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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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Land Title and Evictions in the Supreme Court of Kenya

Violent evictions of families from their homes are not exceptional events. They go to the heart of Kenya’s political economy and its long history of valorising the rights of those who hold private title.

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Land Title and Evictions in the Supreme Court of Kenya
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The Supreme Court of Kenya published its judgment in William Musembi v The Moi Educational Centre Co. Ltd. on the 16th July 2021. The case arose after fourteen families — the residents of two informal settlements, City Cotton and Upendo village in Nairobi — petitioned the High court following their evictions in 2013. They had lived on the land since 1968 when it was public land. The first respondent claimed that they had legitimately acquired title to the land by letters of allotment and that the land was therefore private land. According to Amnesty Kenya, the evictions began in the early morning, without warning. Groups of young men burst into homes. Four hundred homes were demolished and personal possessions were destroyed. Crowbars and sledgehammers were used. The police were present. They fired live ammunition and used teargas canisters during the operation.

In the High Court, Judge Mumbi Ngugi held that the petitioners’ rights to dignity, security, and adequate housing had been infringed. There had been a violation of the rights of children and elderly persons under the constitution. She awarded damages. At the Court of Appeal this judgment was partially set aside. While accepting that there had indeed been violations of the rights to dignity and security, the Court of Appeal nonetheless set aside the order of damages arguing that “there was no material before the court on the basis of which the orders for compensation were made” and that, because it was unable to work out how the damages had been quantified, “the only relief that should have commended itself to the trial Court was a declaration that the forced eviction and demolition of their houses without a Court order is a violation of their right to human dignity and security.” Following this, the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court.

Importance of the Supreme Court judgment

The importance of this case is, as Gautum Bhatia has written, that it raised the question whether “the right to accessible and adequate housing could be applied inter se between private parties”. It can thus be distinguished from the same Supreme Court’s Mitu-Bell Welfare Society v The Kenya Airports Authority, which ruled on evictions from public land.

Amongst several issues for determination, the petitioners in the present case asked the court to reach a determination of the question whether the letter of allotment held by the first respondent, the Moi Educational Centre, was issued lawfully or legally. Because that question had not been conclusively determined at the High Court or at the Court of Appeal, the petitioners sought “a declaration that the acquisition of the suit property was illegal and unlawful.”

The Supreme Court declined to do this. Arguing that in the High Court Judge Mumbi Ngugi had been right in holding that the question of the propriety of the first respondent’s title was a matter for the National Land Commission and that it is the Land and Environment Court that properly has jurisdiction over this question, the Supreme Court held in William Musembi that “the title of the first respondent remains unimpeached”. Instead, it held, the only question it ought to determine was whether, in evicting the petitioners, the respondents violated the petitioners’ rights to human dignity and security, as well as the rights to housing and health.

It is on the basis of the “unimpeached” title of the first respondent that the court goes on to make its landmark finding. For determination by the court was the question whether the first respondent, being a private party, could nonetheless be responsible for the violation of constitutional rights. Recognising that “the mandate to ensure the realization and protection of social and economic rights does not extend to the first respondent” because it is a private entity which is not under any obligation to ensure the progressive or immediate realisation of those rights, the court found that private parties do nonetheless have a “negative obligation to ensure that it does not violate the rights of the petitioners.”

For Bhatia, the judgment’s significance lies partly in its finding that “a negative obligation not to interfere with socio-economic rights (such as the right to housing), …applies to both public and private parties” although he argues persuasively that “the distinction between negative and positive obligations is doing a lot of work” and that the concrete practice of evictions significantly blurs the boundary between public and private actors. He rightly notes that “evictions invariably involve concert of action between State forces and private landowners, with the latter relying upon the former (either directly, or through forbearance) to accomplish physically removing people from land.”

Public and private

If the distinction between negative and positive obligations is somewhat artificial, I also want to suggest that Kenya’s history of land grabbing shows that so too is the distinction between the state and private landowners. More than just state forces doing the bidding of private landowners, wielding batons and using bullets to break into homes in the early morning, in Kenya the state/private distinction is a mirage. In William Musembi, the court does not elaborate on the important history of letters of allotment in Kenya and the process by which they enabled public land to morph into private land. Instead, it affirms the first respondent’s title – and proceeds to make an important ruling on the obligations of private actors. However, the history of land grabbing and the murky past of letters of allotment is a critical one to keep at the front of our minds.

For determination by the court was the question whether the first respondent, being a private party, could nonetheless be responsible for the violation of constitutional rights.

The report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/ Irregular Allocation of Public Land established in 2003 set out in forensic detail the illegal and irregular land awards made over the years using the mechanism of the letter of allotment. Awards of land were made to the families of Presidents Kenyatta and Moi, numerous former ministers, members of parliament and civil servants, as well as to individuals in the military and the judiciary. The report sets out how out of proximity to the state, private property owners were created. Public land – land set aside for the building of public health clinics or schools for example – mysteriously turned into private land on which malls, private residences, and diplomatic headquarters appeared. No doubt some individuals acquired perfectly legitimate letters of allotment. But from the 1970s onwards, a thriving market in improper letters of allotment developed. They came to be treated as tradable land documents. Widely but mistakenly used as land titles (with the collusion of lawyers), they changed hands quickly in sales of grabbed land. This was done in order to get the benefit of the principle that an innocent third party for value without notice takes good title. The full extent of this practice is unknown: the Ndung’u Commission warned that its report provided only a snapshot of the illegal/irregular land allocations that had taken place over the years.

I have written elsewhere that land grabbing is sedimented in Kenya’s political economy such that we can describe it as a “grabbed state”. The “normal” economy is founded on accumulation by dispossession. It is not possible to understand Kenya’s political economy without an understanding of how the normal and the supposedly abnormal are pervasively linked. Far from land grabbing being an aberrant phenomenon that can be sharply distinguished from normal business practice, the illegal and irregular appropriation of land structures Kenya’s economy.

Widely but mistakenly used as land titles (with the collusion of lawyers), they changed hands quickly in sales of grabbed land.

There is no operative distinction between the public and the private in Kenya. This makes the judgment in the present case even more consequential: given the history of these murky conversions in title, the judgment’s finding that negative constitutional obligations can attach to private actors is likely to cover a great many potential eviction scenarios. Indeed, I would argue that given the history of land described above, the court should have gone further. Grounding its reasoning in Kenya’s history of land grabbing and the dispossession and discrimination that resulted, it could have held that positive socio-economic obligations (such as providing alternative accommodation) should extend to private parties. Or it might have held that given the extent of land grabbing — which is a matter of public record — the state should not agree to enforce a court order for eviction until it is satisfied that alternative accommodation has been provided.

Entrenching private property

Welcoming the Supreme Court’s judgment, Bhatia has noted that it “continues the welcome trend of judicial scepticism towards entrenched property rights.” The court demonstrated this scepticism by extending negative constitutional obligations to private actors. However, to do so, the Supreme Court moved to confirm the respondent’s title. That title it described as “unimpeached”. The court used this as the basis for setting out the first respondent’s obligations as a private owner. The extension of constitutional obligations to private actors is to be welcomed. But it is important to recognise also that by refusing jurisdiction to question the first respondent’s title – and ruling that this is a matter for another forum – the Supreme Court effectively sanctioned the enclosure of what the appellants claimed was unalienated public land and potentially legitimated the grabbing of public land.

The court does not elaborate on the important history of letters of allotment in Kenya and the process by which they enabled public land to morph into private land.

Instead, the Supreme Court might have used Art. 23 which provides for the authority of courts to uphold and enforce the Bill of Rights, to try to fashion a remedy. It could have expressly referred the question of the integrity of the first respondent’s title to the National Land Commission rather than state as unequivocally as it did that it is unimpeached. At the very least, given the importance of a letter of allotment and the question of title in the case, the court should have rehearsed Kenya’s history of land grabbing and corruption as revealed by the Ndung’u report so as to give it judicial notice and provide a starting point for the wider task of challenging ill-gotten titles by those who might seek to do so.

Reinstating Judge Mumbi Ngugi judgment in the High Court and in particular her finding that damages should be paid to those evicted, the Supreme Court ordered the first respondents, the Moi Educational Centre, to pay fourteen families KSh150,000 (just over 1000 euros) each in damages. The government will also pay each family KSh100,000. In return, unless the National Land Commission or the Land and Environment Court are asked to rule on the propriety of the first respondent’s title and find against them, the Moi Educational Centre now hold unimpeached title to very valuable land in Nairobi. That is quite a windfall.

Violent evictions of families from their homes are not episodic and exceptional events. They go to the heart of Kenya’s political economy and its long history of valorising the rights of those who hold private title, however acquired. How far can the courts be relied upon to undo accumulation by dispossession?

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South Africa Has to Heal Its Troubled Past – and the Time Is Now

If there is no material justice and investment in healing the generations of harm enacted onto South Africans, the rot in the country’s wounds will overcome them.

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South Africa Has to Heal Its Troubled Past – and the Time Is Now
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Social unrest”—though others may prefer “riots and looting,” “food riots,” or “insurrection”—have swept South Africa since Monday. It’s unsettled an already unsettled nation. And as with all South Africa’s heightened moments, our historic fault lines have been re-exposed. Racial and ethnic divisions, class antagonisms, xenophobia, questions of violence and its use. These are some of our wounds that have never been treated. Over the last decades we’ve covered them with patriotic bandages, unity slogans and surface-level performances of a shared national consciousness. But the wounds have opened again now, and as the country bleeds, the rot is open for all to see. Flashing moments tell an incomplete but tragic story of the reality unfolding in our country.

Impoverished communities with limited prospects, rejoice as they leave megastores with stolen food and essential resources. Elderly women are seen taking medication that they otherwise could not afford. A father exits a store with nappies (diapers) for his child. Families that have struggled with eating daily meals suddenly have food for a month.

Elsewhere, in the historically Indian community of Phoenix, an elderly man is surrounded by people from a nearby  informal settlement. He is commanded that he needs to hand over his home, or otherwise will face attacks on his family in the dead of night. In the night, drive-by shootings claim lives as stray bullets shatter family homes.

Armed Indian and white “vigilantes” drive around shooting African people they assume are looters. Hunting them down while recording vicious videos, beating them with sjamboks as the person begs for their lives.

These videos are shared and watched repeatedly across social media, racially charged viewers salivate with a carnal sense of pleasure as one racial group watches the other suffer and bleed.

At least 15 people are killed by armed community members of Phoenix. They blockade roads entering the community, racially profiling people, preventing them from access to functioning supermarkets. Bodies are found in the night. #PhoenixMassacre trends on twitter echoing disgust and outrage at the anti-black sentiment within the South African Indian community.

The home of Thapelo Mohapi, the spokesperson of Abahlali BaseMjondolo, the shack dwellers movement in KwaZulu-Natal that safeguards working-class interests, has his home burnt down on Wednesday morning. Mohapi, like most in Abahlali, is outspoken against ANC corruption and political violence in the country, with Abahlali members often the targets for political killings.

Shacks burnt down in response to the looting. Reports of xenophobic attacks by the rioters. Families terrified as gunshots break their windows. Small community stores torched. Blood banks and clinics ransacked. Essential foods become scarce, gas stations close.

The excitement of people getting access to expensive TVs, furniture, alcohol, and commodities they would not be able to access otherwise. Because in South Africa we know that nice things are reserved for a minority—and you either have to be crazy lucky and gifted, or crazy devious and connected, to escape the poverty cycle.

This is the status quo of our neocolonial, violent and divided country. Every snapshot from the riots reveals a new layer of a tragedy we’re all too familiar with but have made no substantial material effort to address to this point. And now the rot in our open wound has become septic.

In the midst of all this mess and complexity, many are now left trying to make sense of where they stand regarding these riots—with the mask of a shared national consciousness being ruthlessly peeled back — some who thought they understood their political standings are having to rethink their position after being thrust into a violent situation where racial and class perceptions pre-determine their position for them.

Orchestrated or Inevitable?

Acentral question on people’s minds is who is responsible for the unfolding events. How much of it is orchestrated as part of the #FreeZuma campaign that sparked this moment with former President Zuma’s arrest, and how much is simply an overflow from the desperate situation a majority of South Africans find themselves in. The reality is, of course, complex. Reports from activists on the ground and observers indicate the riots are likely made up of multiple forces.

Some are believed to be political agents of the pro-Zuma faction of the African National Congress ANC, using chaos to fight their battle against President Cyril Ramaphosa. These agents are known to have organized the initial demonstrations and are believed by some commentators to continue funding transport for rioters and operating in the background to hamstring the local economy. Some now attribute this orchestrated terror with the targeted burning of key distribution centers, factories, network towers, and trucks.

Others involved are not politically linked to a factional ANC agenda or desire to destabilize the country. They are there because the moment has presented families with access to food under dire circumstances and the opportunity for temporary relief from the dredges of poverty. One may say that their situation is being purposefully manipulated by political agendas, but the material reality of their situation is no less real. Individuals from well-known working class organizations that are strongly anti-ANC in all forms have reported taking part in looting as the moment allowed for sorely needed aid to struggling communities.

And of course, with any mass gathering, there are simply those criminal elements who use the moment with malicious intent, stirred by past and present grudges, looking to impose power and fear on those they see as “other.” Yet, these malicious sentiments exist on both the “sides” of the rioters and those responding to them. It is every person’s right and entitlement to defend themselves, their family, and personal property from harm against malicious forces. But much of this defence and protection of what is dear  has morphed into older desires to harm, dehumanize, and kill those considered “other.” How much of our violence in the name of defence is rooted in the historic rot we’ve left untreated from colonialism, apartheid, and a world that hates poor people?

Military intervention

Many are in support of the President Cyril Ramaphosa’s position that the army be deployed to quell the riots, looting, and violence. They argue for an armed, militant, and potentially lethal response.

Part of this rationale is in response to the signs of orchestration and mobilization by pro-Zuma political forces. As some of the actions show signs of being organized and targeted strikes, they will not subside organically and so the use of intelligence and organized force would be necessary to intervene. This tactical move acts in support of the President Cyril Ramaphosa and preserving the current status quo of South Africa.

The other reason is that the racial conflict between communities has reached such a heightened state that many fear an echo of the Durban Riots of 1949. With armed vigilantes enacting destruction, racial profiling, and vicious killing onto those they brand “looters”—  and the responsive revenge cycles this opens up—there can be no road that does not lead to further death. And right now there is no Steve Bantu Biko and his dear friend Strini Moodley to lead us back on the path towards a more human face.

However, even in the face of this leadership vacuum, military intervention is short sighted, ahistoric, and temporary at best. The wounds are all open now, the military cannot heal, only repress.

Ultimately the scale and intensity of these riots have very little to do with political infighting within the ANC and the tensions between communities could not be set alight if there was not already kindling of unresolved tensions. The material conditions of South Africa indicate that it’s been ripe for mass political uprising for years now. With grants cut under lockdown, youth unemployment over 70%, service delivery a mess or none existent, trust in government, media and political parties at record lows—there seems to be meagre hope for South Africans on the wrong side of the poverty line—and very little to lose.

Whether it’s an orchestrated plot by devious political agendas, a student throwing poop on a colonial statue or an increase in bread prices as was seen in South America—a spark is all that’s needed to set alight a desperate people.

The best case scenario with military intervention this time is further repression of people’s material frustrations. If people die, the situation becomes further inflamed. When the next spark goes off the riots will be more organized, with living memory of the injustices of this moment. And if not organized by our dysfunctional Left, it will be led by reactionary forces. Most dangerous of all is, as with other examples from history, as military forces play a greater role in a country’s internal policing, they become more used to enacting power over its populace, and ambitious autocrats rise up their ranks in military command.

With military intervention, we admit that the violence and death that will be enacted on the working class populace is worth a return to South Africa’s abnormal normal. The violence of this moment simply transferred back to those who held it silently a week ago.

Repression and military enforcement of a violent status quo is not the answer. Material conditions need to change, people need to be fed, grants need to be returned and our septic wounds that have laid open for centuries need urgent attention.

If there is no material justice and investment in healing the generations of harm enacted onto us—and by us—the rot in our wounds will overcome us. And we will become the rot.

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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They Are Watching You: Israeli-Made Spyware Used to Monitor Journalists and Activists Worldwide

The use of spyware to surveil, harass, and intimidate journalists and activists — and those close to them has become a key activity for many governments worldwide.

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They Are Watching You: Israeli-Made Spyware Used to Monitor Journalists and Activists Worldwide
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In Hungary, Szabolcs Panyi exposed spy intrigue and murky arms deals. In India, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta probed the ties between business and political interests. In Azerbaijan, Sevinj Vaqifqizi caught vote-rigging on tape.

Separated by thousands of miles, these journalists have one thing in common: their governments considered them a threat.

All three were among dozens of journalists and activists around the world whose smartphones were infected by Pegasus: spyware made by Israeli firm NSO Group that is able to secretly steal personal data, read conversations, and switch on microphones and cameras at will.

The attacks were revealed by The Pegasus Project, an international collaboration of more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations, including OCCRP, and coordinated by Forbidden Stories.

What Does ‘Selected for Targeting’ Mean?

The phones of Panyi, Thakurta, and Vaqifqizi were analyzed by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and found to be infected after their numbers appeared on a list of over 50,000 numbers that were allegedly selected for targeting by governments using NSO software. Reporters were able to identify the owners of hundreds of those numbers, and Amnesty conducted forensic analysis on as many of their phones as possible, confirming infection in dozens of cases. The reporting was backed up with interviews, documents, and other materials.

The strongest evidence that the list really does represent Pegasus targets came through forensic analysis.

Amnesty International’s Security Lab examined data from 67 phones whose numbers were in the list. Thirty-seven phones showed traces of Pegasus activity: 23 phones were successfully infected, and 14 showed signs of attempted targeting. For the remaining 30 phones, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the phones had been replaced.

Fifteen of the phones in the data were Android devices. Unlike iPhones, Androids do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. However, three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.

In a subset of 27 analyzed phones, Amnesty International researchers found 84 separate traces of Pegasus activity that closely corresponded to the numbers’ appearance on the leaked list. In 59 of these cases, the Pegasus traces appeared within 20 minutes of selection. In 15 cases, the trace appeared within one minute of selection.

The strongest evidence that the list really does represent Pegasus targets came through forensic analysis.

Amnesty International’s Security Lab examined data from 67 phones whose numbers were in the list. Thirty-seven phones showed traces of Pegasus activity: 23 phones were successfully infected, and 14 showed signs of attempted targeting. For the remaining 30 phones, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the phones had been replaced.

Fifteen of the phones in the data were Android devices. Unlike iPhones, Androids do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. However, three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.

In a subset of 27 analyzed phones, Amnesty International researchers found 84 separate traces of Pegasus activity that closely corresponded to the numbers’ appearance on the leaked list. In 59 of these cases, the Pegasus traces appeared within 20 minutes of selection. In 15 cases, the trace appeared within one minute of selection.

In a series of responses, NSO Group denied that its spyware was systematically misused and challenged the validity of data obtained by reporters. It argued that Pegasus is sold to governments to go after criminals and terrorists, and has saved many lives. The company, which enjoys close ties to Israel’s security services, says it implements stringent controls to prevent misuse. NSO Group also specifically denies that it created or could create this type of list.

But instead of targeting only criminals, governments in more than 10 countries appear to have also selected political opponents, academics, reporters, human rights defenders, doctors, and religious leaders. NSO clients may have also used the company’s software to conduct espionage by targeting foreign officials, diplomats, and even heads of state.

Based on the geographical clustering of the numbers on the leaked list, reporters identified potential NSO Group clients from more than 10 countries, including: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates.

Journalists and Activists in the Crosshairs

In the coming days, OCCRP and other Pegasus Project partners will release stories highlighting the threat of surveillance through misuse of NSO Group software around the world. But to start with, we will focus on some of the most egregious cases: the use of spyware to surveil, harass, and intimidate journalists and activists — and those close to them.

Among those on the list were multiple close relations of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered and dismembered by Saudi operatives in the country’s Istanbul consulate. Forensic analyses show that Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and other loved ones and colleagues were successfully compromised with NSO Group software both before and after Khashoggi’s 2018 killing. (NSO Group said that it has investigated this claim and has denied its software was used in connection with the Khashoggi case.)

Sandra Nogales, the assistant of star Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui, was also targeted with Pegasus through a malicious text message, according to a forensic analysis of her phone.

Aristegui had already known that she was a Pegasus target. Her case was featured in a 2017 report by Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory at the University of Toronto. Still, “it was a huge shock to see others close to me on the list,” Aristegui told The Pegasus Project.

“My assistant, Sandra Nogales, who knew everything about me — who had access to my schedule, all of my contacts, my day-to-day, my hour-to-hour — was also entered into the system.”

Several reporters in OCCRP’s network were among the at least 188 journalists on the list of potential targets. They include Khadija Ismayilova, an OCCRP investigative journalist whose uncompromising reporting has made her a target of the kleptocratic regime of the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev. Independent forensic analysis of Ismayilova’s Apple iPhone shows that Pegasus was used consistently from 2019 to 2021 to penetrate her device, primarily by using an exploit in the iMessage app.

Ismayilova is no stranger to government surveillance. Roughly a decade ago, her reporting led her to be threatened with compromising videos that she learned to her horror had been shot with hidden cameras installed in her home. She refused to back down, and as a result had the footage broadcast across the internet.

But even after this, Ismayilova was shocked by the all-consuming nature of her surveillance by Pegasus.

“It’s horrifying, because you think that this tool is encrypted, you can use it… but then you realize that no, the moment you are on the internet they [can] watch you,” Ismayilova said. “I’m angry with the governments who produce all of these tools and sell it to the bad guys like [the] Aliyev regime.”

Panyi and his colleague András Szabó, both OCCRP partner journalists in Hungary, also had their phones successfully hijacked by Pegasus, potentially granting their attackers access to sensitive data like encrypted chats and story drafts. As investigative journalists at one of the country’s few remaining independent outlets, Direkt36, they had spent years investigating corruption and intrigue as their country became increasingly authoritarian under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Now they found out that they were the story.

For Panyi, the descendant of Jewish Holocaust survivors, something stung in particular: that the software had been developed in Israel, and exported to a country whose leadership regularly flirts with antisemitism.

“According to my family memory, after surviving Auschwitz, my grandmother’s brother left to Israel, where he became a soldier and soon died during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948,” Panyi wrote in a first-person account of learning he had been hacked. “I know it is silly and makes no difference at all, but probably I would feel slightly different if it turned out that my surveillance was assisted by any other state, like Russia or China.”

The alleged surveillance list includes more than 15,000 potential targets in Mexico during the previous government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Many were journalists, like Alejandro Sicairos, a reporter from Sinaloa state who co-founded the journalism site RíoDoce. Data seen by The Pegasus Project show Sicairos’ phone was selected as a target for NSO Group’s software in 2017 shortly after his colleague, prominent journalist Javier Valdéz, was shot dead near RíoDoce’s office.

Others on the list were regular people thrust into activism by Mexico’s chaos and violence. Cristina Bautista is a poor farmer whose son, Benjamin Ascencio Bautista, was one of 43 students abducted in Iguala, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in 2014 and remains missing until this day. The case shook Mexican society to its core and prompted Bautista and other parents to take to the streets in protest, and to assist independent experts in their own investigations.

The vocal stance taken by Bautista and other parents put them directly in the sights of Mexican authorities and Peña Nieto, who denounced the protests as destabilizing the country.

“Oh yeah, they were watching us! Whenever we went, a patrol followed us,” she said.

“They were chasing us.”

A “Natural Tool” for Autocrats

While The Pegasus Project exposes clear cases of misuse of NSO Group’s software, the company is just one player in a global, multi-billion-dollar spyware industry.

Estimated by NSO managers to be worth approximately $12 billion, the mobile spyware market has democratized access to cutting-edge technology for intelligence agencies and police forces that, in years past, could only dream of having it.

“You’re giving lots more regimes an intelligence service,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab. “Like a foreign intelligence service in a box.”

Like many private spyware companies, NSO Group’s stock in trade is so-called “zero-day exploits” — previously undiscovered flaws in commercial software that can allow third parties to gain access to devices, such as mobile phones. Pegasus and other top tools enjoy a particular strength: They are often able to infect devices silently, without the user even having to click a link.

Such tools have given governments the edge amid the widespread adoption of encrypted messaging applications, such as WhatsApp and Signal, which otherwise supposedly allow for users to communicate beyond the reach of state surveillance. Once devices are successfully compromised, however, the contents of such apps become readily available, along with other sensitive data like messages, photographs, and calls. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and microphones means they can be easily accessed by spyware clients as remote recording devices.

While The Pegasus Project exposes clear cases of misuse of NSO Group’s software, the company is just one player in a global, multi-billion-dollar spyware industry.

“In order to bypass [encrypted messaging] you just need to get to the device at one or the other end of that communication,” said Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Pegasus does just that. “Pegasus can do more [with the device] than the owner can. If Signal, for example, encrypts the message… [an attacker] can just record using the microphone, or take screenshots of the phone so you can read [the conversation]. There is virtually nothing from an encryption standpoint to protect against this.”

In fact, there isn’t much anyone can do to protect themselves from a Pegasus attack. Guarnieri is skeptical of applications that claim they are completely secure, and instead recommends mitigating the risks of spyware by practicing good cybersecurity hygiene. “Make sure to compartmentalize things and divide your information in such a way that even if an attack is successful, the damage can be minimized.”

At its heart, The Pegasus Project reveals a disturbing truth: In a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, governments have a simple, commercial solution that allows them to spy on virtually whoever they want, wherever they want.

“I think it’s very clear: Autocrats fear the truth and autocrats fear criticism,” said Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab.

“They see journalists as a threat, and Pegasus is a natural tool for them to target their threats.”

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