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Jubinomics and Kenya’s Debt Crisis: A Private Sector View

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Five years ago, the Jubilee administration embarked on a dangerous economic course of deficit financing, profligate spending and punitive taxation. Legitimate government suppliers in the private sector were crowded out in favour of tenderpreneurs and briefcase companies. Mysteriously, government agencies with expanded budgets were unable to pay suppliers. The result today: banks are staring at ballooning non-performing loans, tax revenues have fallen steeply and the private sector is dying a slow, painful death. By P. GITAU GITHONGO.

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The March 9, 2018 handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, silenced many of the critical voices accusing the Jubilee coalition of divisive politics, ethnic bigotry and the disenfranchisement of at least half of Kenya’s population.  In fact, for a brief moment it seemed that the bitter grievances of the disputed August 2017 election, the acrimonious exchanges between political rivals, the threats to the judiciary, the unsolved murder of IEBC’s Chris Msando, and the police killings in the post-election crisis, had been forgotten following the very-closed-door meetings between Uhuru and Raila. As a writer with the Daily Nation gushingly wrote a week later: ‘In the name of that handshake, the shilling has stabilised overnight with the outlook by players in tourism already promising what some experts have christened as the ‘peace dividend’ after an inordinately protracted electioneering period. The stock market is also recovering’. Despite the ceasefire of the handshake, its promised benefits have not cleared the dark clouds hanging over the Kenyan economy, which is now headed into serious difficulties. In fact, at a practical level there appears to be no change in the way the national government runs its day-to-day affairs.

Since coming to power in 2013, the Jubilee administration has been dogged by accusations of profligacy and patronage – most notably in the award of tenders. Policy-making, with senior public officials apparently motivated more by personal interests than by public service, and even outright nepotism and tribalism, spurious contracting in the implementation of policy initiatives in the key sectors of health, agriculture and infrastructure.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Jubilee administration has also presided over a massive debt-fuelled increase in annual public spending – KSh 1.2 Trillion to over KSh 2.5 Trillion in 6 years, complemented by a budget deficit approaching Ksh 750 billion (see Table 1). Notably, this growth in spending is at a rate beyond the GDP growth rate and, as far as many critics are concerned, has been partly motivated by the need to accommodate corrupt patronage practices. Spending on infrastructure programmes in particular, seamlessly lends itself to patronage and has been a dominant feature of Jubilee’s tenure, with a range of big-ticket projects in the transport, energy and health sectors. Recurring elements of these projects include secretive feasibility studies, procurement and financing arrangements, as well as questionable labour deployment and land acquisitions – all of which embody the controversial SGR Railway project which has taken up the lion’s share of this spending binge.

Spending on infrastructure programmes in particular, seamlessly lends itself to patronage and has been a dominant feature of Jubilee’s tenure, with a range of big-ticket projects in the transport, energy and health sectors. Recurring elements of these projects include secretive feasibility studies, procurement and financing arrangements, as well as questionable labour deployment and land acquisitions.

Table 1.

Jubilee’s Treasury team however, has maintained that the increase in public spending was and remains necessary to spur economic growth. Treasury has systematically played down the risks from the widening budget deficit in the process. This surge in spending – financed mostly with (Chinese) debt – has also taken centre stage in the cooling relations between the government and development partners, notably the IMF and World Bank. Critical to debate on this spending surge and the risks from a widening budget deficit is its impact on the performance of the Kenyan economy.

In particular, why have key sectors of the economy registered such diminished performance over the past half-decade in the face of this increased spending? Why does so much anecdotal evidence point to growing job-layoffs (an estimated 7,000 formal sector jobs have been lost in the past three years alone)? Even the normally bullish real estate market has shown signs of glut and slowdown over the past three years. The Nairobi Securities Exchange has seen its NSE 20 index climb from slightly over 4,000 in 2013 to a high of 5,400 in 2015, before falling to about 3,400 today. The Stock Exchange, without a single IPO listing since 2014, has seen more than half of all listed companies declare reduced earnings or losses in each of the past two years.

Why have key sectors of the economy registered such diminished performance over the past half-decade in the face of this increased spending? Why does so much anecdotal evidence point to growing job-layoffs (an estimated 7,000 formal sector jobs have been lost in the past three years alone)?

Table 2 below shows Average GDP Growth rates (RHS Scale) over the past 8 years and actual GDP (Using Constant 2009 Prices LHS Scale).

Whereas average GDP growth rates have averaged 5.8 percent over the period shown, the downward trend since 2010 has persisted despite the huge increase in spending – and this is despite GDP-rebasing in 2013 which enhanced the growth rate that year by at least 1%. Both 2013 and 2017 were election years and unsurprisingly, registered the lowest growth rates; but the increased government spending – albeit on long-term projects – appears to have actually had a dampening impact on GDP growth over the period. There are several reasons for this, but three key issues are highlighted here.

1. An unremunerated Private Sector.

Accusations of partisanship and gravy-train policy-making in the award of public tenders and contracts, are not just the grumblings of out-of-favour business-people that lost out on lucrative government business to well-connected or favourably-related individuals. There is a constituency of ordinary hard-working entrepreneurs, professionals and manufacturers increasingly unable to compete against the empowered cartels of tenderpreneurs, influence peddlers and brief-case businessmen. These rogue players currently dominate government contracting – not to mention annual auditor-general reports – making a mockery of procurement guidelines. In some instances they even approach qualified bidders, offering to be embedded in bidding teams (despite the lack of relevant competencies) with a promise of tender success at inflated bids. This patronage-based ‘crowding out’ doesn’t end there. This well-connected class of tenderpreneurs also has perfected the dark art of jumping bureaucratic payment queues, often receiving payments before delivery of goods and services – or even before contracts are signed.

Not by coincidence, legitimate suppliers, service providers, and even farmers, have been experiencing debilitating delays in the settlement of payments and have accumulated massive debts on their credit arrangements and tax obligations. The paradox is that while government department budgets were being ramped up, delays in contract awards and settlement of payments to legitimate suppliers were worsening. This has created a unique set of economic challenges that seems to have been lost in all the discussions on political handshakes.

According to the Central Bank of Kenya, Non-Performing Loans (NPLs) as a proportion of total lending by commercial banks doubled from 6.1 percent in 2015 to 12.4 percent (or about KSh 265 billion) by April 2018 (see Table 3 below). The Table shows Gross Lending by Commercial Banks as well as the stock of Non-Performing Loans, as well as the stock of Non-Performing Loans expressed as a percentage of Gross Lending by Commercial Banks. Even this 12.4 percent figure could be an under-statement if banks have not been adequately disclosing and providing for non-performing loans – as suggested by the sagas of the collapsed Imperial and Chase Banks.

Table 3

CBK Governor Patrick Njoroge attributes a significant factor in this growth in bad loans to delayed payments owed to the private sector by the national government, government departments and devolved units. CBK data suggests that up to KSh 200 Billion was owed to SME businesses by the national government by the end of the 2017/2018 Financial Year, with as much as KSh 25 Billion worth of those pending bills directly contributing to non-performing loans.

Following an increase in imported grains last year (amid accusations of pre-election giveaways), the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) owed farmers as much as KSh 3.5 Billion by the end 2017 for produce already delivered. In a hard-hitting editorial on 7th August 2018, the Daily Nation averred, ‘The Jubilee government is wallowing, not just in foreign debt, but also in the money it owes local businesses, which it has either crippled or is in the process of ruining’.

According to the Central Bank of Kenya, Non-Performing Loans (NPLs) as a proportion of total lending by commercial banks doubled from 6.1 percent in 2015 to 12.4 percent (or about KSh 265 billion) by April 2018. The Table shows Gross Lending by Commercial Banks as well as the stock of Non-Performing Loans, as well as the stock of Non-Performing Loans expressed as a percentage of Gross Lending by Commercial Banks. Even this 12.4 percent figure could be an under-statement if banks have not been adequately disclosing and providing for non-performing loans.

The Daily Nation’s particular beef was that the Government Advertising Agency (GAA), owed media houses close to KSh 3 billion by the end of FY 2017/2018. About half of the KSh 404 Million paid out by GAA during the year, went to the big publishing houses – Nation Media Group, Standard Newspapers, Royal Media Services, The Star and Media Max Network. Against the KSh 3 billion owed, the distribution of payments to media houses was sufficiently skewed to warrant an investigation by the Office of the Public Prosecutor.

Worryingly as well, the increase in bad loans in the banking sector has come despite the implementation of August 2016 of lending rates ‘caps’, which limit the cost of existing loans to 4 percent of the Central Bank’s Recommended Rate. (See Table 4)


2. A Stifled Private Sector

This environment of pending government bills is also linked to worsening Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) tax collection performance. This creates a vicious cycle in which the private sector is defaulting on its obligations on account of money owed by the same government. The government has long complained about KRA’s inability to meet its collection targets, complaining instead about ‘revenue leakages’ facilitated by corrupt tax officials. But it fails to acknowledge that its pursuit of tax defaulters is a consequence of the fact that they themselves are owed millions by national and county governments.

The reality is that National Government revenue shortfalls have averaged KSh 90 Billion annually over the past 4 years, despite improved tax collection efficiencies at the KRA. (See Tables 5 & 6 below.) The World Bank estimated that in the 2016/2017 financial year, tax revenue as a proportion of GDP fell to under 17%, the lowest in a decade – with the growth in nominal Tax Revenues outpaced by nominal GDP growth.

Table 5

This reduced growth rate of revenue collection by KRA is at first glance paradoxical considering that over the past 5 years, an unprecedented number of Kenyans have been brought into the tax bracket. A similarly unprecedented range of products and services have been subjected to various new direct and indirect taxes. Over the past five years, several tax measures have been introduced including: 12 percent Rental Income tax for landlords from 2015; successive excise duty and fuel levy increases in 2015, 2016 and 2018; VAT on bottled water and juices; VAT on food served by restaurants as well as piped water; successive increases in excise duties on spirts, cigarettes and mobile telephony; and 50 percent Gaming tax on lotteries and book makers in 2017, among  a host of others. The 16 percent VAT on fuels and fuel oils first awarded in 2013 but deferred over the subsequent years with the exemption set to expire on 1st September 2018, adds a controversial element to this expanded tax net aimed at bringing the growth in VAT collections closer to that of direct taxes such as PAYE and Income Taxes (see Table 6).

Table 6

In his June 2018 Budget statement, Finance CS, Henry Rotich, laid out several new and controversial ‘Robin Hood Tax’ proposals which he declared necessary to fund programmes that are part of Jubilee’s ‘Big 4’ agenda. Prominent among the proposals purportedly designed to protect low-income earners, is a monthly contribution to a nebulous National Housing Development Fund by every employee and employer of 0.5% (capped at KSh 5,000) of the employee’s gross pay. This contribution would be funnelled to the Housing Fund whose mandate will be to build low-cost housing units. Another ‘Robin Hood Tax’ proposal was the levying of 0.05% excise duty on all remittances of KSh 500,000 or more, transferred through banks and other financial institutions; as well as an increase in the excise duty charged on money transfer services by mobile phone providers from 10 percent to 12 percent, all geared to financing Universal Health Care – another Big 4 pillar.

Several of these proposals have been rightly criticised as being unjust and inordinately detrimental to low-income earners. With more than a third of all Kenyans living on less than Ksh 100 per day, a projected VAT-inclusive paraffin price of KSh 105 per litre is simply unreasonable. The curb on logging has already raised the cost of the popular-sized sack of Charcoal to more than Ksh 3,000 in parts of Nairobi, with the 4-kg tin costing more than KSh 150. With electricity prices also being ramped up as the monopoly power distributor Kenya Power struggles to maintain solvency following years of mismanagement, low and middle income earners are clearly big losers. The situation is no better for businesses, notably manufacturers and other high energy consumers. Early this month, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers registered strong objections to the revised energy tariffs which entailed a 36 percent increase in the energy base-cost – before the envisaged 16 percent VAT increase – which KAM argued would have a detrimental effect on the cost of doing business in the country.

With more than a third of all Kenyans living on less than Ksh 100 per day, a projected VAT-inclusive paraffin price of KSh 105 per litre is simply unreasonable. The curb on logging has already raised the cost of the popular-sized sack of Charcoal to more than Ksh 3,000 in parts of Nairobi, with the 4-kg tin costing more than KSh 150. With electricity prices also being ramped up as the monopoly power distributor Kenya Power struggles to maintain solvency following years of mismanagement, low and middle income earners are clearly big losers.

A recurring complaint from the private sector over the past half-decade has consistently been that consumer purchasing power has contracted considerably and that this is being exacerbated by recent and proposed tax measures. The decline in tax revenues despite the increases in tax rates, tax measures and collection efficiencies by KRA (notably year-on-year growth in taxpayers registered on KRA’s I-Tax platform), all but confirms a sharp drop in formal economic activity over the period.

Arthur Laffer who was an adviser to the Nixon/Ford Administration in the mid-1970’s mainstreamed the simple mathematical tautology that there is a point beyond which any increases in tax rates will always result in declining tax revenues. Laffer’s analysis of the US economy at the time recommended a decrease in federal tax rates to boost tax revenues. Rotich’s proposed tax measures risk the same results by further dampening of economic activity as well as greater tax evasion.

3. A Crowded-out Private Sector

The aforementioned slump in tax revenue growth was also partially influenced by the slowdown in bank profitability – which in turn was due to the twin influences of growing bad loans and reduced access to credit by the private sector. These factors are inexorably linked to diminished private sector performance. However, reduced access to credit by the private sector in Kenya is not a new phenomenon; nor are its fundamental causes. Its disruptive influences however, are significant.   Commercial credit to the private sector has contracted from about 24 percent in 2013 to 18 percent by end of December 2015, to about 2.5 percent in June 2018. This is despite the implementation of interest caps in August 2016, disabusing the suggestion that enhanced credit to the private sector was the intended beneficiary of the interest rate caps. In contrast, during the same period annual growth in lending to government averaged 14%.

Table 7

The Banking Amendment Act 2016 proposed by MP Jude Njomo was signed into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta with the same hollow promise of cheaper and more private sector lending by banks that a similar bill by then MP Joe Donde had made in the year 2000. The backgrounds shared notable similarities however – most notably heavy government borrowing. Domestic borrowing was indeed high in the late 1990s – evidenced by the 91-day Treasury Bill on offer with a 21% return in June 1999. By 2000, domestic borrowing was attracting Ksh 22 Billion in annual interest payments.  The stock of domestic debt by June 2000 stood at KSh 164 Billion with new issues representing 17.5 percent of government revenue. By June 2007, with short term Treasury Bill rates down to less than 8 percent, the stock of domestic debt had only risen modestly to KSh 405 Billion representing 22.1 percent of GDP, and attracting interest payments of KSh 37 Billion in FY 2006/2007. By March 2016 however, the stock of domestic debt had jumped to KSh 1.65 Trillion representing close to 27 percent of GDP and was attracting a massive 30 percent of total government revenue in debt service. And that’s not even taking into account external debt which had grown at a similar rate. The stock of domestic debt in March 2018 had reached KSh 2.3 Trillion, attracting more than KSh 350 Billion in annual debt payments.

Arthur Laffer who was an adviser to the Nixon/Ford Administration in the mid-1970’s mainstreamed the simple mathematical tautology that there is a point beyond which any increases in tax rates will always result in declining tax revenues…Rotich’s proposed tax measures risk the same results by further dampening of economic activity as well as greater tax evasion.

In August 2000, Commercial bank lending rates averaged close to 21 percent and deposit rates about 7 percent, providing obvious justification for the Njomo Bill’s popular support. The stock of non-performing loans (NPLs) at the time, was an eye-popping KSh 122 Billion in April 2001, (40 percent of total lending). In June 2018 and despite interest rate caps in place, NPLs represent 12.4 percent of commercial lending with an estimated Ksh 303 Billion in this category.

Table 8

The Parlous state of Kenya’s national accounts – most notably the KSh 5 Trillion stock of public debt and ballooning budget deficit – but also poor performance of the real economy with stagnant exports and tax revenues, suggests that the government cannot afford to be adding to the burden borne by the private sector. It also suggests that the slew of tax measures proposed in Budget 2018 was purely about desperately seeking to finance reckless government spending and not about providing incentives for private sector economic growth. Critically, it also confirms that the interest caps were always really about government access to cheaper domestic borrowing and not about promoting private sector economic activity, which the government appears to be doing its best to stifle.

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Gitau Githongo is a financial consultant based in Nairobi.

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Twitter: Let It Burn!

Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.

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Elon Musk finally bought Twitter. Although everyone expected the move to quickly prove foolhardy, the speed of the implosion has been impressive. The latest gaffe is a failed attempt to monetize verification by requiring paid subscriptions for them, which has led to all manner of comical impersonations (one macabre highlight was a “verified” George W. Bush account tweeting “I miss killing Iraqis. “Tony Blair” responded with “Same tbh”). Some are watching with shock and horror and wondering if Twitter can be saved. But, when sulfur and fire rains, it is best not to look back.

Africa Is a Country managing editor, Boima Tucker, put it best some years ago: “Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation.” The thing to reckon with is the extent to which we have exaggerated the emancipatory potential of networked communication and social media, partly owing to our own psychic overinvestments in it. Which is not to deny that it has never shown democratic and egalitarian potential, but that’s never been what Twitter is forThere can be no right platform in the wrong world.

What was Twitter for then? In the New York Review of Books, Ben Tarnoff describes it as a “network of influence.” In a world characterized by the economization of everything, social media is the place to commodify the self, to transform one’s unique traits and personality into a product for public display. The main imperative online is to “stay on brand,” to cultivate an appealing enough persona in the endless “production of new genres of being human.”

The key contradiction of social media use, of course, is that even though these platforms appear to us as complete products that we participate in and consume, we are the ones responsible for ensuring their possibility in the first place. As the media scholar Christian Fuchs notes, “Digital work is the organization of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. These products can be online information, meanings, social relations, artifacts or social systems.” Thus, it is us who create the value of these platforms.

In a better world, these digital communications platforms would be democratically owned and operated. But one also wonders if in a better world they would be as necessary. Perhaps, when we are less socially disaffected, living in societies with social provision, an abundance of recreational public goods and less exploitative, dignifying work, then we would all have less reason to be online. For now, the question is: in a time when this ideal is nowhere close to being within view, how best can we use platforms like Twitter as tools to get us to that world?

The possible answers here are murky. Twitter seems like a critical piece of infrastructure for modern political life. Musk is not alone in thinking of it as a marketplace of ideas, as something like a digital town square. Yet, and especially in Africa, Twitter is not as popular a platform, and even on it, a minority of Twiteratti exert an outsized influence in terms of setting the discursive agenda. But setting aside the question of who is excluded from the digitalized public sphere of which Twitter is a cornerstone, the important question is whether the quality of political debate that takes place is healthy or desirable at all. Granted, it can be fun and cathartic, but at the best of times, amounts to hyper-politics. In Anton Jager’s explanation, this:

can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinized for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicized, but little is achieved.

We would lack critical self-awareness if we did not admit that Africa Is A Country is a venue whose existence greatly benefits from an online presence—so it goes for every media outlet. Tarnoff points out that “… if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses.” To lack an online presence is to reconcile oneself to irrelevance. Although, the news cycle itself is a disorienting vortex of one topic du jour to the next. It makes difficult the kind of long, slow, and sustained discourse-over-time that is the lifeblood of politics, and instead reduces everything into fleeting soundbites.

Nowhere is the modern phenomenon of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “pointillist time” more apparent than on Twitter. For Bauman, pointillist time is the experience of temporality as a series of eternal instants, and the present moment’s connection to the past and future “turns into gaps—with no bridges, and hopefully unbridgeable.” The consequence of this, is that “there is no room for the idea of ‘progress.’” Living through a mode where everything seems to be happening all at once, is both to experience time as what Walter Benjamin called “a “time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new,” but curiously, at the same time, for everything to feel inert, and for nothing to seem genuinely possible.

For a while, notions of historical progress have been passé on the left, associated with Eurocentric theories of modernity. Now, more than ever, the idea is worth reclaiming. The Right today is no longer straightforwardly conservative, but nihilistic and anti-social, thriving on sowing deeper communal mistrust and paranoia. These are pathologies that flourish on Twitter. The alternative to media-fuelled hyper-politics and anti-politics is not real politics per some ideal type. Politics, in the first instance, is not defined by content, but by form. The reason our politics are empty and shallow is not because today’s political subject lacks virtues possessed by the subjects of yore. It’s because today’s political subject is barely one in the first place, lacking rootedness in those institutions that would have ordinarily shaped an individual’s clear sense of values and commitments. The alternative to digitized human association, as noted by many, is mass politics: only when the majority of citizens are meaningfully mobilized through civic and political organizations can we create a vibrant and substantive public sphere.

AIAC editor Sean Jacobs observed in his book, Media In Post-apartheid South Africa: “the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes is the decline of mass political parties and social movements.” Whether Twitter dies or not, and if it does, whether we should mourn it or not, should be beside the point for those committed to building a world of three-dimensional solidarity and justice.

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

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COP 27: Climate Negotiations Repeatedly Flounder

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world

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As COP 27 in Egypt nears its end, I find it difficult, almost impossible, to talk to my children about climate change. The shame of our monumental failings as a global community to address the greatest crisis our planet has consciously faced weighs too heavy. The stakes have never been higher, the moral quivering of political leaders has never been more distressing.

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” goes the famous commandment from George Orwell’s political allegory Animal Farm. It applies with particular acuity to international negotiations, where each country has a seat, but seats hold very different weights. The outcome of the Sharm-El-Sheik conference will in large part depend on what Western governments are willing to commit to and follow up on. Rich European and other Western countries are historically responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. The moral case for them being the first-movers and the biggest movers on cutting emissions is crystal clear, and genuine commitments on their part may hold the key to opening up the floodgate of policy innovation towards decarbonization in other countries.

In this context, viewed from the Global South, recent events in the country that still held the COP presidency until it was handed over to Egypt appear as signs of the madness that grips societies before a fall. In her short time as head of government in the UK, Liz Truss spoke as if she lived on another planet that did not show signs of collapsing under the battering of models of economic growth birthed under the British Empire, gleefully pronouncing that her three priorities for Britain were “growth, growth and growth.” Her successor, Rishi Sunak, announced that he would not attend the COP 27 climate summit because he had to focus on the UK economy. The silver lining is that Truss did not last long and Sunak was shamed into reversing his decision. In a scathing rebuke, the Spanish environment minister called the shenanigans of British political leaders “absurd” and pointed out that elections in Brazil and Australia show that voters are starting to punish leaders who ignore climate change.

I see another silver lining. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that Europe was warming twice as fast as other parts of the world. A similar report was not issued for North America, but other studies indicate faster than average temperature increases across the continent’s northeastern coast, and its west coast was home to one of the most striking heat waves last year, with a memorable summer temperature peak of 49.6°C recorded in British Columbia, Canada.

Professor Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary-general, emphasized that the findings highlighted that “even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events.” In other words, the report should make Europeans think it could happen to us, with “it” being devastating floods on the scale of what Pakistan and Bangladesh recently experienced, or the hunger-inducing droughts afflicting Madagascar and the Horn of Africa. While some may find it dismal that human beings remain relatively unmoved by the plight of other human beings considered too distant or too different, this is a part of human nature to reckon with. And reckoning with it can turn a sentiment of shared vulnerability into an opportunity for the planet.

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries to pay developing countries loss and damages to fund their transitions to greener energies and build crucially needed climate adaptability to limit deaths. Underlying such a position is a centuries-old smug belief that Europe and North America will never need to depend on solidarity from other parts of the world. The WMO report calls into question such hubris, as did the Covid 19 pandemic before that.

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world. Europe and North America, where barely 15% of the world population resides, accounted for more than half of COVID deaths. Turning the normal direction of disaster statistics upside down, high- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for four out of five Covid deaths globally. While some scientists still pose questions over the real death toll in low-income countries, I was grateful to not live in the West during the pandemic. In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Senegal where I spent most of my pandemic months, I often encountered “COVID refugees,” young Europeans who had temporarily relocated to work remotely from Africa to escape pandemic despair at home.

We are at a point in our failures to fight climate change where fiction writers and other experts of human nature are often more useful than scientists in indicating what our priorities should be. Many fiction writers have turned their focus on what will be necessary for humans to remain humane as societies crumble. Before we get to that stage, let us hope that political leaders and delegates keep remembering that climate disaster could very concretely befall them personally at any time. Let us hope that the sense of equal—or more cynically, unpredictable—vulnerability instills a sense of global solidarity and a platform to negotiate in true good faith. Let us hope that we can start talking to our children again about what we adults are doing to avert the disaster that looms over their futures.

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

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The Specter of Foreign Forces in Haiti

The so-called ‘Haitian crisis’ is primarily about outsiders’ attempts force Haitians to live under an imposed order and the latter’s resistance to that order.

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What actually happened on the nights of October 6th and 7th, 2022, remains unclear. What reverberated was the rather loud rumor of the resignation of Haiti’s acting prime minister  Ariel Henry. He was a member of President Jovenel Moïse’s pro-US Pati Ayisien Tèt Kale (PHTK) party. (Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.) Had Henry truly resigned? Or was it just a well-propagated rumor? Could it have perhaps been both at the same time: that Henry might have indeed resigned but had been coerced to stay, thus making the news of his resignation spread like gossip that the governmental communication machine had fabricated for public consumption?

Nevertheless, we witnessed the following the next day: in Henry’s address to the nation, he first requested the intervention of foreign military forces in Haiti. He then made a formal request to the United Nations. This call was picked up by international organizations, particularly the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. In the media coverage of the events, no relationship was established between the (rumored) resignation of the de facto Prime Minister and his request for military intervention. Was it a way to keep our minds occupied while waiting on a response from the international community? Or was the military intervention a promise made by the international community to Henry for the withdrawal of his letter of resignation?

Media coverage has seemingly obscured what happened on October 6th and 7th by choosing to focus solely on the request for military intervention, obscuring a chain of events in the process. Was the same request addressed to the UN and the US administration? Or were these two distinct approaches: one within a multilateral framework and the other within a bilateral framework? Supposing it was the latter, what does this tell us about the Haitian government’s domestic policy, about US foreign policy toward (or against) Haiti, or even about geopolitics (as part of a white-hot world order)—especially in light of US Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols’ visit to Haiti, his ensuing meetings, and the presence of US Coast Guard ships in Haitian waters?

At least one thing’s for sure. Since the request for formal intervention and the presence of the US in the form of its warships and its emissary, the question of military intervention has been swiftly framed as a discourse on the supposed “consensus between Haitians.” In reality, it refers to the convergence of interests between the representatives of the de facto Haitian government; the representatives of the Montana Accord (agreed on between civic and political groups in the wake of Moise’s assassination); and the president, Fritz Jean, and prime minister, Steven Benoit, agreed on as part of that accord. The message is clear: If you do not want a military intervention, side with Ariel Henry, who initiated the request himself. Any posture of self-determination must undergo review by Ariel Henry and his crew.

In these circumstances, there can be no self-determination. It is as though those truly responsible for the military intervention (which was already underway) aren’t those who asked for it, but rather those who were unable to thwart it by finding an agreement with the former group. In this sense, the “nationalist” label (the current catchall term which, among other things, is being made to include any praxis refuting the colonial apparatus) refers to doing everything possible to avoid military intervention—and that means doing exactly what the representatives of the “Colonial Capitalist Internationale” want.

American presence in Haiti—in the form of warships and a high-ranking emissary—takes after historical colonial endeavors such as the Napoleonic expedition for the reestablishment of slavery (1802) and King Charles X’s fleet, sent to demand ransom for Haiti’s independence (1825). Yet, in this case, the point is not to put pressure on those who hold the keys to institutions, but rather to avoid losing control in a context where those in government are not only misguided, but also display the greatest shortcomings in managing the lives of the population for the better. The US’s current presence thus more closely echoes the language of the English warship HMS Bulldog, sent to shell the city of Cap Haitien to support President Geffrard against the anti-government insurrection of Salnave.

The Henry government uses the same grammar as its tutelar powers to discuss the current situation. Much has been made of “efforts deployed by the United States and Canada”: they have consisted in flying police equipment into Haiti on Canadian and US military cargo aircraft. Henry and the Haitian National Police offered warm, public thanks for material paid for with Haitian funds some time ago; indeed, these deliveries have come very late, and only thanks to pressure from Haitian civil society actors. More problematic still, the presence of foreign military planes at the Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince has served both as evidence of an ongoing military intervention and as a subterfuge to obtain such an intervention.

This request for intervention, while it seeks to obfuscate this fact, nevertheless exposes the political illegitimacy of the Henry government—made up of members of Henry’s PHTK and former members of the opposition. Its illegitimacy doesn’t rest on the usual discussion (or lack thereof) and confrontation between the governors and the governed, nor on the classic power play between the political opposition and the authorities in place; rather, it is the result of the absolute rejection on the part of Haitians of an order controlled and engineered by the PHTK machine in Haiti for over 10 years with one purpose in mind: defending the neoliberal interests and projects of the Colonial Capitalist Internationale. The request for intervention reveals the fact that the rejection of the PHTK machine is but one part of a broader rejection of the neoliberal colonial order as it has manifested itself in various anti-popular economic projects, which themselves were made possible by many attempts at reconfiguring Haiti socially and constitutionally: consider, to name but a few, the financial project of privatization of the island of Gonâve, the referendum to replace the 1987 Constitution, and others.

For the first time since the US military intervention of 1915 (the centenary of which was silenced by the PHTK machine), we are witnessing a direct confrontation between the Colonial Capitalist Internationale and the Haitian people, as local political go-betweens aren’t in a position to mediate and local armed forces (whether the military, the militias, or the armed gangs) aren’t able to fully and totally repress unrest. In this colonial scenario—drafted in the past five years, maintained and fueled by the geopolitics of “natural disasters,” epidemics, pandemics, and the presence of gangs (simultaneously functioning as the armed extensions of political parties and materializing “disorder”)—the only possible solution to chaos is military intervention by foreign forces.

Yet one cannot pretend that such an intervention will help the Haitian people, and no agreement crafted in the language of the colonial system can stifle popular demands and aspirations which, in the past twelve years, have built what Haitian academic and activist Camille Chalmers calls a real “anti-imperialist conscience.”

What of late has breathlessly been labeled the “Haitian crisis” must instead be identified as the highest point of the contradiction which has brewed throughout the PHTK regime: between the International Colonial Capitalists’ will to force us to live under an imposed order and our resistance to that order.

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

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