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China’s Debt Imperialism: The Art of War by Other Means?

9 min read. The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious attempt to create a global infrastructure corridor spanning 65 countries and connecting 60 percent of the world’s population, is the biggest imperial coming-out party in modern history. Not by armed conquest but by a strategy of debt-financed diplomacy, from Sri Lanka to Montenegro, from Islamabad to Mombasa, China is deploying its $3.2 trillion credit surplus to establish a 21st century Oriental Empire, impoverishing entire continents through the allure of roads, railways and bridges. DAVID NDII conducts a global cost-benefit analysis.

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China’s Debt Imperialism: The Art of War by Other Means?
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Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without fighting, captures their cities without laying siege, he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.” ~Sun Tzu

Colombo. On June 8, Fly Dubai’s last flight departed from Sri Lanka’s spanking new Mattala Rajapaska International Airport. It was the only airline flying there. Sri Lanka’s national airline stopped flying there in 2015. The “world’s emptiest airport” as its been known since it opened in 2013, is now officially a lily white elephant. The airport is a stone’s throw from Habantota, the world’s emptiest sea port that has made Sri Lanka the poster child of China’s predatory lending. The two are the largest of a slew of ill-fated mega-infrastructure projects that were supposed to transform Habantota, which happens to be the home town of former President Mahinda Rajapaska (for whom the airport is named, or rather, who named it for himself), into Sri Lanka’s second city.

It has not quite worked out that way. Rajapaska lost elections in 2015 in a cloud of corruption scandals, after a decade in power during which he buried Sri Lanka in a mountain of Chinese debt. After weighing its options the successor government ceded the Habantota port to China in exchange of a partial debt write-off. It has not helped. Sri Lanka is still caught in China’s debt trap. Last year, it turned to the IMF for a bailout. This year, Sri Lanka is looking to raise US$ 1.25 billion from China to keep up with its debt repayments.

Podgorica If you are an imperialist looking for a European client state, you could not do better than Montenegro. It is small (population: 620,000; GDP US$4 billion), vulnerable, and in a most strategic location on the Adriatic coast. Its hinterland includes Serbia and Hungary, both landlocked, as well as the Black Sea countries (Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine) whose access to the sea, the Bosphorous, is controlled by Turkey.

Montenegro has been mulling a grand motorway from its port city of Bar to Boljare on the Serbian border for a long time, a distance of only 165 kilometres, but the country is extremely rugged, making the cost prohibitive. Two feasibility studies done in 2006 and 2012 for the Montenegro government and the European Investment Bank concluded that the highway was not economically viable. Then China came along.

The first 41 kilometres of the highway, built with an EUR 800 million Chinese loan, has nearly bankrupted Montenegro, forcing the government to raise taxes, freeze public wages and cut welfare spending. Borrowing close to 20 percent of GDP to build a quarter of a road is unwise. Unable to proceed, Montenegro has signed an MOU with the Chinese contractor to complete and operate it as a toll road on undisclosed terms. The fear now is that the Chinese have extracted onerous revenue guarantees. The contractor is none other than the state owned corruption scandal prone China Road and Bridge Company, the builder and operator of Kenya’s new standard gauge railway.

Montenegro has been mulling a grand motorway from its port city of Bar to Boljare on the Serbian border for a long time, a distance of only 165 kilometres…Two feasibility studies done in 2006 and 2012 for the Montenegro government and the European Investment Bank concluded that the highway was not economically viable. Then China came along. The first 41 kilometres of the highway, built with an EUR 800 million Chinese loan, has nearly bankrupted Montenegro, forcing the government to raise taxes, freeze public wages and cut welfare spending. Borrowing close to 20 percent of GDP to build a quarter of a road is unwise.

Islamabad. Pakistan sits between China and the Persian Gulf. When China buys oil from the Middle East and Africa, it has to be shipped 6000 kilometres round India, through the Straits of Malacca to the South China Sea. The Malacca Dilemma refers to China’s vulnerability to a potential trade blockade on this narrow sliver of ocean between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Enter CPEC. CPEC stands for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Billed as a crown jewel of the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC is an ambitious and costly modernization of Pakistan’s infrastructure centred on a transport corridor linking China’s “landlocked” hinterland to Pakistan’s Arabian sea port of Gwadar. The corridor cuts the distance of China’s western border to the sea by half, from four to two thousand kilometres. China has already taken control of the Gwadar port on a 40-year lease and is building an airport and industrial parks— effectively making it a Chinese enclave inside Pakistan. Costed at US$40 billion when it was launched in 2013, CPEC’s price tag has escalated to US$ 62 billion.

Four years on, Pakistan is in deep financial trouble. The CPEC projects are bleeding the country and destabilizing the economy. In addition to CPEC debt, Pakistan is now living on a Chinese financial lifeline —US$5 billion so far — to stave off a foreign exchange crisis. A succession of devaluations have failed to stem the tide, and foreign reserves are now down to less than two months requirements. Pakistan is now caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea: to go for an IMF bailout or to settle into becoming a Chinese client state. An IMF bailout would put pressure on Pakistan to scale down CPEC and expose the secretive financing to western scrutiny.

CPEC stands for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Billed as a crown jewel of the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC is an ambitious and costly modernization of Pakistan’s infrastructure centred on a transport corridor linking China’s “landlocked” hinterland to Pakistan’s Arabian sea port of Gwadar, cutting the distance of China’s western border to the sea from four to two thousand kilometres. China has already taken control of the Gwadar port on a 40-year lease and is building an airport and industrial parks— effectively making it a Chinese enclave inside Pakistan. Costed at US$40 billion when it was launched in 2013, the price tag has escalated to US$ 62 billion. Four years on, Pakistan is in deep financial trouble.

What is China up to?

There are two readily apparent economic objectives that China could be pursuing, one immediate, and one longer term.

The immediate objective is investment diversification. China is sitting on US$ 3.2 trillion of foreign reserves accumulated from its trade surpluses with the rest of the world, more than those of the next four countries combined (Japan $1.27 trillion, Switzerland $740 bn, Saudi Arabia $900 bn, Russia $460 bn). Most of this money is held in safe but low yielding American and European government securities, with just over a third (US$ 1.2 trillion) in US government securities. Analysts estimate that another one third is held in other US dollar-denominated securities.

The longer term objective is sustaining its economic rise. China’s economy may be the world’s biggest but it is still a middle-income country, with an average income of less than a fifth of Singapore. One of the big questions out there is whether China will escape the “middle income trap”. The middle income trap is the observation that while many countries easily transition from poor to middle income status, only a few managed to transition from middle to high income. Of 103 countries that were middle income in 1960, according to an analysis by the World Bank, only 13 had transitioned to high income status by 2008, almost fifty years later.

China is sitting on US$ 3.2 trillion of foreign reserves accumulated from its trade surpluses with the rest of the world, more than those of the next four countries combined. Most of this money is held in safe but low yielding American and European government securities…Returns on these have been pretty dismal since the global financial crisis. But outside these markets there aren’t many assets that can absorb money on this scale. The BRI can thus be seen as a strategy by China to create such assets.

China has followed the export-led industrialization model of Japan and the Asian Tiger economies. This model will soon run its course. China’s average manufacturing wage has increased three-fold in dollar terms over the last decade, and is now on a par with the poorer former communist eastern European countries. To make the transition will require China to move up the product value chain, or as a recent paper by investment bank UBS put it, from “made in” to “created in” China. This will entail moving its factories abroad, some closer to markets, some to low-wage locations. Some of the BRI initiatives do seem to be gearing up for this. CPEC is an obvious case. China’s Great Wall company has a manufacturing plant in Bulgaria, which is in the hinterland of the Montenegro motorway.

It still begs the question why it needs to roll out the biggest building project since the Great Wall of China. Japan and the other Asian Tigers did not have to. And the BRI’s scale and aggression defies these rational economic objectives. If it goes to plan, it will span 65 countries, accounting for 60 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of global economic output, and cost between four and eight trillion dollars That is not economics. It is empire building. It is not inconceivable that China is operating on a nineteenth century imperialism blueprint. Indeed, the Belt and Road Initiative graphics that litter the internet conjure images of Chinese power men around a world map sticking pins on strategic targets.

It is off to a rough start. Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia’s comeback prime minister has cancelled three big BRI projects worth $22 billion signed by his predecessor, who is now facing corruption charges. He says he is trying to save Malaysia from bankruptcy. Even Burma’s steely generals have got cold feet. They have cancelled a port project citing fears that it could end up like Sri Lanka’s Habantota. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister of Tonga, rallying fellow South Pacific Island nations to negotiate debt forgiveness with China, expressed his fears that China could seize strategic assets.“If it happens in Sri Lanka, it can happen in the Pacific.”

Habantota is turning out to be a strategic blunder.

Did China actually set out to trap countries into debt or has the Belt and Road Initiative gone awry? It is conceivable that China is unfazed by the political blowback. Folklore has it that the Chinese take a very long term view of things. But it is more likely that China did not anticipate the blowback.

China seems to have underrated the vulnerability of its would-be client states to the vagaries of global capitalism and overrated the grip of the regimes that it is corrupting on power. China will not be the first great power to do this. The USA has been muscling and blundering its way, wreaking havoc around the world by conflating its interests and political values for the better part of a century.

Did China actually set out to trap countries into debt or has the Belt and Road Initiative gone awry? […]China seems to have underrated the vulnerability of its would-be client states to the vagaries of global capitalism, and overrated the grip on power of the regimes that it is corrupting. China will not be the first great power to do this.

The real Achilles heel of the debt traps is that China has little recourse should any of its distressed debtors default. Western lenders can and often take concerted action on defaulters (a la Greece and “the troika”), but China is a lone ranger.

In China, economic illiteracy on this scale is not without precedent. Sixty years ago, Chairman Mao had the brilliant idea that industrialization could be drilled down to producing copious amounts of grain and steel. The government set a target of doubling steel production within a year and overtaking Britain’s production in 15 years. China’s peasant farmers were herded into communes. Villagers were forced to set up backyard furnaces. Pots, pans and other metal possessions were seized and melted up to meet production quotas. Trees were decimated and even furniture burned to fuel the furnaces. The Great Leap Forward, history’s most monumental political blunder, cost between 20 and 40 million lives.

It is noteworthy that Kenya is the BRI’s only touchpoint on the African continent.

Kenya’s SGR, Uhuru Kenyatta’s erstwhile legacy project, has turned out to be the bugbear that this columnist among others warned that it would be. Its freight capacity is a third of what was promised, and it cannot be competitive without a hefty public subsidy. Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration has increased Kenya’s foreign debt two and a half fold, from US$9 billion to US$25 billion. The railway alone accounts for a third of this increase; another third is by sovereign bonds for which the country has nothing to show.

Public debt service now stands at KSh 860 billion (US$ 8.6 billion), a staggering 72 percent of the last financial year’s tax receipts. The question that is frequently asked now is whether, if Kenya cannot pay, the Chinese will take over the port of Mombasa. Word on the streets of Mombasa is that the port was pledged as security for the railway loans. In a manner of speaking, they already have. The Chinese have a concession to run the railway until 2027. That includes a take-or-pay freight assignment contract, which is to say, the Kenya Ports Authority, the port operator, has to meet the railway’s freight target or pay the railway for the unused capacity. In effect, the port is working for the railway.

The question that is frequently asked now is whether, if Kenya cannot pay, the Chinese will take over the port of Mombasa. Word on the streets of Mombasa is that the port was pledged as security for the railway loans. In a manner of speaking, they already have.

“It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, ” said Charles Elliot, the Kenya Protectorate commissioner who oversaw the construction of the Uganda railway. “But it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.” Almost 120 years later, after it emerged that Kenyan workers are routinely subjected to physical punishment by Chinese, following which the Chinese ambassador dismissed this as Chinese culture, Kenyans are wondering whether the railway heralds a new age of Oriental colonialism. On this, my take is that China and Kenya’s political class have bitten off more than they can chew.

Seeing senior public officials grovelling and making excuses for these Chinese excesses gives perspective to history, from the chiefs who sold their people into slavery to those who signed away their lands to European imperialists for blankets and booze. We get it.

Related Links

Letter by US Senators to US Government on IMF China Belt and Road Initiative

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

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South Africa: Xenophobia Is in Fact Afrophobia, Call It What It Is

5 min read. Anti-African violence in South Africa is fuelled by exclusion, poverty and rampant unemployment. This isn’t black-on-black violence. This is poor-on-poor violence.

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South Africa: Xenophobia Is in Fact Afrophobia, Call It What It Is
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Written in May 2008, as African bodies burned on the streets of South Africa, Ingrid De Kok’s throbbing poem Today I Do Not Love My Country poignantly captures the mood of an Afrophobic nation fluent in the language of violence and name-calling.  (I say Afrophobic because South Africa does not have a xenophobia problem. We don’t rage against all foreigners—just the poor, black ones from Africa.)

The irony of South Africa’s most recent attacks on African immigrants is that they happened in the wake of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which positions the country as an economic gateway to the continent. As the debris is cleared off the streets of Johannesburg after a week of violent looting and attacks against African migrant-owned businesses that saw eleven people killed and almost 500 arrested, Pretoria now faces calls to boycott South African-owned businesses on the continent.

Zambia and Madagascar cancelled football matches. Air Tanzania has suspended flights to South Africa. African artists are boycotting South Africa. Should an Afrophobic South Africa lead the African Union next year?

The irony of South Africa’s most recent attacks on African immigrants is that they happened in the wake of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which positions the country as an economic gateway to the continent

The South African government has remained steadfast in its denial of Afrophobia, opting instead to condemn “violent attacks” and highlight the criminal elements involved in looting African-owned businesses. The police attributed the attacks to “opportunistic criminality”. By denying that these are Afrophobic attacks, everyone can deny the role of South Africa’s political leadership in fomenting the hatred.

The Afrophobic attacks are not spontaneous criminal mobs preying on foreigners. They are the result of an orchestrated, planned campaign that has been fuelled by the ongoing anti-immigrant rhetoric of South African politicians.

The All Truck Drivers Forum (ATDF), Sisonke People’s Forum and Respect SA stand accused of orchestrating last week’s violence. ATDF spokesperson, Sipho Zungu, denied that his group had instigated the violent looting, saying that “the nation is being misled here.” Zungu did stress, however, that South African truck drivers “no longer have jobs” and the government “must get rid of foreign truck drivers.”

Zungu echoes the sentiments of many poor South Africans, and their views are the end result of a drip-feed of anti-immigrant messages from South African politicians, particularly in the run-up to this year’s elections.

Anti-African violence in South Africa is fuelled by exclusion, poverty and rampant unemployment. This isn’t black-on-black violence. This is poor-on-poor violence.

One-third of South Africans are unemployed. Thirteen per cent of South Africans live in informal settlements, and a third of South Africans don’t have access to running water. The problems are a combination of the country’s apartheid past and rampant corruption and mismanagement within the ANC-led government. Crime is climbing, mainly due to corrupt and dysfunctional policing services, high unemployment and systemic poverty.

By denying that these are Afrophobic attacks, everyone can deny the role of South Africa’s political leadership in fomenting the hatred.

South African politicians from across the spectrum have blamed immigrants for the hardships experienced by poor South Africans. Political parties tell voters that foreigners are criminals flooding South Africa, stealing their jobs, homes and social services, undermining their security and prosperity.

Even the government sees poor and unskilled African migrants and asylum seekers as a threat to the country’s security and prosperity. Approved in March 2017, its White Paper on International Migration, separates immigrants into “worthy” and “unworthy” individuals. Poor and unskilled immigrants, predominantly from Africa, will be prevented from staying in South Africa by any means, “even if this is labelled anti-African behaviour” as the former Minister of Home Affairs, Hlengiwe Mkhize, pointed out in June 2017. The message is simple: there is no place for black Africans in South Africa’s Rainbow Nation.

In November 2018, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi claimed in a speech at a nurses summit that undocumented immigrants were flooding South Africa and overburdening clinics and hospitals. When immigrants “get admitted in large numbers, they cause overcrowding, infection control starts failing”, he said.

Johannesburg—the epicentre of the anti-African violence—is run by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the second-largest political party in South Africa after the ruling African National Congress (ANC). DA mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been leading the war against African immigrants.

In a bid to attract more support, Mashaba and the DA have adopted an immigrant-baiting approach straight out of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro’s playbooks.

Mashaba has described black African migrants as criminals and has spoken of the need for a “shock-and-awe” campaign to drive them out.

In February 2019, Mashaba diverted attention away from protests against his administration’s poor service delivery in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township by tweeting that foreigners had made it difficult to provide basic services.

On August 1, police operations in Johannesburg to find counterfeit goods were thwarted by traders who pelted law-enforcement authorities with rocks, forcing the police to retreat. Social media went into overdrive, with many accusing the police of being cowards running away from illegal immigrants. Mashaba was “devastated” by the police’s restraint. A week later over 500 African immigrants were arrested after a humiliating raid, even though many said they showed police valid papers.

In 2017, South Africa’s deputy police minister claimed that the city of Johannesburg had been taken over by foreigners, with 80% of the city controlled by them. If this is not urgently stopped, he added, the entire country “could be 80% dominated by foreign nationals and the future president of South Africa could be a foreign national.”

None of this anti-immigrant rhetoric is based on fact. Constituting just 3% of the South African population, statistics show that immigrants are not “flooding” South Africa. They aren’t stealing jobs from South Africans and nor are they responsible for the high crime rate. South Africa’s crime problem has little to do with migration, and everything to do with the country’s dysfunctional policing services, unemployment and poverty.

Johannesburg—the epicentre of the anti-African violence—is run by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the second-largest political party in South Africa after the ruling African National Congress (ANC). DA mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been leading the war against African immigrants.

But South African politicians don’t let facts get in the way.  After all, it’s easier to blame African immigrants rather than face your own citizens and admit that you’ve chosen to line your own pockets instead of doing your job. If you can get others to shoulder the blame for the hopeless situation that many South Africans find themselves in, then why not?

South Africans are rightfully angry at the high levels of unemployment, poverty, lack of services and opportunities. But rather than blame African immigrants, frustration must be directed at the source of the crisis: a South African political leadership steeped in corruption that has largely failed its people.

The African Diaspora Forum, the representative body of the largest group of migrant traders, claimed that the police failed to act on intelligence that it had provided warning of the impending attacks. It took almost three days before Cyril Ramaphosa finally issued weak words of condemnation and for his security cluster to meet and strategise.  All of this points to a government refusing to own its complicity and deal with the consequences of its words.

South Africa has fallen far and hard from the lofty Mandela era and Thabo Mbeki’s soaring “I am an African” declaration.

Senior political leaders in South Africa are blaming vulnerable Africans for their failure to adequately provide a dignified life for all South Africans. Until this scapegoating stops, violent anti-African sentiment will continue to thrive, and South Africa will entrench its growing pariah status on the continent.

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A New Despotism in the Era of Surveillance Capitalism: A Reflection on Census 2019

6 min read. In the creeping securocratisation of every sphere of the State, the incessant threats and arbitrary orders, the renewed quest for that elusive all-encompassing kipande, and even the arbitrary assignment of identity on citizens, Montesquieu would see a marked deficiency of love for virtue, the requisite principle for a democratic republic.

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A New Despotism in the Era of Surveillance Capitalism: A Reflection on Census 2019
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The just concluded census 2019 brought with it many strange occurrences including the official classification of my good friend Rasna Warah as a Mtaita, a community to which she is only very remotely connected by virtue of being married to a husband whose mother is a Mtaveta. The Taita and Taveta, who give their home county Taita-Taveta its name, are two related but distinct ethnic groups. Rasna’s ethnicity is unambiguous, she is a Kenyan Asian, which should be one of the ethnicities available on the census questionnaire.

In standard statistical practice, people’s racial and ethnic identity are self-declared and the identity questions usually have options such as “other” and “mixed” as well as the choice not to disclose. But Rasna was not given a choice, as she recounts here. While this may seem like a trivial matter, the undercurrents of racism and patriarchy in this action are disturbing. It is, I think, even more alarming that the enumerators, given a little authority, felt that they had the power to exercise discretion on the matter.

Past censuses have been rather uneventful statistical exercises. This one had the aura of a security operation. In the run-up, we were treated to all manner of threats and arbitrary orders from the Internal Security Cabinet Secretary, the Jubilee administration’s energetic and increasingly facile enforcer. On the eve of the census, the government spokesman added to the melodrama by issuing a statement informing the public that census enumerators would be asking for personal identification details, including national ID and passport numbers and, ominously, huduma namba registration status. There are few issues as controversial right now as huduma namba and to introduce that question was a sure way of heightening suspicion and undermining the credibility of the census.

More fundamentally, anonymity is a canon of statistical survey work. In fact, the law prohibits dissemination of any information which can be identified with a particular respondent without the respondent’s consent. For this reason, censuses and statistical surveys are usually designed and the data maintained in such a way as to ensure that the respondents remain anonymous.

In October last year, the Government gazetted the census regulations that include a schedule of the information that would be collected. Identity information is not listed in the schedule. In January this year, the Keya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) issued a media briefing, still on their website, that also listed the information that would be collected. It too does not mention identity information. That it was the Government spokesman—and not the KNBS—who appraised the public, and only on the eve of the census, is telling.

The response to the protestations that met the disclosure was vintage Jubilee—dishonest and inept. The spokesman explained that the personal identity information would be removed to restore the anonymity of the data. If indeed the purpose was to establish registration coverage, the professional statisticians would have asked respondents to state their registration status. Moreover, for planning purposes, professional statisticians would have designed a comprehensive module that would have included other critical information such as birth registration status.

The draconian zeal with which huduma namba is being pursued—including the proposed legislation—is all the more perplexing because, since all the functions listed are those that are currently served by the national ID, the sensible thing to do would be to upgrade the national ID. Seeing as we have already had three national ID upgrades since independence, it seems to me unlikely that a fourth upgrade would have generated the heat that the huduma namba has.

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu classified political systems into three categories, namely republican, monarchical and despotic. He defined a republican system as characterised by citizenship rights. A republican system is democratic if political equality is universal, and aristocratic if the rights are a privilege that is denied to some members (e.g. slaves). In monarchical systems, the rulers have absolute authority governed by established rules. In a despotic system, the ruler is the law.

Montesquieu postulated for each system a driving principle, ethos if you like, on which its survival depends. The driving principle of a democratic republic is love of virtue— a willingness to put the public good ahead of private interests. He opined that a republican government failed to take root in England after the Civil War (1642-1651) because English society lacked the required principle, namely the love of virtue. The short-lived English republic, known as the Commonwealth of England, lasted a decade, from the beheading of Charles I in 1649 to shortly after the death Oliver Cromwell in 1659. The driving principle of monarchical systems is love of honour and the quest for higher social rank and privilege. For despotism it is fear of the ruler. The rulers are the law, and they rule by fear.

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu classified political systems into three categories, namely republican, monarchical and despotic. He defined a republican system as characterised by citizenship rights.

Identity documents are a key element of the apparatus of despotism. Our own identity card has its origins in the colonial kipande (passbook). As Juliet Atellah narrates in Toa Kitambulisho! Evolution of Registration of Persons in Kenya,

“The Kipande was worn around the neck like a dog collar. The Kipande contained the wearer’s tribe, their strengths and weaknesses and comments from his employer on his competence, therefore, determining his pay or whether or not he would be employed. The government used the Kipande to curtail freedom of Africans and monitor labour supply. It also empowered the police to stop a native anywhere and demand to be shown the document. For Africans, the Kipande was like a badge of slavery and sparked bitter protests.”

In essence, the kipande was a surveillance tool for an indentured labour system which enabled the settler economy to suppress wages. But it was not perfect. Keren Weitzberg, a migration scholar and author of We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the Predicaments of Belonging in Kenya, makes an interesting and insightful contextual link between huduma namba and the colonial quest to better the kipande revealed in a recommendation that appears in a 1956 government document:

“Consideration should be given to the provision of a comprehensive document for Africans, as is done in the Union of South Africa and the Belgian Congo. This should incorporate Registration particulars, payment of Poll Tax, and such other papers as the African is required to carry or are envisaged for him, e.g. Domestic Service record and permit to reside in urban areas. Eligibility under the Coutts proposals for voting might also be included in the document. The document would then become of value to the holder and there would be less likelihood of its becoming lost or transferred, as is the case with the present Identity document.” 

The purpose of the huduma namba is the same as that of the “comprehensive document for Africans”—to instill in people the sense that Big Brother is watching. But despotism is not an end in itself. The raison d’être of the colonial enterprise was economic exploitation. This has not changed.

The 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics was shared by George Akerlof, Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz for their analysis of markets with asymmetric information. A market with asymmetric information is one where material attributes of a good or service are private information known only to the seller and not observable by the buyer; the seller has an incentive to conceal the attributes. In essence, it is a market where the buyer cannot be sure that they will get what they pay for. Asymmetric information problems are pervasive in labour and credit markets.

Identity documents are a key element of the apparatus of despotism. Our own identity card has its origins in the colonial kipande (passbook). As Juliet Atellah narrates in Toa Kitambulisho! Evolution of Registration of Persons in Kenya

A potential employer cannot tell in advance whether a worker is a performer or not, or even whether he or she is dishonest—they only get to know that after hiring the worker, and at considerable cost if they get it wrong. We know that job seekers go out of their way to misrepresent themselves, including faking qualifications and references, and concealing adverse information such as previous dismissals and criminal records. To mitigate the problem, employers go out of their way to obtain and check out references including certificates of good conduct from the police.

The original kipande, as Atellah notes, included information on the bearers “strengths and weaknesses and comments from his employer on his competence.” It does not require too much imagination to see how errant natives would have made for a severe labour market information asymmetry problem, motivating the settler economy to invent this seemingly innocuous but probably effective labour market information system.

Similarly, a potential borrower’s creditworthiness is not observable to lenders. Lenders only get to sort out good and bad borrowers from experience. A customer’s credit history is a lender’s most valuable asset. A public credit reference system, such as the Credit Reference Bureaus, is a device for mitigating credit market information asymmetry. The parallel with the kipande character reference is readily apparent.

In essence, the kipande was a surveillance tool for an indentured labour system which enabled the settler economy to suppress wages.

As a credit information system, the digital panopticon envisaged by huduma namba is priceless, and as one of the country’s leading mobile lenders, the Kenyatta family-owned Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) is the primary beneficiary. Indeed, well before the public was informed about it, huduma namba featured prominently in a CBA-led mobile lending platform project called Wezeshafeatured in this column—that was subsequently rebranded and launched as Stawi.

Nine years ago this week, we promulgated a new constitution. Since its enactment the political and bureaucratic establishment has spared no effort to restore the unfettered discretion and apparatus of rule by fear that the new constitutional dispensation is meant to dismantle. Early in its term, the Jubilee administration sought to pass a raft of security-related legislation that would have clawed back most of the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Uhuru Kenyatta is on record, in one of the pre-election TV interviews, attributing his underwhelming performance to the constraints on his authority by the 2010 Constitution. He went on to express nostalgia for the old one.

In the creeping securocratisation of every sphere of the State, the incessant threats and arbitrary orders, the renewed quest for that elusive all-encompassing kipande, and even the arbitrary assignment of identity on citizens, Montesquieu would see a marked deficiency of love for virtue, the requisite principle for a democratic republic.

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Africa and Palestine: A Noble Legacy That Must Never Be Forgotten

4 min read. Today’s generation of African leaders should not deviate from that the solidarity between Africa and Palestine. Indeed, writes RAMZY BAROUD If they betray it, they betray themselves, along with the righteous struggles of their own peoples.

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Africa and Palestine: A Noble Legacy That Must Never Be Forgotten
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Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” began in earnest in 1881 but never ended. The attempt at dominating the continent using old and new strategies continues to define the Western relationship with this rich continent. This reality was very apparent when I arrived in Nairobi on June 23. Although I had come to address various Kenyan audiences at universities, public forums and the media, I had also to learn. Kenya, like the rest of Africa, is a source of inspiration for all anti-colonial liberation movements around the world. We Palestinians can learn a great deal from the Kenyan struggle.

Although African countries have fought valiant battles for their freedom against their Western colonisers, neocolonialism now defines the relationship between many independent African countries and their former occupiers. Political meddling, economic control and, at times, military interventions – as in the recent cases of Libya and Mali – point to the unfortunate reality that Africa remains, in myriad ways, hostage to Western priorities, interests and dictates.

In the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884, Western colonial regimes attempted to mediate between the various powers that were competing over Africa’s riches. It apportioned to each a share of the African continent, as if Africa were the property of the West and its white colonists. Millions of Africans died in that protracted, bloody episode unleashed by the West, which shamelessly promoted its genocidal oppression as a civilisational project.

Like most colonised peoples in the southern hemisphere, Africans fought disproportionate battles to gain their precious freedom. Here in Kenya, which became an official British colony in the 1920s, Kenya’s freedom fighters rose in rebellion against the brutality of their oppressors. Most notable among the various resistance campaigns, the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s remains a stark example of the courage of Kenyans and the cruelty of colonial Britain. Thousands of people were killed, wounded, disappeared or were imprisoned under the harshest of conditions.

Palestine fell under British occupation, the so-called British Mandate, around the same period that Kenya also became a British colony. Palestinians, too, fought and fell in their thousands as they employed various methods of collective resistance, including the legendary strike and rebellion of 1936. The same British killing machine that operated in Palestine and Kenya around that time, also operated, with the same degree of senseless violence, against numerous other nations around the world.

While Palestine was handed over to the Zionist movement to establish the state of Israel in May 1948, Kenya achieved its independence in December 1963.

At one of my recent talks in Nairobi, I was asked by a young participant about “Palestinian terrorism”. I told her that Palestinian fighters of today are Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of yesteryear. That if we allow Western and Israeli propaganda to define Paestine’s national liberation discourse, then we condemn all national liberation movements throughout the southern hemisphere, including Kenya’s own freedom fighters.

We Palestinians must however shoulder part of the blame that our narrative as an oppressed, colonised and resisting nation is now misunderstood in parts of Africa.

When the Palestine Liberation Organisation committed its historical blunder by signing off Palestinian rights in Oslo in 1993, it abandoned a decades-long Palestinian discourse of resistance and liberation. Instead, it subscribed to a whole new discourse, riddled with carefully-worded language sanctioned by Washington and its European allies. Whenever Palestinians dared to deviate from their assigned role, the West would decree that they must return to the negotiating table, as the latter became a metaphor of obedience and submission.

Throughout these years, Palestinians mostly abandoned their far more meaningful alliances in Africa. Instead, they endlessly appealed to the goodwill of the West, hoping that the very colonial powers that have primarily created, sustained and armed Israel, would miraculously become more balanced and humane.

When the Palestine Liberation Organisation committed its historical blunder by signing off Palestinian rights in Oslo in 1993, it abandoned a decades-long Palestinian discourse of resistance and liberation.

However, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, etc., remained committed to Israel and, despite occasional polite criticism of the Israeli government, continued to channel their weapons, warplanes and submarines to every Israeli government that has ruled over Palestinians for the last seven decades. Alas, while Palestinians were learning their painful lesson, betrayed repeatedly by those who had vowed to respect democracy and human rights, many African nations began seeing in Israel a possible ally. Kenya is, sadly, one of those countries.

Understanding the significance of Africa in terms of its economic and political potential, and its support for Israel at the UN General Assembly, right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched his own “Scramble for Africa”. Netanyahu’s diplomatic conquests on the continent have been celebrated by Israeli media as “historic”, while the Palestinian leadership remains oblivious to the rapidly changing political landscape.

Kenya is one of Israel’s success stories. In November 2017, Netanyahu attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Netanyahu was seen embracing Kenyatta as a dear friend and ally even as Kenyans rose in rebellion against their corrupt ruling classes. Tel Aviv had hoped that the first-ever Israel-Africa summit in Togo would usher in a complete paradigm shift in Israeli-African relations. However, the October 2017 conference never took place due to pressure by various African countries, including South Africa. There is still enough support for Palestine on the continent to defeat the Israeli stratagem. But that could change soon in favour of Israel if Palestinians and their allies do not wake up to the alarming reality.

The Palestinian leadership, intellectuals, artists and civil society ambassadors must shift their attention back to the southern hemisphere, to Africa in particular, rediscovering the untapped wealth of true, unconditional human solidarity offered by the peoples of this ever-generous continent.

Kenya is one of Israel’s success stories. In November 2017, Netanyahu attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Netanyahu was seen embracing Kenyatta as a dear friend and ally even as Kenyans rose in rebellion against their corrupt ruling classes

The legendary Tanzanian freedom fighter, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who is also celebrated in Kenya, knew very well where his solidarity lay. “We have never hesitated in our support for the right of the people of Palestine to have their own land,” he once said, a sentiment that was repeated by the iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela, and by many other African liberation leaders. Today’s generation of African leaders should not deviate from that noble legacy. If they betray it, they betray themselves, along with the righteous struggles of their own peoples.

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