Connect with us

Op-Eds

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.

Published

on

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

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
By

David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

Op-Eds

What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward

There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a buffoon. What happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way?

Published

on

What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward
Download PDFPrint Article

Consider something for a second: how severe could things have gotten, both in America and globally, if Trump weren’t an utter coward?

I can already hear the murmurs of dissent: “How can he be a coward? Trump just tried to overthrow the US government on live television!” Yes, that is entirely true — and yet he didn’t. The entire tenure of his administration seems to have been a series of near misses; flirting with dangerous ideas and flitting back under the umbrella of normalcy just before the precipice. Every disaster that he helped to foist on the world could have been exponentially worse — if only he had been as committed to being the strongman he always boasted to be.

He isn’t. He’s a little daddy’s boy, a frightened man-child who doesn’t have the courage to follow through on the bull he himself spouts in front of adoring supporters. He’s an entitled, rich, spoilt moron and always has been. For all the bluster, when the chips are down, he’s quick to back off. Remember that boastful kid in primary school who was probably dropped off in his family’s C-Class Mercedes and looked down on everyone within insulting distance? He’d puff himself up and spit on others, until one day someone slapped the hell out of him. Upon getting struck, and family power no longer mattering, it became apparent that he didn’t even know how to throw a punch. That’s Trump in a nutshell. But Trump was also the gleeful little sociopath who led the charge in starting a fire only to have it pointed out there could be consequences without Daddy around. Learning of possible repercussions, he was the type to throw others quickly under the bus and backtrack from his own fomented chaos.

To be clear, in the last year especially, Trump absolutely could have gone horrifyingly further than he did. Could you imagine if Trump, the wannabe little dictator that he is, had the convictions (terrible though they are) of a Museveni or an Uhuru? It was within his power to do so, but he kept pulling back. Take for instance the Black Lives Matter movement across the United States in the summer of 2020. Yes, there was horrible police violence, clashes amongst protesters, chaos and destitution. In the midst of all of those charred buildings and the all-pervasive sense of loss in Minneapolis (the city where George Floyd was executed by police), I had a feeling I could not quite shake off as masked marchers swarmed in the streets around me: couldn’t this have been so much worse? To be clear, there absolutely could have been martial law declared but all those Trumpian threats of militarising entire cities never fully materialised beyond a handful of arrests by unidentified officers of questionable loyalties.

Sure, all these things are a horror and an affront to “Western society”. We get it. But all things are relative in politics so imagine if Uhuru had been in Trump’s shoes. Kagame calling the shots. Museveni. What would have happened? Experience tells me that those ugly bruises and lost eyes from rubber bullets would have needed body bags; the amount of live ammunition used would have been innumerable, and the scale of the tragedy would have been of unheard of proportions. Ask a Kenyan university student how their protests tend to wind up; talk to a random Kampala youth about how things shook out a couple weeks after the presidential election. If you can manage to find one, talk to an opposition leader in Rwanda. If there are any brave enough to filter back into Burundi, ask anyone involved in the coup attempt against Nkurunziza a few years back. The point here isn’t to give undue credit to tyrants, but merely to point out that things can always be drastically worse.

What happened in November of 2020 in Kampala? Protests at the arrest of Bobi Wine were met with such utter brutality it was incredible that anyone would dare stick their head out. Officially 54 people were killed but there are claims that the real death toll is in fact far higher. Take the days after the Kenyan re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta back in 2017, when there seemed to be a sort of suspension of what was to come next as the election drama unfolded and the cops came down hard on Kawangware and Kibera. That’s what being a totalitarian looks like. It is cops firing on crowds, social media shutdowns and mass power cuts. Looking back years from now, the reality will prevail that Trump could easily have gone there but didn’t.

That is the essence of Trump, absolutely having the power to be a world-class dictator, but lacking the organisational skills, intelligence, or conviction to jump in all the way. He always dips his toe in at the deep end, but never dives. The waters of reality are always a bit too cold for him, the soup just a bit too hot for his liking. His legacy will be one of having half-assed it in all aspects of his administration, from fascism to COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. I don’t think that it is any real stretch to look at him and state plainly that he’s just too cowardly to really accomplish anything that he aspires to. While Sevo cranks out press-ups on state television, Trump has spent his time cranking out tweets in between bites of “quarter-pounder” cheeseburgers from the comfort of his own bed.

Of course, the Western media will not countenance such comparisons, let alone acknowledge how much worse the situation could have easily become at the US Capitol last January 6th. For the American media, this is (rightly) a major blow to US democracy, but (wrongly) the single worst thing that could have happened. For instance, what if just two more of the thousands of protesters had discharged the firearms they were carrying inside that crowded Capitol Building? What if the pipe bombs planted near the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee buildings had exploded? What if the mob had wedged its way into the chambers of the Senate and the House quickly enough to get their hands on members of congress? And what if Trump himself had not backed off and sent out a tepid message to his supporters at the 11th hour?

Think about this: in coup d’état terms, the Trump mob had pulled it off. They had taken the single most important government building in the US and had done so quite easily. Their flags were draped from balconies and their cronies were climbing the ramparts to continue streaming through the doors. They took the seat of government and, for a brief period during the process of transitioning power, successfully interrupted the proceedings and forced all the democratically elected members of congress to scurry into the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels below the Capitol Building to save their very lives. That is a coup. A successful one at that. For one committed to following through on his calls to overthrow the government, this would be a crowning achievement.

Picture this: if three years ago Raila Odinga had called on his supporters to storm State House, and they had successfully done so while Uhuru’s re-election  was being certified, forcing members of parliament to flee in their government-issue Prados, what would that be called? I know what the Western media would have said about it, that it is another sad story of a developing country in Africa that just could not get over the hump of real democracy. There probably would have been some backroom deals with international powers, and an intervention from all those British troops that hold the base up on Mount Kenya may not have been entirely out of the question. Perhaps Raila is the most eloquent example as he does have a bit of a track record of stirring up his supporters after controversial elections then backing down “for the sake of the country” after chaos has already erupted.

The coup was complete but Trump pulled out of it quicker than from his marriage to a wife turning 40. Why? Could it be that it is only when his advisors managed to get his ear during cable news commercial breaks that he realised that he might drown in the madness? I for one certainly think so. When he realised that there would be consequences for his little civil war charade, Trump felt what he always feels — fear. Trump didn’t realise there could be ramifications for what he was doing until someone (not named Mike Pence) put the fear deep into him. He backed off, and American democracy continues shakily on into an uncertain future

Now there actually might be consequences — legal ones at that. Banks are cutting ties and media partnerships are being snuffed out in rapid succession. Some Republicans are now actively jumping ship, others have deflected blame or finally acknowledged that there is a central symptom to the American political condition. It is too little, too late of course, and the task of getting Americans locked in a tribal political death embrace to try not to strangle each other is now firmly in the hands of centrist Democrats who may not actually follow through on the massive economic recovery needed for the citizens of the US to survive the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic disaster. Is the US still the preeminent superpower as the Trump administration takes the exit? Yes, unfortunately it is. Imperialism is still alive and well, and frankly could have weighed way more heavily on the global community over the last four years.

A lingering question remains, one that hangs like a suspended piano over the heads of the Democratic establishment: what or who will come along next? It is obvious that the cat has been let out of the dark ethers of conservatism for a while now; just how much has that cohort been emboldened? It is a question that I have asked before, but now as flags were draped on the smoldering fences that were brought down around the US Capitol, the core of the issue remains; what happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way? There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a showman; he evoked something amongst a huge swath of the public consciousness, only for it to prove illusory for Trump never understood what he had within his grasp in the first place.

Whoever comes next might just push the boundaries further out, might commit to striking Iran, take concentration camps for immigrants to a greater extreme, declare martial law and put armed troops in the streets with a standing “shoot to kill” order. Someone who might take measures to outlaw efforts to combat global warming and do all of this without batting an eyelid or seeing any reason to back down. The part of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic wasn’t what was visible, but the larger mass just below the surface and out of sight. To put it bluntly, next time the United States might not be pulled back from the brink by cowardice.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Published

on

What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive
Download PDFPrint Article

The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Uganda: Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

Published

on

Uganda: Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others
Download PDFPrint Article

Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

Continue Reading

Trending