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Knowledge and Growth: What Paul Romer’s Economics Nobel Prize Says About Africa’s Infrastructure Obsession

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If knowledge and human capital are the engines of economic growth, what is the role of the foreign investment and infrastructure edifices that our governments are obsessed with? By DAVID NDII.

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Knowledge and Growth: What Paul Romer’s Economics Nobel Prize Says About Africa’s Infrastructure Obsession
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The Nobel Prize season is one of the things I look forward to, not least because there is a prize in economics. But the more important reason is that it is always a welcome reminder that humanity’s most important work is not done by the powerful, the moneyed and the celebrities that hog the daily limelight, but by the people of ideas and ideals. And in these dog days of an apocalyptic time, it could not come often enough.

This year’s economics Nobel Prize was shared by William Nordhaus and Paul Romer for contributions to natural resource economics and economic growth respectively. The commonality between their work is rather technical and I shall not go into it, but it has to do with developing methods of analyzing the interaction of the economy with complex phenomena — in Nordhaus case, climate, and in Romer’s, knowledge. The latter is the subject of this column.

Romer pioneered what is now known as new or endogenous growth theory. Hitherto, economists treated knowledge and technical progress as “exogenous”, that is, something that occurred outside the economic system. This was quite awkward since it was quite obvious that research and innovation were fundamental elements of the economic system.

This year’s economics Nobel Prize was shared by William Nordhaus and Paul Romer for contributions to natural resource economics and economic growth respectively. The commonality between their work…has to do with developing methods of analyzing the interaction of the economy with complex phenomena — in Nordhaus case, climate, and in Romer’s, knowledge.

Another seminal contribution was made by Robert Lucas, the 1989 Nobel Laureate. There is an interesting backstory to his prize. Seven years before, his ex-wife had inserted a clause in their divorce settlement that entitled her to half the prize money if he won it. The prize came 21 days before the provision lapsed. Romer’s prize has an interesting backstory too: he is the second chief economist of the World Bank to leave the institution acrimoniously only to be awarded the Nobel Prize shortly thereafter— the other one is Joseph Stiglitz.

Paul Romer’s model emphasizes the role of knowledge in long run economic growth; Lucas model emphasizes human capital. The two are intimately related but are not the same thing, although many people, including economists, often conflate them. Let me illustrate.

I came across a trending story—about a young Philippino inventor who had just successfully tested his passenger drone in the provincial city of Batangas, Watching the video, his geek-in-a garage drone is as good as those that have been showcased by tech companies with lots of venture capital money. In fact, it looked more fun to fly than the ones I have seen before. And the guy is not even an engineer. And he built it in a garage. An Australian company was sufficiently impressed to propose a commercial partnership. It was then brought to my attention, pleasantly so, that a young Kenyan, Morris Mbetsa, has built and tested one—he tweeted me video footage.

“How to build a passenger drone” i.e. the science and engineering is knowledge—that’s Romer.. The ability of a geek in a garage in Batangas and Ong’ata Rongai to use that knowledge to build a drone in a garage in Banda is human capital— that’s Lucas. One can think of Romer’s model as explaining how the world becomes more prosperous; Lucas’ as explaining why we see developing countries catching up with rich countries. When the Wright brothers made their maiden flight in 1903, it was hard to imagine a native in the colonies somewhere in Africa or Asia making a viable attempt to manufacture an aircraft. A couple of decades ago it took an entire national industrial project to make “Nyayo Pioneer”, the ill-fated contraption that stalled on the track in Kasarani stadium on the occasion of its launch. All the same, from the look of things your future personal transportation could well be made in Kariobangi.

How to build a passenger drone’ i.e. the science and engineering is knowledge—that’s Romer.. The ability of a geek in a garage in Batangas OR Ong’ata Rongai to use that knowledge to build a drone in a garage in Banda is human capital— that’s Lucas.

If knowledge and human capital are the engines of economic growth, what is the role of the foreign investment and infrastructure edifices that our governments are obsessed with?

The title of one of Lucas’s less well known papers on the subject, published in the 1990 edition of the American Economic Review, poses the following question: Why doesn’t capital flow from rich to poor countries? The article links investment, human capital and growth in a simple and intuitive manner. Suppose there are only two countries, a rich and a poor one – let’s call them America and Bangladesh. Average monthly factory wages in the two countries are $1800 and $60 respectively – that is, wage in America is 30 times more than in Bangladesh. At first, they do not trade. Each country makes its own clothes. Suppose they decide to trade?

Let us say it takes a worker one hour to stitch together a pair of jeans. In America, the labour cost for this is $11.25. In Bangladesh, it would cost $0.325. Even if productivity in Bangladesh was only a third of America, it would still cost a dollar to stitch the pair of jeans in Bangladesh. Let us say Made in America sold for $50. The retailers could sell Made in Bangladesh jeans at $45 dollars and still make $5 more. Off-shoring garment factories to Bangladesh would be very profitable. This would continue until Bangladeshi wages rise to the point where cost of production is the same in both countries. As it happens, the wage figures cited are quite close to what the actual wage costs in America and Bangladesh are. And indeed Bangladesh is now second to China in garment exports, earning US$ 28 billion last year, and employing over four million people.

The garment making industry makes a good example because it is a very basic skill that we can reasonably expect people with little or no education to learn quickly and do as well as better educated ones. Using similar analogy with US and India, but with more sophisticated data and mathematics, Lucas demonstrated that at the time he was writing, the return on capital in India would have been 58 times more than in the US. This then begs the question: with profitable opportunities of this magnitude why are poor countries not inundated with investment?

But once you move from low tech manufacturing like stitching garments, offshoring becomes a little more challenging. It takes armies of engineers and techies to manufacture commercial jetliners and all manner of scientists to do pharmaceutical research. Using very basic measures of education attainment, Lucas’ model demonstrates that once differences in human resource base are taken into account the potential returns to capital in India reduce to just 4% above the US.

In a previous column, I used similar data to show how initial differences in human capital may give answers to the questions that can’t seem to stop Africans from scratching heads: how it is that countries we are told we were “at par” with at or shortly after independence took off, and we did not. In 1970, the Kenyan workforce had an average of two years of education per person, and was the highest in the region. South Korea’s had six, Singapore five and Malaysia four years per person. In fact, South Korea’s education attainment was higher than several European countries including Portugal (3), France (4.8), Spain (5.6) and Italy (5.6) years per person. South Asia by contrast was in the same league with Africa—India (1.6), Pakistan (1.6) and Bangladesh (1.4). Sri Lanka is an outlier with 6.4.

Education attainment data provide only a rough approximation of human capital, even though the data have proved to be quite robust in economic research. The World Bank has recently published its latest national wealth accounts, in a report titled The Changing Wealth of Nations. National wealth accounting is a new statistical initiative that responds to the shortcomings of gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of economic performance. As many readers will know, GDP and its derivatives are measures of production and expenditure, which in business accounts correspond roughly to annual turnover. As currently constructed, national economic accounting does not produce the equivalent of balance sheets, that is, the assets and liabilities of a business. To illustrate, the Jubilee administration has borrowed KSh 3.5 trillion but there is no account where we have recorded the value of assets acquired with these loans. One of the assets financed, the SGR railway, has cut through the Nairobi National Park. We ought to be able to revalue the park to reflect the loss of both economic and ecological value caused by the railway, but there is no way of doing that in the GDP system. This is what national wealth accounting seeks to remedy.

This latest version, which provides wealth accounts for the year 2014 has what the Bank says is the “first sound estimates of human capital”. With wealth accounts we are able to compare the relative importance of different assets in a nation’s wealth directly. What do they tell us? First, that human capital accounts for two-thirds of the world’s wealth. Second, the wealthier the country the higher the proportion of human capital in its wealth portfolio. It ranges from 40 percent in low income countries, to 70 percent in the high-income OECD countries (See chart below). In the wealthiest region, North America, human capital accounts for 77 percent of total wealth, compared to half of national wealth in Sub-Sahara and South Asia. The Middle East/North Africa is an outlier with only a third of its wealth in human capital on account of the region’s unusually high oil wealth.

National investment rates in most developing countries are between 15 to 25 percent of GDP while expenditures on education and health (both public and private) are between 5 and 10 percent of GDP. Roughly, this suggests that a dollar invested in people generates five times as much wealth as a dollar investment in other assets. This should not surprise—think of a million shillings invested in an engineering degree against the same amount invested in a rental apartment.

Human capital accounts for two-thirds of the world’s wealth. […] the wealthier the country the higher the proportion of human capital in its wealth portfolio. It ranges from 40 percent in low income countries, to 70 percent in the high-income OECD countries… In the wealthiest region, North America, human capital accounts for 77 percent of total wealth, compared to half of national wealth in Sub-Sahara and South Asia. The Middle East/North Africa is an outlier with only a third of its wealth in human capital on account of the region’s unusually high oil wealth.

Eight years ago, the African Development Bank (AfDB) published a report in which it estimated that Africa has an infrastructure financing requirement of US$ 93 billion a year to the year 2020. The figure was subsequently adjusted upwards to $120 billion a year— a cumulative figure of 1.2 trillion dollars. Consequently, less than two decades after the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) debt forgiveness initiative many African countries are now hurtling towards a second debt crisis.

It is stated in the AfDB report that the purpose of building on this scale is to crowd in the investment to create jobs. Texas Instruments was the first Western company to invest in Bangalore. I came across a photograph of the first equipment Texas Instruments delivered to its first facility, in a bullock cart. Texas Instruments was attracted by Indian workers, not its roads. In fact, there is no account of India’s tech boom that does not mention the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). It is now said that IIT graduates are now India’s leading export to the US.

Eight years ago, the African Development Bank (AfDB) published a report in which it estimated that Africa has an infrastructure financing requirement of US$ 93 billion a year to the year 2020…The figure was subsequently adjusted upwards to $120 billion a year— a cumulative figure of 1.2 trillion dollars. Consequently, less than two decades after the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) initiative many African countries are now hurtling towards a second debt crisis.

In all the documents and discussions I have encountered, there is no acknowledgement that Africa does not have the skills—the engineers, architects and builders—to scale up building on anything close to this scale of investment, and to maintain it subsequently. Let us do the math. An engineering degree on the continent is at most $25000. The $120 billion annual “infrastructure deficit” budget works out to six million engineers. That is a whole passenger drone industry right there. And of course, once we are zipping in drones, we will not be needing so many roads.

In all the documents and discussions I have encountered, there is no acknowledgement that Africa does not have the skills—the engineers, architects and builders—to scale up building on anything close to this scale of investment, and to maintain it subsequently.

There is no evidence in economics that infrastructure investment contributes to economic growth.

This conclusion by the Asian Development Bank is typical:

“The main conclusion is that a number of countries in developing Asia have significantly improved their basic infrastructure endowments in the recent past, and this appears to correlate significantly with good growth performances. However, the evidence seems to indicate that this is mostly the result of factor accumulation (a direct effect), while the impact on productivity is inconclusive.” – Stéphane Straub and Akiko Terada-Hagiwara (2010) “Infrastructure and Growth in Developing Asia” ADB Economics Working Paper Series No. 231.

Mwalimu Nyerere: Development which is not development of the people may be of interest to historians in the year 3000. It is irrelevant to the kind of future which is created. Thus, for example, the pyramids of Egypt and the Roman roads of Europe, were material developments which still excite our amazement. But because they were only buildings and the people of those times were not developed, the empires, the cultures, of which they were a part have long ago collapsed. The Egyptian culture of those days—with all the knowledge and wisdom which it possessed—was quickly overthrown by foreign invaders because it was a culture of a few; the masses were slaves who simply suffered because of the demands of this material development, and did not benefit from it.

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

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

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

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What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward
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Consider something for a second: how severe could things have gotten, both in America and globally, if Trump weren’t an utter coward?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Uganda: Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

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

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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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