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Uhuru at UNGA: Mortgaging the Anti-Corruption War?

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The President’s unusual speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he declaimed against the culture of corruption within his own government, is an unprecedented escalation in defeatism. If Jubilee has thrown in the towel, what options does the citizenry have but to take matters into its own hands? By MIRIAM ABRAHAM  

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Uhuru at UNGA: Mortgaging the Anti-Corruption War?
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I rarely watch television. But I could not help following President Uhuru Kenyatta’s address at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and the Finance Bill 2018/19 proceedings at the National Assembly. At the world stage, I expected the bravado of a President with 98% “votes” under his belt. After all, had President Trump not taken to the same podium earlier to brag about leading the most successful administration in US history, provoking laughter at his own expense? Had King Mswati III, he with the fifteen wives and counting, not used the stage to brag about steps taken by his government to empower women? Instead, there stood a subdued leader, lamenting an enlightened citizenry that has lost trust in corrupted institutions corrupt that do not deliver for them.

It would have seemed a bit outrageous to play up the development record, as he has done in past meetings, when gains made in the past decades have been rolled back. Unemployment, especially among the youth, stands at about 47% of the population. The debt levels are now unsustainable with the country on the brink of mortgage to our Chinese benefactors. Crime rates are on the rise: young women are now being murdered without respite, young men victims of extra-judicial murders in the cities’ sprawling informal settlements. During the long flight to New York, Mr Kenyatta’s aides had probably checked his Facebook and Twitter accounts, where furious citizens, unhappy with the economic and social situation, were unleashing their anger.

As I listened to the President’s words, “… people observe the impunity of the corrupt, they increasingly feel that the economic systems are rigged against their hopes”, I was transported back to the events of the previous week. The well-orchestrated theatrics at the National Assembly with members of parliament playing to the gallery by claiming to oppose the Finance Bill, while allowing it to sail through, further burdening Kenyans with more taxes. (Director Wanuri Kahiu should consider auditioning from the National Assembly. The Bunge movie surely join Rafiki, in the list of Oscar nominees, without the complication of our holier-than-thou, Ezekiel Mutua, banning it. But then again, with the pace of repression, who knows, it may also be banned for ‘endangering national security’.)

As I listened to the President’s words, “… people observe the impunity of the corrupt, they increasingly feel that the economic systems are rigged against their hopes”, I was transported back to the theatrics at the National Assembly with members of parliament claiming to oppose the Finance Bill, while allowing it to sail through…

If Kenyans ever doubted that we are living in a period of complete State capture, the parliamentary charade and President Kenyatta’s speech confirmed it. In his own words, “when networks and cartels in government capture the state for their own selfish gain, and represent themselves as champions of an ethnic or religious group, the result is all too often civil strife and civil war”. This is not the first time that President Kenyatta has blamed cartels for controlling the State and sounding exasperated by his inability to deal with the cartels. But to take it to the global stage was a profound capitulation. To admit before the world that he was a leader whose government had been captured by cartels is a preserve of a few countries, mostly classified as failed states. Predictably, he tried to link state capture to broader international corporate and criminal networks.

The facts do not support the narrative he seems to be peddling, especially as we saw him whip the Jubilee MPs to impose more taxes on an already over-burdened population. He surely cannot dupe us into believing that his government has the goodwill to serve its people but is the victim of international networks beyond its reach. The political and economic situation that Kenya finds itself in is largely the result of the actions of President Kenyatta and his Jubilee regime. This fourth iteration of state capture follows in the footsteps of his father, Jomo Kenyatta, his mentor Daniel Arap Moi, and his former boss, Mwai Kibaki. The mismanagement of the economy, control of state institutions, corruption, tribalism, just to name a few, is of his own making, with the support of his cronies, national and international.

In the President’s speech, he mentioned that state capture could result in “civil strife and civil war”. There is vast empirical evidence to support his claim. A recently issued report jointly drafted by the United Nations and the World Bank, Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict, provides numerous examples of how grievances around state capture and exclusion, among other injustices, would lead to violence. In the current situation, where there is barely any independent institution, where members of the National Assembly have completely forgotten that the Constitution bestows sovereign power to the people and only delegated it to him, to act on their behalf; where members of parliament take voting instructions from the Presidency or Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga and other opposition leaders, whose surrender and capitulation to the Jubilee regime, is complete; where there is no channel to air the grievances amassing from a high-tax regime, corruption and tough economic conditions. In short, Mr Kenyatta’s predictions of “civil strife and civil war” are not far-fetched.

But we also know that “civil strife and civil war” could be prevented by addressing the grievances so eloquently articulated by the President in New York. The same grievances that now dominate the social media platforms of the presidency. They are aired openly in beauty salons, social gatherings and pubs. They were passionately echoed at the recent Senate sitting in Eldoret with sentiments such as “heri kifo, kuliko kuishi Kenya” (it is better to die than live in Kenya). These are not things that should be taken lightly – the cameras in Eldoret showed some of the Senators chuckling. There needs to be much more serious thought placed on saving the country from the situation it finds itself. Dismantling the opposition coalition as a strategy has its limits. It may have been successful in legitimizing the Jubilee regime after the 26 October sham election last year, but on its own, it cannot solve the economic and social grievances raging across the country.

In many forums, whether online or in our local pubs, the question that lingers is: what next? In the absence of a credible opposition, how do we change our current situation? With a compromised media and retreating civil society, how do we organize ourselves? With a government, which is willing to use violence to suppress protests, what is left for us to do? There are no easy answers, but I believe that collectively, we can forge a path out of our current situation. It appears that we have four possible options, that we should seriously consider, in no specific order of preference.

In many forums…the question that lingers is: what next? In the absence of a credible opposition, how do we change our current situation? With a compromised media and retreating civil society, how do we organize ourselves? With a government, which is willing to use violence to suppress protests, what is left for us to do?

There is an option for Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy to acknowledge that they have failed to show leadership in their five years in power and honourably resign from office. The President said as much in his speech in New York and he has previously thrown his hands in the air in frustration at the runaway levels of corruption. The honourable step, when one is unable or unwilling to do his job, is to step aside and pass the baton to others. The resignation of Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, in February this year set an example in our region.

There is a second option: civil strife triggering a social revolution that topples the regime and replaces it with a transitional authority that abides by the current constitutional arrangements. Africa has numerous examples of these revolutions, with Burkina Faso and The Gambia as recent notable cases, albeit with specificities unique to Kenya.

There is an option for Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy to acknowledge that they have failed to show leadership in their five years in power and honourably resign from office…The resignation of Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, in February this year set an example in our region.

There is yet another option: to conduct a transparent and inclusive national dialogue to chart a way forward. To be clear, this is not the ‘Bridges to Nowhere’ initiative, nor the so-called National Dialogue Conference launched recently by a section of the religious community. Nor is it about the imprudent and selfish interests of the political elite demanding cosmetic constitutional changes to install their camp in power in the name of a parliamentary system of government. It is not the diversionary tactics of Jubilee regime puppets with the calls for a referendum (#WanjikuReferendum) that will probably roll back devolution in the guise of budgetary discipline.

Another option is to wait out the current regime. And in parallel, begin building a movement that is based on our core values and aspirations, with a new crop of leaders to participate in elective positions in 2022.

Another potential option is to wait out the current regime. And in parallel, begin building a movement that is based on our core values and aspirations, with a new crop of leaders to participate in elective positions in 2022. This is of course based on the wrong premise that we ever conduct elections in Kenya, rather than the reality of rampant electoral injustice. In democracies where elections actually take place, when out of power, political parties and social movements renew their focus and organize to win the next election. In the United States, this is the high-stakes game going on ahead of the midterm elections with the Democratic Party hoping to wrest control of the Senate and the House from the Republican Party. But again, they don’t have a nefarious IEBC overseeing their election under the tight control of the State.

Apathy cannot be an option. Hopelessness cannot be a choice. Fear cannot be an excuse. History has shown that it is the small acts of a few people that lead to real change.

Neither of these four options is without risks. Neither of them is easy and nor are the options mutually exclusive. The only option that we should not contemplate is that of sitting in our comfort zones and hoping and praying that our situation will change by itself. It will not. We have a civic responsibility to pick any of the four options above and run with them. When your President stands before the world and declares that cartels have taken over government, apathy cannot be an option. Hopelessness cannot be a choice. Fear cannot be an excuse. History has shown that it is the small acts of a few people that lead to real change. It is the courage of a few that would lead to the renewal we need and deserve as a country. Let’s arise from our slumber and do the right thing before we witness the total mortgaging of the country.

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Ms. Abraham is a governance and institutional development expert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was not the case in 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are the boss’ options.

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

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll
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Dear Readers/Viewers,

For four years now, The Elephant has been one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

We have further ascertained that the directive to do so came from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and was implemented beginning 12 December 2020, when we noticed a sudden traffic drop coming from several providers in Uganda, including Africell and Airtel. A forensics report, which provides technical details on the blocking, is available here.

We have written to the UCC requesting a reason for the blocking but are yet to receive a response.

The Elephant wholeheartedly condemns this assault on free speech and on freedom of the press and calls on the Ugandan government to respect the rights of Ugandans to access information.

We would like to assure all our readers that we are doing everything in our power to get the restrictions removed and hope normal access can be restored expeditiously.

As we do this, to circumvent the block, a Bifrost mirror has been deployed. Readers in Uganda can once again access The Elephant on this link.

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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