, refers now to a temporary “exhibition dedicated to the diversity, complexity and aesthetic richness of these works” that will be held, not in Africa, but across France this summer as part of Macron’s highly publicized event entitled “Africa 2020.”

While most news outlets in France continue to briefly comment on the ongoing debate between supporters and critics of Savoy-Sarr report on the restitution of African art, The Art Newspaper insisted that “the report made international headlines, recommending the restitution of African artifacts in French museums, but the country has not returned a single item to Africa.” A year after the publication of Savoy-Sarr recommendations and Macron’s promise for a quick return, “neither the 26 pieces from Benin nor indeed the 90,000 other Sub-Saharan artifacts in French museums” have been returned to Africa.

What is often dismissed from the debate on the restitution of African heritage is the capacity of the French president to secure political and economic gains while asserting the hegemonic power of France over its neo-colonies. Macron accepted to temporarily return El Hadj Omar Tall’s sword to Senegal for a period of five years during another highly publicized ceremony, and at the same time he persuaded Macky Sall, the Senegalese President, to sign a new, multi-hundred million euro contract “for the construction of three offshore patrol vessels for the Senegalese Navy.” Again, there is nothing new here: as Sally Price reports, “[R]estitution is part of a two-way interaction, based on inequality and demanding something in return.” However, Macron successfully manages to obscure this inequality through a highly-calculated, affective, and Africa-friendly communicative strategy.

In France, as the old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born again, a specific breed of pseudo-intellectuals highjacks the public discourse to further promote a republicanism of inequality and exclusion. Among white French intellectuals, the complexity of the postcolonial field is often reduced to a corrupt discursive technology of deceptive arguments, false readings, and deliberate confusion. It is unconceivable to think of a public debate about, say, the case for reparations.

Whenever I am faced with the abysmal state of postcolonialism in France, I remember how Carina Ray, associate professor at Brandeis University, at a panel on the racial politics of knowledge production in November 2018, described the state of African studies in Europe: There are still issues that are “so 1940s and 1950s.” “White Europeness” has made it difficult to bring new perspectives on the postcolonial question. As she put it blatantly: it is a disaster.

The dangerous pseudo-intellectualism of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Houellebecq, Renaud Camus, Robert Ménard, and others – the list is absurdly long – has caused a permanent damage to any possibility of a qualitative change. There is no pause here: these figures have always been central to France’s neocolonial project of domination and exploitation.

As Marcuse writes, “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” The omnipresence of Lévy, Finkielkraut, and Zemmour in public discourse in France is meant to turn meaningful propositions of liberation into obsolete forms of insignificant punditry.

In an infamous manifesto signed by 80 figures of the French intelligentsia such as the reactionary Alain Finkielkraut and published in 2018 postcolonialism was deemed “a hegemonic strategy” that attacks the ideals of republican universalism, and it involves “the use of methods of intellectual terrorism reminiscent and far exceeds what Stalinism once did to European intellectuals.”

What is often recurring in these incendiary attacks on postcolonialism among the white French elite is this amalgam of postcolonialism with the North American scholarship. There is the tendency to believe that postcolonial studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry and activism, is due above all to the contributions of the American and Anglo-Saxon schools to the developments of its theories and practices. When the existing tensions between France (and Europe) and the United States on issues of knowledge production and cultural superiority is taken into consideration, one is inclined to consider that their attacks against postcolonialism are a deep and irrational fear of hegemonic American interventionism.

The view of postcolonial thought as a universal, progressive praxis that has been forged by the struggles of the peoples of the South is dismissed. The fundamental thrust of postcolonialism as moving beyond racial and identity issues to rethink also political, cultural, and utopian ideals is attacked. While the Americans and others have grasped that, in a world in flux, we cannot afford not to be postcolonial, France’s established networks of neocolonial power continue to dismiss postcolonialism as unpatriotic and as a homogeneous threat.

Faced with Finkielkraut’s racist and misogynist attacks during a televised debate, Maboula Soumahoro, the activist and chair of the Black History Month in France, was succinct in her reply: “Your world is ending! You can be panic struck as long as you want, it’s over!”

Meanwhile, the complicity between the political, media and cultural institutions in France continues to silently enforce the state neocolonialism against the African diaspora. The death of Zineb Redouane, the islamophobic attack against a French Muslim women by a white far-right politician during a school trip with her son and other children to the regional parliament in eastern France, the outrageous and ignorant falsehoods made-up by a white French writer about slavery, the racist mural of Hervé Di Rosa in the National Assembly, the decision of the French government to backtrack on the full and permanent restitution of stolen works of African art, and France’s murky role in Libya’s ongoing civil war are all visible signs of a pervasive state of neocolonialism that dictates the violent relationship between France and Africa.

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What COVID-19 Has Revealed About Our Callous and Clueless Leaders

The insensitivity displayed by the Kenyan government during the COVID-19 lockdown has confirmed that the country’s leaders are oblivious to the challenges facing ordinary citizens. This don’t-care attitude could, however, give rise to demands for a more progressive and caring leadership.

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What COVID-19 Has Revealed About Our Callous and Clueless Leaders
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If Kenyans had any doubt that the government is oblivious to their worries and concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed their worst fears: the Kenyan government is not only ignorant about how the majority of the country’s citizens live, but it also simply doesn’t care. The level of insensitivity displayed by the president and his cabinet has stunned even those who would normally sing the government’s praises.

A few examples:

1. Bludgeoning citizens during a curfew

When the government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and a partial lockdown at the end of March, images of police officers brutally beating up people waiting for ferries and other forms of public transport filled social media. There have been at least three reported deaths as a result of the violence inflicted on ordinary citizens by the police. No public apology by the police has been forthcoming, nor has there been any statement on who died and in what circumstances. The cruelty with which the curfew was enforced shocked even the international media, prompting the president to urge the police to use restraint. Yet, the beatings continue to this day. One recent video on social media showed police officers dragging a person from his house for not wearing a face mask – in his own house!

The new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, has adopted a similar “disciplinarian” approach to the pandemic, which has instilled more fear than confidence in the government. Instead of reassuring Kenyans, he has resorted to scolding them, even admonishing those who dare to eat “only one sausage” with their beer at restaurants (Restaurants have been asked to only serve alcoholic drinks to patrons who order food as well.)

2. No safety net for the poor and vulnerable

Meanwhile, President Uhuru Kenyatta, begging bowl in hand, has been imploring donors/lenders to give money to Kenya to allow the country to effectively handle the coronavirus crisis. (It must be noted that the president belongs to among the wealthiest families in the country, running a large monopolistic and highly profitable milk processing enterprise. Yet, there has been no talk of reducing milk prices during this current crisis, nor has the president or his family donated money or milk to charities helping the jobless and the vulnerable.)

Promises of cash transfers and food to those who are suffering extreme hardship as a result of the curfew and lockdown don’t seem to have materialised. A cynical citizenry is already wondering if the funds raised will go towards the intended beneficiaries or will simply line some politically-connected pockets. Anecdotal evidence and other reports indicate that the Sh2,000 (about $20) monthly stipend that was promised to the most vulnerable people has still not been disbursed to them despite assurances by various government officials that cash transfers started in April. A quick, highly unscientific survey I conducted on people living in Kawangware, a large informal settlement in Nairobi, showed that none of the people, who have either been laid off or have had to close down their small businesses, have seen a cent of the stipend.

As Mercy Mwenda, a columnist with the Daily Nation lamented, “Given the current government’s treatment of poor Kenyans, one would be mistaken to assume that one of the key strategies of fighting poverty by this government is by creating more poor . . . It is now that we realise that our interaction with the government, as poor people, starts and ends with elections. In between, only the tragedies affecting the rich and brought by the rich will be focused on”.

3. Flowers for UK medics but no rewards for Kenyan doctors and nurses

Cowed by the state, and with no support system to see them through the crisis, Kenyans had to endure another slap in the face when it was announced that the Kenyan government had sent flowers grown in Kenya to National Health Service (NHS) workers in the United Kingdom in appreciation of their efforts in treating COVID-19 patients. This public relations stunt (probably a misguided attempt by Kenya’s once thriving flower-exporting industry to ensure future exports) backfired. Disgusted Kenyans – who have witnessed a deterioration in their public healthcare system, where doctors and nurses barely have the tools to treat any patient, let alone one suffering from COVID-19, were aghast that the president saw it fit to reward healthcare workers abroad when doctors and nurses in local hospitals have been complaining of lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor wages.

Uhuru responded to his social media critics by admitting that sending flowers to people in a rich country was not just a kind gesture by a poor country; it was a marketing strategy. He told Kenyans that the 300 bouquets of flowers were sent to the UK “to show the world our product” and to protect the country’s flower industry. Kenyans on social media were told to “think before you talk nonsense”.

4. Making people homeless in the middle of a lockdown

There were more shocking events to follow. About three weeks into the lockdown and curfew, some 5,000 people were forcibly evicted from a low-income neighbourhood in Nairobi and left homeless. Images of houses being demolished and women and children pleading for mercy did not move the government or the security personnel sent to the scene to halt the eviction.

The eviction happened during a time when no one could leave Nairobi due to containment measures, which meant that the evicted people could not even seek refuge in their rural homes. The 7 p.m. curfew also made it difficult for the evictees to find alternative accommodation at short notice. No one in government wondered how these people would enforce “social distancing” in their homeless state or where they would sleep during a night curfew.

The details about why this eviction was ordered at this time are scanty, but there is speculation that the order was made to pave way for a large development scheme nearby. Even if this is the case, why were the residents not given enough notice? More importantly, why was the eviction exercise (overseen by the police) ordered during a lockdown and curfew?

The international media and social media picked up the story and aired it for the world to see, but there was no apology or explanation from the state, nor any stated plans for resettling, housing or compensating those whose houses were torn down. John Githongo, the publisher of The Elephant, commented on Twitter: “That the demolition of houses of over 5,000 residents of Kariobangi North Ward can take place in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic lockdown demonstrates an official callousness and disregard for the lives and basic dignity of Kenyans that is staggering”.

Jubilee’s poor scorecard

What these tragic events have demonstrated is not just the government’s callousness in the midst of an extremely difficult period, but also its cluelessness, accompanied by extreme greed and an anti-intellectual posture, which has raised levels of mediocrity and incompetence in government not witnessed under Daniel arap Moi’s highly repressive regime. (Even the former president knew that you need intelligent people in government.)

State capture of media organisations has also made a disturbing comeback, with stories of editors taking instructions from State House, and with corporate interests aligning with state interests. (Uhuru’s contempt for the media – and for reading in general – was evident after he assumed the presidency when he stated that newspapers were only good for “wrapping meat”.)

When the coalition Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto first took over in 2013, I thought it merely incompetent. But as the years passed, and as one corruption scandal after another threatened to taint the government’s legacy, it dawned on me that something more sinister was afoot. The corruption scandals were of such huge magnitude that Kenyans stopped counting the zeros in the amounts that were looted. Shady “tenderpreneurs” were blamed, but many Kenyans wondered how such large amounts could pass through important ministries without ministers or permanent secretaries noticing.

Belated attempts to curtail corruption in government have led to the sacking of a Treasury Cabinet Secretary, but this anti-corruption campaign appears to be targeting one side of the coalition government, which has raised questions about its impartiality.

It has also became apparent that the people running the show haven’t a clue about the challenges facing ordinary Kenyans. Election promises – such as the laptop for every Standard One pupil made by Uhuru during his 2013 election campaign – failed to consider that large numbers of Kenyan students go to schools that have no running water or electricity. Some schools, especially in remote areas, don’t even have roofs. One school board member told me of a case where tablets (and not the promised laptops) were delivered but they lie unused because they are not sufficient in number and, in any case, the teachers have not received training.

During the current crisis, government honchos encouraged school children to embrace e-learning at home, not realising that a personal computer is a luxury even for many university students, let alone primary school students.

Despite attempts to paint Uhuru’s “legacy” as one that has delivered tangible benefits to Kenyans, citizens now know that promises made by him and his deputy (like the stadiums that were to be built in various towns across the country) have not materialised. On the contrary, Kenyans have suffered a steep decline in their standard of living, thanks to high rates of inflation and a declining shilling.

And as if Kenyans are not already suffering financially on account of the current lockdown and curfew, the Treasury Secetary, Ukur Yatani, recently proposed a raft of additional taxes, which will make life for poor and middle class Kenyans and those who have lost their jobs or businesses even harder. He wants to impose 14 per cent VAT on liquefied petroleum gas (which was previously exempt from tax); he wants to tax pensions paid to people over the age of 65; he even wants to impose a 14 per cent tax on machinery and equipment used in plastic recycling plants (a real disincentive to those who recycle waste and care for the environment).

These and other new taxes are no doubt a response to the ballooning debt now standing at Sh6.29 trillion (about $60 billion or around 60 per cent of the country’s GDP) that the Jubilee government has inflicted on the country, and which it appears unable to repay. Early this month, Moody’s, the international credit rating agency, downgraded Kenya’s credit rating from “stable” to “negative” owing to the country’s huge repayments on external debt, heavy local debt obligations with less tax income (thanks to a mismanaged economy that saw several small and medium enterprises fold up due to high energy and other costs, including high taxation) and dollar loans that could see repayments rise if the shilling declines sharply. Given that Kenyans are also suffering – and will continue to suffer – from the effects of the COVID-19-related lockdown for several months, if not years, it is deeply insensitive to increase their suffering through punitive taxation.

The Jubilee government’s extortionate methods of taxation remind me of the notorious “hut tax” imposed by the British colonial administration which, having forcibly alienated the indigenous peoples from their land, then proceeded to impose a tax on them as a means of coercing them into paid employment on white settler farms, a form of extortion that eventually led to the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion.

An unholy alliance

Part of the problem is that the ruling elite in Kenya, particularly Uhuru Kenyatta, have never experienced real poverty. Uhuru’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, came from a humble peasant background, but within a decade of his rule after independence, he had become one of the wealthiest people in the country, with landholdings all across the country, some acquired through coercion.

Deputy President William Ruto has never hidden the fact that he comes from a poor family and even sold chickens by the roadside to earn a living when he was a young man. But it is not lost on Kenyans that the vast fortune he has today is the result of crooked deals he made when he was close to Moi, who groomed him to be a campaigner for his KANU party when it appeared that he might be losing his grip on power. Ruto has since been named in various land-related scandals, allegations he continues to deny.

The unholy alliance between these former International Criminal Court (ICC) indictees opened the floodgates of impunity. When Uhuru and Ruto joined hands to form the Jubilee Party in the run-up to the 2013 election – which they dubbed “a referendum against the ICC” – they were essentially telling Kenyans that any crime – even one against humanity – can be overlooked as long as the people vote overwhelmingly for those accused of that crime. Their election campaign encouraged a wave of known criminals to vie for political office, contrary to Chapter Six of the 2010 Constitution that demands that leaders in government be people of integrity.

However, now, seven years after that marriage of convenience, Uhuru seems to have switched sides. A clear example of the dishonesty that has pervaded his administration is the sidelining of allies of the deputy president, who in 2013 was paraded as the president’s best friend, ally and fellow indictee wrongfully charged by an international court. Both men often appeared in public holding hands and dressed in similar attire (another publicity stunt no doubt concocted by the various PR companies that the president hired to whitewash and shore up his image).

Now that Uhuru has joined hands with his former foe and leader of the now defunct opposition, Raila Odinga, he thinks nothing of dumping his deputy. Ruto is not known to be a man of integrity or honesty either, but when a man he helped to win an election dumps him like an old wet sock, it says a lot about the man doing the dumping. And given that Uhuru is capable of throwing people who helped him win an election under the bus, what guarantee is there he won’t do the same to Raila?

A bumpy ride and possible rebirth

Kenyans are in for a bumpy ride in the months leading up to the 2022 election, what with an ailing economy, thanks to mismanagement and now COVID-19, and a highly charged political environment where friends and foes have become highly interchangeable. In other countries, the mismanagement of the economy and the callous treatment of citizens would normally lead to a change of guard during elections. But this being Kenya – where loyalty to one’s tribe trumps qualifications – all we can expect is more of the same. Or perhaps COVID-19 may have finally helped to unmask our leaders to show their true colours, which could alter the way Kenyans view leadership.

Going forward, I envision a “lost development decade” for Kenya, much like the one that African countries experienced in the 1990s during the implementation of the World Bank-IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) that led to withdrawal of essential services by the state and huge job cuts in the public sector, increasing the levels of hardship across the continent. The repayment of unsustainable and reckless loans will no doubt leave Kenya economically much weaker, and halt progress in key sectors. COVID-19 has only served to hasten the country’s inevitable economic decline.

However, we must also remember that the 1990s also gave birth to pro-democracy movements in Kenya and in many other African countries. As then, an angry, disillusioned and impoverished citizenry may now finally say, “Enough is enough!” This could give rise to a progressive alternative leadership that actually cares about the country and its citizens, and which has the vision and capacity to unleash Kenya’s unlimited potential.

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Returning the Gaze: How COVID-19 Is Inverting Colonial Imaginaries

COVID-19 spreads from Europe to Africa, inverting colonial imaginaries of African disease and challenging inherited hierarchies.

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Returning the Gaze: How COVID-19 Is Inverting Colonial Imaginaries
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Five days after the first COVID-19 case in Kenya—a young, middle-class returnee to Nairobi—was announced, the word “corona” was beginning to go around in western Kenyan villages. We had come here to look for the sedimented remains of past epidemics and anti-epidemic interventions. We were looking for latent residuals of colonial sleeping sickness and malaria, AIDS and cancer, when this future pandemic caught up with us. At this point, people still shook hands and touched (a week later, many didn’t), and young people played with the word “corona” like it was a novel token. Sylvanus, proud father of seven and devout member of the Legio Maria Church, seemed thrilled by exclaiming the name of the new affliction, followed by somewhat surprising bursts of laughter. He rather enjoyed challenging our seriousness about the matter. He did not fear it, “No, because this is a disease for whites.”

We took a stroll along the shore of Lake Victoria facing the Ugandan border, passing a fishing settlement. It was some years since we had been there and the children ran after us in friendly excitement. Their high-pitched calls rang out like the familiar: “Mzunguuu (white person), how are youuu?” But there was an unexpected variation: “Coronaviruuus, how are youuu?” As we continued walking, the childrens’ choir shifted to a cheekier whisper behind our backs: “Corona! Corona!” which went quiet each time we turned around—probably the point of the game. Returning to the main road, the looks of fishermen and market women felt more intense than usual, though not (yet) hostile. As we climbed in the car, Sylvanus whispered “Corona … ” and shared a bright, disarming laughter with those around us. Driving back towards town, many eyes seemed to follow us. Young men shouted “Corona” as we navigated speedbumps. One added “bye-bye.” A mother waiting for a bus waved us away dismissively. “As if we were Chinese,” our colleague Jehu remarked indignantly.

“Mzungu” had for the moment morphed into “Corona.” White man had become a virus. As we got back to Kisumu city, the address began to carry a latent sense of threat (though the market women during the evening’s shopping were cheerful as ever). This scene was not unfamiliar. Twenty-five years earlier, when Wenzel and his colleagues from the Kenyan Ministry of Health collected blood and stool samples from schoolchildren in the area, they had been called kachinja, “blood-stealers” and once were attacked.

Since colonial occupation, similar scares have occurred all over Africa (as depicted by the Congolese painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu). As we were writing this blog, social media posts emerged about COVID-19 vaccine research, one picturing French doctor Didier Raoult, allegedly warning “Africans not to take Bill Gates’s vaccine that contains poison”; another claiming that Obama promised “not to allow white people to kill Africans with their toxic vaccines.” Nothing new here—except that now, the calls for resistance, as well as the menace itself, originate from afar, and are given credibility by the faces of “international” figures appearing on one’s smartphone.

There is a rich literature on African stories about (post-)colonial Europeans and their African government-helpers, especially doctors and scientists, deploying alien tools (electricity, cars, syringes, condoms, tape-recorders, etc.) for nefarious aims. Much of this writing concedes some truth to the “rumors” arguing against their colonial dismissal as mere “misunderstandings.”

Such stories, the argument goes, reference experiences of oppression and exploitation (be it specific local situations, layered colonial histories, or the global political economy) and translate racist violence into locally meaningful, some call them “cultural” idioms. The scholarly value of these interpretations of rumor notwithstanding, there was something else at stake as the young men waved us the corona bye-bye. One quarter century ago, we could displace their accusations by means of interpretation. These were not really about the tiny blood samples Wenzel collected for his doctoral thesis as a medical anthropologist seeking to contribute to peoples’ health, but expressed an awareness of historical and global exploitation. And his respectful and critical recognition of these covert meanings served to position himself as different from the colonial agents at whom the rumors were really targeted.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, the white man is actually the threat they make him out to be. He, or she, is more likely than others to carry the virus. Instead of washing his hands after visiting someone’s household, he should do so before greeting anyone. The COVID-19 epidemic has an inverted directionality. It runs against both a century-old colonial narrative of Africa as a diseased continent and millennial pandemic predictions of bushmeat-eating African villagers unleashing viral threats to the world.

Now, Europe is the pandemic epicenter, even though within Europe, the disease still follows well-worn tracks of racial and social inequality. Europeans, and the Kenyans close to them, bring it to Kenya, not Chinese builders and businesspeople as initially claimed (and who were the first to offer their help). The Kenyan president therefore prohibits European planes from landing and quarantines their crews. And urban, middle-class Kenyans carry the virus upcountry to forest and bush. On Kenyan TV, villagers urge their educated urban relations to stay in the city, as they threaten the lives of their elders if they come home to visit (or to shelter from draconian anti-epidemic measures).

Whites feature here as a threat in a direct, embodied way—not as mere symbols of historical violence or effigies of the global economic order. Their touch and breath can be lethal. And yet, the epidemic also reveals the same whites as terminally weak, challenging centuries-old assertions of enlightened mastery over humans and non-humans alike. Nigerian film producer Moses Inwang’s much-shared list of lessons from corona opens with “China won the 3rd world war without firing a missile,” followed by “Europeans are not as educated as they appear” (a similar point was made in The Lancet), and “rich people are less immune than the poor.” In other recent “African” epidemics—HIV and Ebola—the figure of the benevolent and potent white person still prevailed. Help flowed from north to south to stem an affliction perceived as originating in Africa. Now, this image is replaced by a combination of danger and impotence mutually enforcing each other, which evokes neither gratitude nor inferiority. One of the most recent anti-vaccination trial memes features a painting of an African woman wielding a knife below the face-mask of a white, male doctor, underscoring that “we’re different from our ancestors.”

Nairobi MP John Kiarie captures the paradox of residual power and infirmity in a tweet from March 28, which warns of harrowing COVID-19 death-tolls and calls for radical action. Before his climax, “Ignore and die!” he says:

Where does this leave the European anthropologists, who departed from Kenya on one of these last planes that arrived empty at night? Our traditional interpretation of local fears as (significant) rumors no longer offers redemption—we are what they address us as. Our knowledge about what happens is not superior, nor more effective than that of those who call us “Corona.” More importantly, our detached and benevolent claim to ethnographic participant observation, always from a position of privilege and relative security, is put into question at precisely the moment when true participation finally becomes inevitable.

Now it is us who “are participated” (as the old aid-worker joke went) by the pervasive virus that is in every touch—maybe in our body, maybe in that of the other. It challenges differentiation, threatening pathogenic communion. And the escape route that we had been able to count on for six decades of post-colonial anthropology is finally being withdrawn—the return flight home, in the worst case the medical evacuation at “unlimited expense.”

It was the Kenyan president’s ban on flights to Europe that gathered us all in the eerie silence of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, as we boarded the flight just before the midnight curfew deadline. We got away ok, on the last plane, and did not turn into pumpkins. But, we left with a sense of an ending brought about by coronavirus. As if some irreparable damage has been done to the position of the old white man of any age or gender, and it is not yet evident what new anthropological persona will emerge from it. It is “bye-bye Corona” indeed, and maybe it was time. And yet, we know that COVID-19 has not yet fully arrived in Kenya, along with the inevitable suffering that the epidemic and the anti-epidemic measures is likely to bring about.

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

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