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Speak of Me as I Am: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa

21 min read. Does a country create a people, or do a people create a country? KALUNDI SERUMAGA responds to Mahmood Mamdani’s recent analysis on the political situation in Ethiopia.

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Speak of Me as I Am: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa
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The Westphalian principles, rooted in the 1648 Treaties signed in the European region of that name, have been monstrously mis-applied when it comes to the African continent, yet they established modern international relations, particularly the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built. Everything else, especially that dreaded category, ‘ethnicity’ is cast as a diversion and dangerous distraction.

This is the tone that runs through Ugandan Professor Mahmoud Mamdani’s one thousand-word opinion piece: The Trouble With Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism, published on 3rd January for the New York Times by (and patriotically reproduced in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper), bearing a total of fifty-four iterations of the word ‘ethnic’.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built.

At Independence, the Westphalia protocols were conferred on to the former colonial contraptions. The results were economic stagnation and political repression. For over five decades, these new nations have been the focus of intellectual and political agitation among Africa’s thinkers. When, after all that rumination and fulmination, our thinkers still get things horribly back to front, we all get stuck at a crossroads.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction. Current Prime Minister, the youthful Abiy Ahmed is faced with a many-sided series of demands from a deeply frustrated population. Many of these relate directly to the lack of an economic growth model that palpably raises living standards. Others reach further back to the age-old question of land ownership and reform. Naturally, the demand for greater civic rights to speech and assembly come as a prerequisite. One feature common to these demands is the tendency for the Ethiopians to speak through, and/or on behalf of the various constitutionally recognised native identities within the country. Some may have even formed militias for this purpose.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics. “Fears of Ethiopia suffering Africa’s next interethnic conflict are growing,” he warns.

Prime Minister Abiy has been quick to concede much, and roll out as many reforms as he can. Most notably, he has ended the two-decade stand-off with his northern neighbour, Eritrea.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics.

This may not be enough, Mamdani tells us. The real problem, as he sees it, is the introduction of ethnicity into Ethiopian governance, and its central position in the Ethiopian constitution. This, Professor Mamdani says, was done by former Prime Minister, the late Meles Zenawi, who served as the de facto Ethiopian strongman from 1991 to 2012. Mamdani describes this as an attempt to replicate a similar strategy of ethnic organization that, in his view, was introduced to Africa as part of the colonial method of governing:

“In most of Africa, ethnicity was politicized when the British turned the ethnic group into a unit of local administration, which they termed ‘indirect rule.’ Every bit of the colony came to be defined as an ethnic homeland, where an ethnic authority enforced an ethnically defined customary law that conferred privileges on those deemed indigenous at the expense of non-indigenous minorities.”

This analysis fails to stop itself there, which would have been bad enough.

“The move,” continues the Professor, “was a response to a perennial colonial problem: racial privilege for whites mobilized those excluded as a racialized non-white majority. By creating an additional layer of privilege, this time ethnic, indirect rule fragmented the racially conscious majority into so many ethnic minorities, in every part of the country setting ethnic majorities against ethnic minorities.”

Describing native homelands as a “fiction”, the Professor goes on to say that while such ethnic labelling and selective privileging may have served the colonial purpose, it had the effect of first, “dividing a racially conscious African population” and second, turning them into people who saw themselves as “tribes” first and foremost.

Thus, he concludes, “Wherever this system continued after independence, national belonging gave way to tribal identity as the real meaning of citizenship.”

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

These words have many meanings, none of them good for Africans, at least.

First, this is the same thing as saying that before European arrived in Africa, “ethnic” identities were not politicized, and neither were they units of administration. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is to say that there were no ‘politics’ in precolonial Africa, and neither were there forms of administration.

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

Africans seem to have been roaming the continent as a cohort of an undefined but also homogenous mass, with wholly insignificant identities, which were only solemnised, formalized, and bestowed with political meaning with the arrival of a European power amongst them.

Second, it also implies that only the European had the skill to animate these identities, without them tearing the (therefore necessary) European-planted state apart.

Third, that the tragedy of modern Africa began when the European withdrew his controlling hand. Left to their own devices, the identities he had created, mutated into a Frankenstein’s monster of tribal strife.

Fourth, that there is such a thing as ‘national identity’ that sprung to life fully formed at independence, a good by-product of the European-planted state, and that it is African ‘tribalism’ that destroys it. In other words, European-invented African tribalism spoils the one good thing (nationalism) that Europe brought to Africa.

Finally, that belonging to the European-planted nation in Africa is the only viable means of an African citizenship. But if the British were pre-occupied with “ethnicizing”, and the resultant people’s feelings and loyalties were exclusively ethnic, where then does “national belonging” come from at independence?

The entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Naming

Why are 34 million Oromo in Ethiopia an ‘ethnicity’, and 5.77 million Danes a ‘nation’?

Why are the three great wars that shaped modern Europe (Franco-Prussian, the 1914-18 and 1939-1945 great wars), not conceptualized as ethnic conflicts?

Mamdani’s entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Why are there only a handful of contemporary states in Africa whose names bear a relation to the identity of people actually living there. Everyplace else is a reference to a commodity, or an explorer’s navigational landmarks.

This frankly malevolent labelling offers the space for the linguistic demotion of entire peoples. To wit: 34 million Oromo, seven million Baganda, 43 million Igbo, 10 million Zulu will always remain ‘ethnicities’ and ‘tribes’ to be chaperoned by ‘whiteness’. 5.77 million Danes, 5.5 million Finns, and just 300,000 Icelanders can be called ‘nations’, complete with their own states with seats at the UN.

Some of these states were only formed less than two centuries ago (Italy: 1861, Germany: 1815, Belgium: 1830), while some of those ‘tribes’, and most critically for the argument, their governing institutions had already been created.

Why has the ethno-federalization of Great Britain itself, not been seen as such, and as a recipe for conflict?

This, in fact, is the real ‘fiction’, and it has led to decades of instability. But just because Westphalia does not see them, does not mean the African nations don’t exist. The denial of their existence is in fact, an act of violence.

This is what led a thus exiled Buganda’s Kabaka Edward Muteesa II to write: “I have never been able to pin down precisely the difference between a tribe and a nation and see why one is thought to be so despicable and the other so admired.”

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity. The starting point of this enterprise is to invite the African to agree to see our own identities as a liability to African progress, by labelling them “ethnic”.

When “ethnic” conflicts do flare up, those natives who have refused to jump on to this bandwagon are subjected to a big “I told you so”, as Mamdani’s essay now seeks to do.

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity.

This was the position of the OAU member states, and many African political parties, including those in opposition to their increasingly repressive post-Independence governments.

But Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism.

Since his initial assertion when introducing the issue of ‘ethnicity’, was that it was a result of European labelling leading to a “divide and rule” situation, Mamdani is then faced with the difficulty of explaining where those particular Ethiopian ‘ethnicities’ spring from if there were no Europeans creating them. Unless, to develop his assertion of homelands being a ‘fiction’, he thinks Ethiopia’s various nationalities are fictional too?

Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism

He covers up this logical gap by pre-empting a proper discussion of that history. Then changing tack, he suggests that the presence of “ethnic” problems in Ethiopia, despite the country’s lack of a European colonial history actually shows that “ethnicity” is somehow a congenital defect in the body politic of all Africa.

“The country today resembles a quintessential African system marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains.”

Of course the correct answer to all the above questions is that Africa’s Africans had their ‘ethnic’ identities well known and in place long before the arrival of any European explorer or conqueror. And these were not anodyne proto-identities, but actual political institutions and methods of organization and governance. But this is an inconvenient truth, because then it forces the proper naming of these alleged ‘ethnicities’: nations.

All told, deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations. It serves to fetishize the colonial project as the godsend device to rescue the African ethnic strife and predestined mayhem.

But if the 34 million Oromo are an ethnicity, then so are the 5.77 million Danes. More so for our situation so are the English, Scots and Welsh who field national teams during the World Cup and the Commonwealth games. We need consistency, people must be spoken of as they are.

Deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations.

Naturally, the emergent Independence-era African middle class was more than happy to go along with this erasure, in what Basil Davidson called an attempt at “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”, and even fine-tuned it. Where some concessions had been made to the existence of the old nations, these were quickly, often violently, dispensed with.

In British Africa, the politics of trying to dispense with this reality is what dominated virtually all the politics of pre-independence constitutional negotiations. The question informed even the political alliances that emerged at independence.

In Zambia it required a special constitutional pact between the new head of state, Kenneth Kaunda and the ruling council of the Barotse people – they have recently sought to repudiate it and return to their pre-colonial status.

Ghana’s Asante kings were against the British handing power to Nkrumah’s government. They argued that since they had ceded power to the British via treaty, then the departure of the British meant a termination of those treaties. Logically, therefore, that power should be re-invested in the ones it had been taken from under treaty.

In Kenya, the Maasai and the Coastal peoples used the same argument during the decolonisation conferences at Lancaster House. Significantly, the Somali rejected inclusion in the independence Kenyan state, insisting that they wanted to be integrated into independent Somalia. Unable to resolve the ‘Three Questions’ the Foreign and Colonial Office cynically kicked them into the not-very-long grass for the incoming leadership to deal with. The Mombasa Republican Council of today draws its political legitimacy from the updated colonial-era Witu Agreement of 1906, signed between their ancestors and the independence government.

Histories

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

It is a two-stage challenge. First: to understand Ethiopia’s history. To do that, one must first recognise and accept the possibilities of an African history not shaped, defined and animated by European imperatives. Africans, like all people, have been making their own history. And like people elsewhere, this has as much narration of the good as it does the bad.

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

As his title implies, this was not a nation, but an Empire: a territory consisting of many nations, brought into his ambit by one means or another.

Menelik’s motives and method can, and should be debated, but the fact is that Europe met its match in the Ethiopian Highlands, and were forced to leave Menelik to it.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

Yes. Africans also produce momentous historical events. It is not an exclusive trait of white people.

We must get into the habit of discussing our own non-European driven history as a real thing with real meanings. Just as we may talk about the continuing long-term effects of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the European Balkan region, so can we talk about how the demise of Menelik’s empire continues to impact on the greater Horn region.

If that sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that since Menelik’s passing 120 years ago, Ethiopia has had only six substantive rulers: Zewditu/Selassie, Mengistu, Zenawi, Dessalegn and now Abiy.

On his passing, Menelik left a region covering more than three times the area he inherited. Prince Tafari, upon eventually inheriting the throne as Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 simply sought to consolidate it.

In his 2002 biography: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood, the Ethiopian author Nega Mezlekia tells the story of him and his family, as one of many Amhara families that migrate to Jijiiga, a region in the far east of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Selassie. This was part of a government programme of Amhara settlement to many parts of the Ethiopian countryside. Jijiiga is home to ethnic Somalis. Amhara expansion, one of several factors, eventually provokes an armed revolt. Ironically, the author in his youth joined the insurgents.

Emperor Selassie can be said to have made some errors, but the context is critical: his reign spanned a period that saw immense changes in global politics, and social ideas.

Consider his life and times:

He witnessed the two great inter-European wars, the fall of its empires (Italian, German, Ottoman, Japanese) and the end of direct European occupation of Africa. He suffered two European invasions of his realm, and lived in exile. He was a regent during the Bolshevic Revolution in 1917, and saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world superpower and the Cold War that followed. He may have been one of only a handful of world leaders to have been a member of both the United Nations, and the League of Nations that preceded it.

This sweep of history also had its impact on the Ethiopian peoples. One response was a growing demand for social, economic and political reform, including loosening the bonds of Selassie’s empire.

By the time of the 1975 coup against him, the world was a fundamentally different one than the one he had met when he took the throne. He was, in fact, so “old school” that his captors were taken aback when he calmly informed them that he had no personal income or savings to look after himself.

He took a hard line on Eritrea, which had settled into an uneasy federation, provoking a war of secession; continued Amhara settler expansion into Oromo and elsewhere; and he failed to manage Tigrayan nationalism, rooted partly in their dynastic loss of the imperial throne to that of Menelik’s Shewa kingdom. Critically, he did not effectively address agrarian land reform, one of the roots of the country’s political and agricultural crises.

So, to sum up Emperor Selassie: ultimately, he neither succeeds to fully consolidate his empire, nor does he re-order the empire’s boundaries and strictures, which he had inherited in a fundamentally different era. He found himself fighting the more conservative elements of his aristocracy opposed to his reforms; the modernist republicans concerned that he was not reforming fast enough; and the increasingly radical nationalists in the regions demanding self-determination.

Enter Colonel Mengistu, something of a zealot, but who, for all his violent tendencies, was more of the “social reform” persuasion, and sympathetic to the “land to the tiller” demands of the early radical youth movements. Having overthrown a monarch, he saw himself in the image of the Soviet Union’s Communist party in Russia which had deposed the Russian King Tsar Nicholas II. His task, as he saw it, was to create a socialist state.

However, Mengistu had basically taken over the same state that Selassie inherited and he was still wedded to it. His modernist concept of history and the world prevented him from understanding that he was dealing with a home-grown imperial history, and that he was in effect therefore, running an empire.

This blinds him to the “nationalities question”, and only intensifies the agitations among the various indigenous nations trapped in his now secular empire.

So, he basically tries to kill everybody opposed to him.

This is the reality Mamdani fails to see, and mistakenly calls Mengistu’s state a ‘unified republic’; interestingly, he does not offer any of the gruesome details of how Mengistu ‘instituted’ this so-called unification. The only places where Ethiopia was unified and a republic was in Mengistu’s mind (and in his armory). What the various territories wanted was recognition of their separate identities, and an unchallenged say over the land of their ancestors.

Mengistu’s response was to raise even higher the levels of violence needed to keep these rebellions in check, simultaneously fighting Tigrayan, Eritrean, Somali and Oromo insurgencies.

Theory and practice.

Ideologically, the leaderships of the Ethiopian insurgencies were taken over by persons claiming to be as Marxist as Lenin was. Eventually, all the belligerents, including the regime, claimed to be Marxist organisations, yet they were in conflict with each other. What intensified the crisis was the conflicting understandings of what Marxist practice should therefore be, in their context. It was at this point that a number of left-ideological debates came into play, and where a lot of left-ideologues lost their way.

Marxist theory, which mobilized millions of people worldwide, and its practical implications, should be examined with some care. History on this point is necessary.

These nationalist struggles based their arguments on the Leninist principle of “The Right of Small Nations to Self-Determination”, which had been partially applied in the Soviet Union from its formation in 1917. After Lenin’s death in 1924, his successor, Josef Stalin, found less time for it, and, in the face of sustained Western European aggression seemed to see it as a liability to the security of the revolution.

The 1975 coup that brought Mengistu to power (or, more accurately, the coup that Mengistu then subsequently violently hijacked) was a response to widespread unrest, particularly among youth and student movements. This led to a number of practical problems on the ground, in relation to ideology.

At the heart of both the Dergue and the later Tigrayan movements was the issue of land reform. Mamdani does note that the initial upheavals of the 1970s were driven by this, but then fails to make the correct links.

For the vast majority of Africans, especially back then, land is not just a place to live, but also a place of work. To be without land is to be without a secure job. Subsistence peasant agriculture is back-breaking, often precarious, and not financially lucrative. It is also – and many progressives fail to recognize this – autonomous. To a very great extent, the subsistence peasant is not dependent on the state or the global economy. If anything, those entities depend on the farmer whose austere lifestyle acts as a hidden subsidy in providing the market with cheaply-grown food at no investment risk to the consumer or the state. Clearly, one thing that can transform and undergird this existence is sensible reforms to the way the farmer secures tenure of the land they work.

But what happens when land rights encounter cultural rights based on land? A “homeland” is certainly not the “fiction” of Mamdani’s assertion. It hosts the identity and worldview of the people that occupy it. It holds their sacred sites, and places marking their cultural consciousness. More so, that culture underpins their ability to keep producing autonomously. To suggest that it does not exist or does not matter, actually shows a complete failure to grasp who black African people are and how they live, and think. It is a fundamentally anti-African statement implying, as it does, that black Africans do not have an internal intellectual and spiritual logic, developed indigenously, and augmented by physical spaces and objects within them, that informs a worldview. Africans, the suggestion is, are inherently transposable, as they are not tied to any thing or any place.

The captains of the old transatlantic slave ships could not have theorized it better.

Coming from someone who lives in Africa, this is a bit surprising. Coming from a professor heading an institute within one of Africa’s new universities, designed to bolster the colonial state’s mission of deracinating the African, perhaps less so.

However, the current crisis in Ethiopia is very real, and failure to finally resolve it holds huge implications for the entire region. That is precisely why a correct analysis is needed. Not a comfortable one rooted in essentially racist tropes.

The allegedly ‘ethnic demands’ were demands for a different type of guarantee to land rights than those being promoted by Mengistu. For example, would an Amhara family like Nega Mezlekia’s, originally settled by Emperor Selassie in Jijiiga, have a legally equal claim to land against the ethnic Somali communities native to the area, just because they now happen to be the ‘tillers’ there? Would there be a hierarchy of claims? In any event, who should decide? A central authority in Addis Ababa, or a federated unit representing the historic native community?

There are no easy answers. But the regime’s (and other ‘progressives’) complete refusal to even consider the issue, is what led to the conclusion that for there to be justice in Ethiopia, the issue of native nationalities, and their land-based cultural rights, would have to be physically resolved first. In short, it became clear that the land reform question could not be effectively addressed without also addressing the underlying question of productive cultural identities and the historical land claims that arise from that.

This was particularly sharp in those areas of the country –such as Oromo and Tigray- that are dominated by pastoralist communities. Historically, much of Africa’s land grabs have taken place against pastoralist communities, the great city of Nairobi being a prime example.

This is the basis of the ‘ethnic’ movements that have so perturbed Professor Mamdani. It was, in fact, a debate of the Left, and not some right-wing atavist distraction.

So, the great irony is that Ethiopia, home to that great bastion of mis-applied Westphalian thinking, the Organisation of African Unity, becomes ground zero for the great unresolved National Question as it applies to Independent Africa: what is an African nation, and is it the same thing as a given African state (or, more accurately, a state located in Africa)?

The armed struggle began in Eritrea, after Selassie’s unilateral abrogation of the federal arrangement. The original fighting group, called the Eritrean Liberation Front was soon violently displaced from the field by a more radical Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front of Isias Afwerki, espousing those aspects of Leninism and Maoism that enabled it to mobilise a broad front of all classes affected by the feeling of Occupation.

The rebels’ demands were clear: a federation of Ethiopia or separation from it; control of their own lands, and an equal recognition of cultures.

For his part, Mengistu, now fighting five separate militant groups, including a very militant hard-line the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front based in urban Ethiopia, placed all his faith in military might. He ended up building the largest armed force in Sub-Saharan Africa (if not Africa as a whole) of some half- a million soldiers, and being heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, which saw him as a vital foothold in Africa, for war materiel and other supplies. He also received military support from Cuba. It again may not be widely known that at the height of the fighting, these different forces which had grown in to wholesale armies, were fighting some of the largest engagements (including tank battles) since the 1939-1945 European inter-ethnic conflict called the Second World War.

The fight progressively turned in favour of the rebels. With Mengistu’s main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, finally capitulating against the US in the Superpower contest in 1989, his forces were routed and he was driven from the capital in 1991.

The Eritrean armed struggle started in 1961, the Tigrayan one in 1975 and Oromo’s in 1973. All end with Mengistu’s fall.

If Mamdani genuinely believes these nationalities are just “ethnicities”, and that Ethiopia is now running the risk of hosting “Africa’s next inter-ethnic conflict”, then this history shows that Ethiopia has in fact already had the “next inter-ethnic” conflict. Mamdani’s fears, this is to say, are 30 or 40 years late.

To sum up Mengistu: he seized power in response to a severe political crisis, and then, misreading his position, sought to impose his concept of “socialism” on the various peoples still caught in the net of Menelik’s Empire state. This led to a situation of mounting violence, in which he saw just about everyone as an enemy to be physically crushed. His regime eventually succumbed to the overwhelming resistance.

Enter Meles Zenawi, who came out of that generation of student activists who took up the nationalities and land reform demands during the time of the Emperor. To many of them, Mengistu’s high-handedness in dealing with the matter was a disappointment. Tigrayans today do not easily recall that when Meles led the the youth to start the war, they sought refuge in Eritrea, and were nurtured and trained there by Isias Afwerki’s EPLF forces already at war against the Ethiopian state.

The issue of identity does not therefore mean that Africans are perennially and illogically at each others throats in some kind of primordial frenzy. They do politics, and are fully capable of defining their interests and maintaining relations, or breaking them off, as needs may dictate.

Zenawi (to an extent like Daniel Ortega on the other side of the world, and even Yoweri Museveni, in his own way), found himself in charge of a state now encountering a new, neo-liberal global world order being enforced by the only super power left standing. Like Selassie, the circumstances around them had changed greatly from when they had begun their political journeys.

Far from simply “introducing” a federal constitution whose “ethnic” nature Mamdani is problematizing, Zenawi’s regime was finally having the Ethiopian state recognise the long-standing historical realities that had emerged from decades of political and armed struggle.

To reduce the product of all that sweeping history to a notion of “fictions”, is a dangerous over-simplification.

In this quest for erasure, Mamdani applies the same misleading thinking backwards by calling the 1994 Ethiopian constitution a “Sovietificaton” of Ethiopia. The Russian nationalities were no more an invention of Lenin than the Ethiopian ones are of Meles Zenawi’s creation. The various units that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were based on nationalities long in place before the 1917 communist revolution took place there. The responsible thing to do, as a starting point, was acknowledge that fact, which the communists did (and Stalin to a greater extent than Lenin before him).

Yes, Meles was a dictator. And yes, the constitution is based on indigenous nations. That does not automatically suggest causality: Meles Zenawi did not “turn Ethiopia to ‘ethnic’ federalism”. Its long history did.

In fact, events show that Zenawi and the dominant faction he governed with, were no longer in support of the “rights of small nations” by the time they took power.

With the exception of holding the pre-agreed referendum on Eritrean independence (he may have had little choice in the matter: friends in Addis used to like to tell the story of how Meles’ own stepmother, who happens to be Eritrean, and who raised him, left him in his official Addis residence to go and vote for independence in Eritrea, then returned after), he fails to implement the spirit and the letter of the new arrangements that were based on principles forged in the course of the long war.

The best example is found in the very incident that sparked the current uprising: if the regime knew that – as Mamdani points out – the 1994 federal constitution guaranteed the nationalities concerned authority over their land, why then did it try to expand the boundaries of the Federal capital Addis further into Oromo territory over the objections of people there?

In other words, the problem in Ethiopia is the exact opposite of what Professor Mamdani sees. It is not the “ethnic” constitution at fault; it is the failure by the Zenawi regime to genuinely implement it, by negating the spirit of the idea in private, while pretending to uphold it in public.

In particular, Zenawi’s “Woyane” regime repeated Mengistu’s mistake of trying to hold on to Menelik’s state. Critically, he too failed to address the historic issue of land reform that began the whole shake-up of Ethiopia with the student protests against the Emperor. In practice, land is still the property of the state, to be handed out for “developmental” purposes, upholding the Mengistu mentality, but now in the context of global neo-liberalism.

“Derg and [the TPLF] took a very similar approach to the land question. Which is why, three decades after TPLF comes to power, they have still been unable to do land reform, abandoned agrarian reform and ironically, put rural Ethiopian land on the international auction. Something like four million acres of rural farmland, mostly in southern Ethiopia has been leased out to foreign investors since the mid-2000s, ” observes journalist Parselelo Kantai, who frequents the country.

Power comes with its temptations, and a state machine comes with its own institutional imperatives. It would appear that once a group finds itself in control of the apparatus of an empire such as Menelik’s, they become very reluctant to abandon its workings. Perhaps it is only the armed forces in Portugal, having overthrown their autocratic Caetano regime in 1974, that ever went on to immediately dismantle their empire and allow the conquered to go free.

The politics of the armed coalition coming together and finally driving Mengistu out may well have been the moment for this change in attitude to begin, not least because the Meles’ TPLF was by far the militarily dominant faction of the alliance.

To sum up Meles Zenawi: he evolved into what many ‘revolutionaries” became after the Cold War era: a technocratic autocrat placing his hopes in a neo-liberal approach to solving the country’s deep economic problems through a “developmentalist” strategy. He quite literally burned himself out hoping that, by bringing rapid infrastructural development, he could perhaps outpace the historical political claims, and thus render them redundant.

This essentially meant a new form of what Mengistu and Selassie had done before him: overlook people’s ancestral claims to this or that, and simply see the whole landmass as a site for “development” projects, no matter who they may displace or inconvenience.

But “any notion of ‘progress’ or ‘modernization’ that does not start from a peoples’ culture is tantamount to genocide.” the late Professor Dan Nabudere warned us.

Meles Zenawi sought to hold on to the very imperial state he had once fought. His unwillingness to fully honour the terms of the broad alliance of all the fighting groups, and instead consolidated his armed group to take factional control of the whole state and set the course for new upheavals. His sudden death became the opening for these issues to spill out into the streets.

His immediate successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, soon found that the kind of extreme state violence that had served Zenawi, and Mengistu before him, and Selassie before them both, no longer worked, forcing Deslaegn to resign in failure.

Abiy Ahmed must finally deal with these realities. Ultimately, any attempt to do politics based on the imperatives of the Menelik-created state was, and is, going to come up against the fact that this state actually started life as an empire. If the history of Ethiopia has shown one thing, it is that this approach has always provoked rebellions.

Ethiopia, one could say, is back to the pre-war situation it was in just before Mengistu’s coup.

The problem is conceptual; the same one that confronted Selassie and Mengistu: are we running a nation, or a homegrown empire made up of several? 

Mr Abiy Ahmed would be wise not to go down that path.

His challenge is to dismantle the remnants of Meles’ personal military apparatus, genuinely re-orient the country back to its federal constitutional ethos, begin to address the land tenure question, and quickly, before the political grievances – and the economic challenges underlying them – completely boil over.

As the world becomes less secure and with fewer overlords, there will be more and more examples of Africa’s invisible nations asserting themselves to manage control of their resources.

Dismissing them as “ethnic” is simply laying a foundation to justify violence against them.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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No Country for Muslims? Modi Underestimated Indians’ Tolerance for Diversity

7 min read. What India’s Prime Minister forgets – and what the mass protests in Indian cities demonstrate – is that India’s secularist democracy has survived more than 70 years because Indians decided that religion was too personal and too precious to be left to the whims of the state.

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Just before Christmas, when thousands of Indians – both Hindus and Muslims – were protesting against a controversial new law that discriminates against Muslims, a court in Pakistan handed down the death sentence to Junaid Hafeez, a 33-year-old university professor who was found guilty of blasphemy. Hafeez had been accused of posting derogatory comments about the Prophet Mohammed on social media. His case is one among many in Pakistan where harsh sentences have been handed out to those perceived to be insulting Islam.

That same week, a court in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – Islam’s holiest land – sentenced five men to death for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Critics believe that the trial was a farce and the real perpetrators of the crime, including Saudi Prince Mohamed bin Salman, have got away scot-free. Khashoggi’s brutal murder in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 shocked the world and led many to point fingers at the repressive Saudi monarchy, which is known to torture and detain those opposed to it – and which seems to suffer no consequences for its inhumane treatment of dissidents, not even from Western nations that advocate democratic ideals to the rest of the world

There were no mass protests or riots in either Pakistan or Saudi Arabia – or even outside these countries – against what are undoubtedly flawed and extremely unfair justice systems. On the contrary, the Trump administration congratulated Saudi Arabia for the verdict against Khashoggi’s alleged killers, thereby whitewashing what was clearly a miscarriage of justice.

So the fact that Indians of all religions have risen against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is perhaps on indication of how resilient India’s democracy and secularist traditions are. The CAA is being opposed because it allows Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsees who are in India illegally to acquire Indian citizenship if they can prove that they are being persecuted in Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan, all of which are predominantly Muslim countries. This privilege, however, is not extended to Muslims from these countries. This is viewed by many as grossly discriminatory and contrary to India’s constitution, which was founded on the principle that religion should not determine citizenship.

At least 25 people have been killed by security forces since the protests began, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown no signs of reconsidering the wisdom of the Act; on the contrary he has become more defiant. This could be because, like Donald Trump, he believes he has a strong base that will support him and his policies no matter what. But that base, it seems, is crumbling in Modi’s case. The protests have not stopped; on the contrary, they are getting louder.

Moral high ground

Since independence in 1947, India has prided itself for not being like its neighbour Pakistan, which insisted on forming an independent state for India’s Muslims rather than being part of a united India where both Hindus and Muslims could co-habit peacefully. India held the moral high ground with respect to its neighbour, often boasting that despite being a Hindu-majority country, it had no issue with its sizeable Muslim minority. (There are currently roughly 200 million Muslims in India – almost the same number as the total population of Pakistan.) In fact, until Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party took over in 2014, successive Indian governments have made it a point to woo and accommodate the nation’s Muslims.

The fact that Hindus in India are fighting to preserve Muslims’ rights is itself a testament to Indians’ tolerance and maturity – even among those who have historical grievances against the Muslim community. Although Muslims have lived in India before the advent of the Mughal Empire, which ruled over India from the 16th century to the mid-18th century, the Islamicisation of India is often attributed to the Mughal invaders/conquerors and their proselytising mission.

There is no doubt that Mughal culture has contributed enormously to the arts, architecture, culture and cuisine of India. Architectural marvels like the Taj Mahal, biriyani, kebabs, and the Urdu language are a legacy of India’s Mughal/Muslim heritage. But the Mughal Empire (which lost power after the East India Company and later the British Empire controlled large swathes of India) is also associated with atrocities, including forced conversions, which India’s Sikhs are acutely aware of as their religion is founded partly on resistance to Mughal hegemony.

Although Sikhism is often viewed as a reaction against Hinduism’s stifling and oppressive caste system, and its first guru, Nanak Devji, is remembered for fusing Islam with Hinduism, thereby creating a monotheistic religion that shunned the worship of gods and goddesses and that bequeathed more rights to women, Sikhs’ resistance to Islam has come to define their religion.

Distrust of Muslims is an instinct that is inculcated in Sikhs and Hindus from childhood, much like the way Kikuyus are taught to distrust Luos. When I was a child, my grandmother reminded me that many Sikh gurus, such as Guru Tegh Bahadur, were tortured or put to death by Mughal emperors for resisting forced conversions to Islam. The sons of Sikhism’s last guru, Govind Singh, were buried alive by the sadistic Emperor Aurangzeb in the late 17th century. Govind Singh formed the “Khalsa” (a militant group of disciples) to wage war against the Muslim rulers.

Northern India’s Sikhs and Hindus thus have an instinctive fear of Muslims that is based on a history where they – not the Muslim/Mughal invading armies – were the persecuted ones, a fact that neither the left nor the right in India is comfortable addressing, but which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have cynically tapped into.

What is happening in India is not your garden variety Islamophobia that emerged after 9/11 but a much deeper instinctive reaction that has its roots in Indian history. While the Mughal period in India is often seen as a golden age when beautiful buildings, poetry, dance forms such as kathak and other fine arts flourished, it is also viewed as a period of intense violence and cruelty. While Mughal emperors like Akbar the Great (who married a Hindu woman) are lauded for fostering harmony between the sub-continent’s largely Hindu population and the Muslim rulers, the atrocities committed by some Mughal emperors has also marred their reign. These atrocities shaped the formation of religions like Sikhism. Yet, the Sikh community’s religious leaders were among the first to oppose the CAA.

A “pure” India

The violence that characterised the Mughal Empire, especially in the 17th century, was reenacted again in 1947 when India attained independence and when millions died or were displaced when the new country Pakistan was born and the Indian subcontinent was partitioned. My ancestral family home in Lahore became part of Pakistan. This is a wound that my great grandparents and grandparents harboured for years.

And yet, India’s Muslims who did not cross the border to live in Pakistan in 1947 have rarely felt like they do not belong to India. Hindu temples sit comfortably next to mosques in most Indian cities as do cathedrals and synagogues. That was the beauty of India…until Modi came along, and told Hindus that India belongs to them and them only.

Modi and his BJP party exploited Hindus’ instinctive distrust of Muslims. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu organisation formed in 1925 and which Modi belongs to, has an agenda to “purify” India, much like Adolf Hitler sought to “cleanse” Germany. In the 1940s, as World War II was raging in Europe, the RSS leader MS Golwalker spoke of an exclusively Hindu nation: “Ever since that evil day, when Moslems first landed in Hindustan [India], right up to the present moment, the Hindu Nation has been gallantly fighting to take on these despoilers. In Hindustan, land of the Hindus lives and should live the Hindu Nation…”

He then went on to extol the virtues of Nazism: “To keep up the purity of its race and culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races – the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”

In January 1948, five months after India’s independence, Nathuram Godse, a member of the RSS, assassinated Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, who the RSS viewed as being sympathetic towards Muslims.

In an article published in The Caravan and adapted from a lecture she gave in New York last year just before the protests in India began, the Indian activist and writer Arundhati Roy stated:

If Nazi Germany was a country seeking to impose its imagination onto a continent (and beyond), the impetus of an RSS-ruled India is, in a sense, the opposite. Here is a continent seeking to shrink itself into a country. Not even a country, but a province. A primitive, ethno-religious province…That it will self-destruct is not in doubt. The question is what else, who else and how much else will go down with it.”

To understand the depths of Modi’s fascist tendencies, we need not go very far in time. In the six years he has been Prime Minister, he has taken the country down a path that will not go down well in history.

A few recent examples: In November last year, Modi’s government revoked the overseas citizenship of journalist Aatish Taseer on the pretext that Taseer’s father was a Pakistani. Taseer, who grew up in India with his Sikh mother, but who is now a British citizen, had written a cover story in May 2019 for TIME magazine that described Modi as “India’s Divider In Chief”. The revocation of his overseas citizenship (which is extended to individuals who can prove that they have Indian ancestry or who once held Indian citizenship, and which allows one to travel visa-free to India) was clearly an act of retaliation by a leader who does not take criticism lightly.

In August 2019, Modi’s government annexed Jammu and Kashmir by repealing Section 35A of the Indian constitution, which gave the former princely state semi-autonomous status. This act was viewed by the state’s Muslim majority as a direct attack on them and their territory, akin to what Vladimir Putin did in Crimea. Jammu and Kashmir has been a front line state caught between the crossfire between Indian and Pakistani armies for years. The current and previous governments have often viewed it as harbouring terrorists sympathetic to Pakistan, even though the residents have argued that they have no desire to be part of either India or Pakistan.

Violence against Muslims has also risen under Modi’s regime. According to news reports, more than a hundred Muslims have been killed by Hindu mobs since 2015.

What Modi forgets – and what the mass protests in Indian cities demonstrate – is that India’s secularist democracy has survived more than 70 years because Indians decided that religion was too personal and too precious to be left to the whims of the state. Most Indians recognise that their country’s strength lies in its religious and cultural diversity. If India had gone the Pakistan way, there would be rivers of blood everywhere, like those that flooded the India-Pakistan border at independence when Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs crossing the border were slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands in revenge attacks. Few Indians want to go down that road again.

What Modi and his government have done may appeal to the anti-Muslim instincts of India’s non-Muslim majority, but it goes against the grain of how Indians (except members of the RSS and its offspring the BJP) perceive themselves and their country. With economic growth rates sharply dropping in India currently, it is only a matter of time before the protestors’ anger against the government’s anti-Muslim stance turns into widespread disaffection.

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Of Tigers, Debt Merchants and 2020 Vision

8 min read. The former president of the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, has dismissed as “nonsensical” any suggestion that Africa may have over-borrowed, saying instead that with better debt management and higher domestic revenue mobilisation, the continent can take on more debt. But Kaberuka fails to make the link between the increased borrowing and the revenue problem.

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The public debt burden has dominated economic debate in 2019. Public debt is likely to be even more topical in 2020, both domestically and globally. As at end November 2019, 31 out of 70 countries in the IMF’s roster of low-income countries are listed as either in or at high risk of debt distress. Another 26 are listed as being at moderate risk, leaving only 13 that are still at low risk. Last week, the IMF approved a $2.9b bailout for Ethiopia, one of the high distress risk countries.

I first called out the Jubilee administration’s borrowing binge six years ago. Up until two years ago, the IMF and the World Bank were still giving it the thumbs up. (Very often we forget that these institutions are lenders and therefore conflicted on matters debt.) A few weeks ago Donald Kaberuka, the immediate former president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and erstwhile Finance Minister of Rwanda, dismissed as “nonsensical” any suggestion that Africa may have over-borrowed:

“The idea that Africa is drowning in debt is nonsensical . . . If we can improve on our own domestic revenue mobilization, if we can improve on our public debt management and if we can improve on our debt management capabilities, the continent is able to take a bit more debt, especially at this time when the markets are looking for yield.”

This is an interesting argument. You may also have heard it from the Jubilee administration—the problem is not too much debt; it is the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) that is failing to meet revenue targets.

Kaberuka, who I gather is an economist, wittingly or otherwise, fails to make the connection between the borrowing binge and the revenue problem. Only a most incurious economist would look at revenue and debt trends such as ours (see chart) and conclude that they are completely unconnected. Although I have written about the connection on more than one occasion, it is worth recapping. There are two dimensions to the connection: an accounting one and an economic one.

Let’s start with the accounting. Let’s say we start with a GDP of Sh10 trillion which is 80 per cent private economy and 20 per cent government. Let’s then say the government is raising Sh2 trillion, which is 20 per cent of GDP, in tax revenue. Suppose the government goes to China and buys a railway worth Sh500 billion on credit. The GDP will now be Sh10.5 trillion. We will be told that the economy has grown by 5 per cent. But the railway has not added anything to the economy, and nor is it paying tax, so the government still collects Sh2 trillion, but which is now 19 per cent of the Sh10.5 trillion GDP. If this is repeated every year, by year five, the GDP will have expanded to Sh12.8 trillion and the tax revenue-to-GDP ratio will be down to 15.7 per cent.

This is a purely accounting view, which assumes that government investment is neutral, neither helping nor harming the economy. This is not as far-fetched as it might at first appear. For example, it could simply reflect government investments with long gestation periods. Indeed, we have been told that the new Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is one such long-term visionary project whose benefits will be realised by our grandchildren. But for no harm to occur, two conditions need to obtain. First, all the borrowing needs to be foreign. Use of domestic resources means diverting these from the private economy, and that is harmful. We call this crowding out. Second, there are no repayments, because repayment of foreign debt amounts to sucking money out of the economy, also harmful. Neither obtains.

Let us start with repayments. This year, we have budgeted to pay Sh139 billion ($1.39 billion) in foreign interest, a tenfold-plus increase from Sh11b ($130m) in the 2012-2013 financial year, the last year of the Grand National Coalition government. And this does not include the hefty payments of the principal on the SGR loans that kicked in this year. The use of domestic resources is also a very significant factor. Half the debt that the Jubilee administration has accumulated is domestic. The crowding out extends beyond credit. With so much money to spend liberally, trading with the government becomes the most profitable business, diverting other economic services away from, and inflating the costs for the private sector. This could not be better demonstrated than by the case of Kenya’s banking industry.

Chart 2Last year, the industry made a consolidated profit of Sh110b, and Sh119b in interest from government securities. Considering that lending to government is virtually costless and risk-free, this implies that banks made all their profits from the government, and lost Sh9b on the business they did with the rest of the economy. The contribution of interest on government securities has increased steadily from 37 per cent in 2013 to 108 per cent in 2018 (see chart). But we also see that the banks’ profitability has declined. Profits declined by 40 per cent in 2017, following the capping of interest rates in late 2016. In 2018 profits were 14 per cent lower than in 2013. If banks are not making money from the private economy, it stands to reason that government revenue will also take a hit.

How much public debt is too much?

Debt experts have sophisticated models that are supposed to tell us. These models are built around “present value.” Present value is the sum of a forecast, such as a cash flow, and in this case annual debt repayments, discounted by a rate of interest or other relevant discount factor, used to give an estimate of current worth. If two similar countries borrow the same amount of money on similar terms, one invests wisely, and the other plunders it all, the net present value of the debt will be the same. It should not surprise then that the IMF’s models were giving the Jubilee borrowing binge the thumbs-up even as the Eurobond went walkabout and one Josephine Kabura was mocking us with tall tales of cash stuffed in gunny bags.

Chart 3For the financial health of a country, a simple rule of thumb is to ensure that debt service does not grow faster than government revenue for too long. If the debt is invested productively, the investments expand the economy, the government generates more tax revenue from the expanding economy, which it then uses to service the debt. How long is too long? That is a matter of exercising sound judgement. As John Maynard Keynes famously quipped, in the long run, we are all dead. But the question becomes moot when the trend looks like what we see in the chart—debt service heading north, revenue heading south. You do not need present value calculations to see that this trend cannot go on for much longer. Sooner or later, something will have to give.

Expect to hear a lot about fiscal consolidation in 2020.

Fiscal consolidation is defined as policy measures that aim to reduce the deficit and stop the accumulation of debt. The substance of it is what we used to call structural adjustment but, following the 2007 financial crisis, it became necessary to invent a new name—it just wouldn’t do to speak of Spain, or the UK for that matter, as implementing structural adjustment.

A fiscal consolidation strategy is predicated on the expectation that governments can find ways of bringing down deficits without hurting growth. Budget deficits are, in essence, the pumping of money into the economy, which ought to stimulate growth. Conversely, fiscal consolidation amounts to withdrawing money from the economy, which would dampen growth. The problem is that economic slowdown hurts revenue, meaning that the government has to constrain expenditure even further to meet its deficit reduction targets.

The first strategy entails counteracting the contractionary effect of fiscal consolidation with expansionary monetary policy. Simply put, what the government takes away, the Central Bank puts back in circulation. The Central Bank has a couple of tools to do this, principally by buying bonds and lowering the cash ratio and liquidity requirements for the banks (the percentages of assets that banks are required to have in cash and near-cash assets such as Treasury bills and bonds). Shovelling money out of the door is also expected to reduce interest rates, which besides making borrowing attractive for businesses and consumers, can substantially lower the interest cost of domestic debt. But unlike fiscal stimulus where the government is the spender, monetary stimulus depends on market response. The policy makers hope the money will stimulate production, but it could just as well suck in imports, or leave the country to seek higher returns elsewhere, thereby depleting foreign exchange reserves and putting pressure on the currency.

The second strategy is to find “off-balance sheet” financing of public investment. The default alternative these days is the so-called public-private partnerships (PPPs). Simply put, PPPs are the public equivalent of equity financing. Instead of the government borrowing to build a hospital for instance, a private investor builds, and the government leases it. But PPPs have their drawbacks. First, to make them attractive to private investors, PPP projects are usually structured in such a way as to ensure that the investors cannot lose money—“de-risked” in financial lingo.

Second, PPPs are seldom commercially viable so, more often than not, the Government usually has to part-finance the project in order to achieve an attractive rate of return for investors. Third, PPP financing cherry picks projects with commercialisation potential, which typically will be projects that benefit more developed areas or better-off people in society. In economics, we call such policies “regressive”, meaning they transfer resources from the poor to the rich. Fourth, PPPs have a very high corruption risk—we need look no further than the stink that is the medical equipment leasing scheme known as the Managed Equipment Services (MES) project.

Another scheme is to shift debt and deficit financing from the national government’s books to quasi-government agencies, such as has recently been done by amending the law to allow the Kenya Roads Board (KRB) to issue bonds leveraged on the fuel levy revenues that are earmarked for road construction. Assuming an interest rate of, say, 12 per cent, each shilling of fuel levy revenue can be leveraged to borrow 8 shillings. Already, the KRB has published an expression of interest for transaction advisors to raise Sh150 billion. Suffice it to say that Greece used financial gymnastics of this nature to first be admitted into the Eurozone and to subsequently fake compliance.

PPPs have a very high corruption risk—we need look no further than the stink that is the medical equipment leasing scheme known as the Managed Equipment Services (MES) project

How much public finance does development require? There is perhaps no better place to benchmark than with the Asian Tigers.

Chart 4In the 70s, Thailand and South Korea were raising 13 and 15 per cent of GDP in tax revenue, well below Kenya’s 18 per cent, while Malaysia and Singapore were doing better at just over 20 per cent (see chart). But where the East Asians stand apart is that each of them was able to put at least a third of their revenue into investment. The real miracle here is how they managed to keep their recurrent budget to a maximum of 10 per cent of GDP, out of which they were also heavily investing in education. As economists Mahbub ul Haq and Khadija Haq observed, beneath the East Asian economic miracle lay an education miracle.

Chart 5It is also a miracle of public finance, specifically, public thrift. We hear a lot about the high saving and investment rate part of the story. What we do not hear about is the role of government in that story. In the early seventies, East Asian and African countries had similar national savings rates, but even then East Asian governments were contributing more to national saving and investment, although African governments’ contribution was also significant (see chart). A decade later, East Asian governments were still contributing over a third of national investment, while for African and other LDC governments this contribution fell to 11 and 6 per cent respectively. Consequently, we turned to foreign resources. By the early 80s, Africa was investing 20 per cent of GDP more than half of which was foreign-financed, while the East Asians were investing 30 per cent, 90 per cent of which was domestically financed.

In the 70s, Thailand and South Korea were raising 13 and 15 per cent of GDP in tax revenue, well below Kenya’s 18 per cent, while Malaysia and Singapore were doing better at just over 20 per cent

The East Asian experience is telling us that when people were too poor to save much, it is the government, and not foreign resources, that closed the gap between private savings and investment requirements. In economics, we postulate that saving is determined primarily by income, and investment by rate of return. As these public investments paid off, they boosted private income and consequently private saving. When countries save more, they need less, not more foreign resources to finance investment. Donald Kaberuka is telling us that we need to raise more revenue to enable us to borrow more. Is he ignorant or dishonest?

During his tenure, the AfDB became the lightning rod for infrastructure-led growth, a fallacy that this column has discussed before. In fact, the nonsensical comments echo sentiments in the AfDB’s 2018 Africa Economic Review, to wit:

“For much of the past two decades, the global economy has been characterised by excess savings in many advanced countries. Those savings could be channeled into financing profitable infrastructure projects in developing regions, especially Africa, to achieve the G20’s industrialisation goal. That this mutually profitable global transaction is not taking place is one of the biggest paradoxes of current times.”

You may want to note that the objective is to “meet the G20’s industrialisation goal.” The irrepressibly prescient Franz Fanon read in the tea leaves:

“The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner.”

And therein lies the rub.

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From the Handshake to the BBI Report, Hope to Disillusionment: My Side of the Story

9 min read. During the political standoff that followed the 2017 presidential election, the National Super Alliance (NASA) espoused a road map that would lead to a political settlement through the formation of a transitional government that would have spearheaded the process of building a national consensus on political reforms. But in place of a Jubilee-NASA institutional engagement came the Handshake, a commitment by Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga in their personal capacities, which has culminated in the recently released Building Bridges Initiative Report, an underwhelming document that underscores the failure of the two principals to deliver the new political dispensation they had promised.

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The much-anticipated release of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report two weeks ago was to be the crescendo of the detente—popularly known as the Handshake—between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta after the failed 2017 presidential election. It underwhelmed.

Soon after its release, the rumor mill put its cost at the very unlikely figure of Sh10 billion, which the pundits calculated to be a whopping Sh64 million for each of the 156 pages of the badly drafted, poorly edited rehash of existing documents. In a satirical column, literary scholar Evan Mwangi calls it a reflection of the “low intellectual capacity of the clowns in charge of our country’s affairs,” while Wandia Njoya, another literary scholar, calls it a declaration of war by the political elite on the people. Both Mwangi’s and Njoya’s reading of the political psychology of the report leads them to a similar conclusion—it is a cynical political fraud.

Mwangi: “The report’s aim is to discourage us from seeking fundamental political or social change by pretending to offer avenues for transformation. It suggests that we should continue assuaging demagogues among our political class, so unlike in 2007 they don’t burn us alive in churches, stoke ethnic violence in political rallies in the run-up to the polls, or organise retaliatory attacks by youths who would then be all snuffed out to cover up crimes against humanity.”

Njoya: “Statements from the government and those pundits that slavishly support it often trace the source of any disaster to the public—especially the victims—and to democracy. Government insiders and supporters portray the state as blameless, and fault Kenyans for wanting to participate democratically in the making of decisions that affect them, because by doing so, Kenyans put delays on the good work of the government. If every social challenge we face is caused by us, the people, then the response to the challenge must be to fix the behaviour, the values and the soul of the people. This “fix the people” approach to social problems is the very essence of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) document released by the government this week.”

A Swahili tabloid summarised BBI thus: “Ni msitu mpya, nyani ni wale wale.” (same monkeys, different forest). From the ivory tower to street level, the verdict is the same.

How did we get here?

In January 2018, three months into the 2017 presidential election standoff, it was rumored that the formation of a government was being delayed by behind-the-scenes power-sharing negotiations. The National Super Alliance (NASA) issued a statement and held a press conference to refute the suggestion, during which this columnist stated that:

“NASA is not interested in boardroom deals which have not delivered for Kenyans like the 2007 power sharing agreement. We don’t recognise this illegitimate government and we will not give it legitimacy . . . Our nation is deeply divided between two irreconcilable political values namely authoritarian rule and democracy. They (Jubilee) have in fact stated that a benevolent dictatorship is better than a democracy. The way out for the country is to embark on an urgent, honest and far reaching conversation sooner rather than later.”

The key words here are “boardroom deals.” Indeed, I recall belabouring the pledge by analogy, stating that NASA would not go into a “come-we-stay” marriage with Jubilee. Internally, we were developing a more elaborate negotiating strategy. Our preferred road map to a political settlement was a transitional government with a limited mandate, to be established by a constitutional instrument along the lines of the National Accord that established the Government of National Unity (GNU) after the 2007/8 failed election.

The transitional government would have spearheaded the process of building a national consensus on political reforms that would have culminated in what we hoped would be an uncontested constitutional amendment referendum, if one were required, followed by a free and fair election. We had also suggested that Uhuru and Raila commit publicly to retiring, so as to strengthen their hand as honest brokers and the midwives of a new political dispensation, and by so doing, insulate the process from succession politics. This was a reasonable proposition since Uhuru would be retiring anyway, and Raila had signed a one-term deal with the NASA co-principals.

Our preferred road map to a political settlement was a transitional government with a limited mandate, to be established by a constitutional instrument

It therefore came as a bit of shock that Raila had gone ahead and cut a backroom deal with Uhuru, the very thing we had pledged not to do. But in the rough and tumble of politics, you learn to roll with the punches. We saw that the letter of the deal was in the spirit of the road map we envisaged, the main difference being that in place of the Jubilee-NASA institutional engagement we had prepared for, the handshake was a commitment by Raila and Uhuru in their personal capacities. In what was to be our last press release as the People’s Assembly Committee, we applauded this commitment but also pointed out the dangers:

“The memorandum is an initiative of the two leaders in their individual capacities. In the memorandum, they describe themselves not as presidents or leaders of political formations which they are, but as friends and compatriots. The two leaders have acknowledged the historical origins of our current crisis, and the many opportunities over the years that leaders have missed to right the ship. They recognise that they too have a historic opportunity to set the country on the right course, and they do not want to be remembered as another generation of leaders that did not rise to the occasion…We must commend and congratulate the two leaders for this meeting of minds. Acknowledging a problem is the first step towards solving it. The two leaders have asked us to give them an opportunity to spearhead this process. We have been assured that this initiative will be about the people, will involve the people, and will be validated and owned by the people. But we are alive to the painful history of political betrayal. We know that once [crises] subside, leaders can get comfortable and allow the issues of the people to fade into the background. That is how we have ended up where we are.”

This was the spirit as we set about implementing the handshake. But as days went by, it became evident that what was said was not what was intended. The discordance was brought into sharp relief by disagreements on whether or not to gazette the BBI Task Force. The handshake MOU was explicit that the initiative was a personal political undertaking. Gazetting the task force would make it a state project that would be bureaucratised and watered down. And as one colleague opined, it would amount to “kicking the ball into the long grass.” Those pushing for gazettement could not argue a cogent case, but in one conversation, one colleague, in a fit of exasperation, blurted out: “But there is money!”. The cat was out of the bag.

In the corridors, the conversation was dominated by talk of an impending cabinet reshuffle. Indeed, within no time at all, Raila Odinga’s Capitol Hill office had become a beehive of activity with, so I gathered, people bringing their CVs, others seeking help with tenders, pending bills and corruption cases. By end April, the frenzy had reached fever pitch. Week after week, confident predictions were made that the reshuffle would be announced on Thursday, then Monday, then Thursday again. My vehement protestations about these under-the-table dealings elicited a quiet word of advice that I should tone down as my name was on the appointments list.

We had also suggested that Uhuru and Raila commit publicly to retiring, so as to strengthen their hand as honest brokers and the midwives of a new political dispensation

There were two other issues that I found troublesome. The first was the anti-corruption crusade that was mounted immediately after the handshake. My concern was that corruption cartels were the last adversary that the BBI needed, especially as it appeared to be a one-sided assault on Deputy President Ruto’s patronage network. Secondly, I was persuaded that the country was headed into an economic crisis (that is now unfolding). By embracing Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga was in essence sanitising Jubilee’s economic delinquency, and jumping into a sinking ship. In fact, I postulated that by the time of his departure from office, Uhuru Kenyatta would be more unpopular than Moi was in 2002.

Raila dismissed both concerns. I was particularly bemused by his prognosis that an economic crisis would not hurt because Zimbabwe’s Mugabe seemed to have survived a much more severe one (Mugabe was still in office then). It was not long before it became apparent that an economic storm was brewing and an urgent discussion was convened. At the end of my presentation, Raila came back with what to me was a bolt from the blue: he wanted to know how the president could be helped and went as far as to request that I write a paper that he would discuss with Kenyatta. That is the moment it dawned on me that, in his mind, Raila was already in government, or, as we say in Swahili, tumewachwa kwa mataa (we had been abandoned at the traffic lights). I did not respond and needless to say, no such paper was forthcoming. Looking back, Kenyatta had all along been banking on a personal deal with Raila. Two anecdotes will suffice to illustrate the point—they are by no means the only ones.

On the eve of the declaration of the official results of the August 8 presidential election, the NASA presidential campaign team was holding a quiet vigil of sorts when a muted drama, that went unnoticed by most of the people in the room, played out. A wheeler-dealer known to have business links with the Kenyatta family walked up to Raila and said that “mama is waiting.” Although spoken in low tones, colleagues within earshot became curious and sought to know who “mama” was. The awkward silence that ensued gave the game away. A statement unequivocally rejecting the election results was quickly drafted for Raila to issue; it had not been on the evening’s agenda. It is unlikely that we will ever know whether Raila was in on the plan to meet “mama” and what the rendezvous would have engendered. History oftentimes turns on chance.

The second one was in late November, shortly after we launched the protest movements that included a consumer boycott of Brookside Dairy products, among others. I received a call from a colleague alerting me that he had directed to me a “foreign journalist” who was frantically looking for Ida Odinga (she was out of the country at the time). The name of the “foreign journalist” was Christina Pratt (née Kenyatta). It would seem Ms. Pratt had presumed name recognition as she did not see fit to introduce herself or give her reason for calling and so, not recognising the name, my colleague had brushed her off for a couple of days; he responded once I told him who the caller was. Such was the urgency that Ms. Pratt even sought to know whether she could travel to where Ida Odinga then was, which proposal was declined. I gather that contact was eventually made and a home visit, of the kind we call itega in Gikuyu (gift giving), was arranged.

As observed, the point of these anecdotes is that Kenyatta had been banking on resolving the election impasse privately with Odinga, kinyumbani (domestically) as we say in Swahili; the handshake was the actualisation of Kenyatta’s desire. But by having chosen to personalise a political crisis, Uhuru and Raila would seem to have overestimated their personal power and underestimated their adversaries.

Uhuru and Raila seemed not to realise that refusing to categorically rule themselves out of the 2022 contest was guaranteed to frame the BBI initiative as succession politics. It did not help that the anti-graft war was increasingly being perceived as a political takedown of William Ruto. Economic hardship also began to bite, making the ground less than enthusiastic, particularly in Kenyatta’s central Kenya political base. Raila’s contention, as cocky as it was self-serving, that Kenyatta’s political clout would shrug off the economic distress has not aged well. Week after week, no sooner would the joint nationwide meet-the-people engagements they had promised be announced but they would fizzle out.

The BBI Report is the product of these missteps. What many Kenyans will not know is that the BBI task force was not constituted to produce a technical report. Rather, it was initially envisaged as a team of political advisors to the two principals, in line with the principals’ commitment that they would be personally leading the engagements with the people. It would seem that once the ground became hostile, the task force was repurposed to collect views and write a report—a task that it was clearly neither suited for nor prepared for. Suffice it to say that, given the depth and wealth of talent and experience in governance reform that we have gained in our two-decade constitutional reform struggle, the BBI task force is not in the country’s first or even second eleven.

Uhuru and Raila seemed not to realise that refusing to categorically rule themselves out of the 2022 contest was guaranteed to frame the BBI initiative as succession politics

In the midst of the debate about the flaws of the report, we risk losing sight of the fact that the handshake was a product of a failed presidential election. The real problem is one of incumbents who, sensing defeat, monkey-wrench the election to the point where it is impossible to get an outcome. Without a clear outcome, a power-sharing settlement is negotiated and the incumbent gets to stay in power. This model of retaining power was invented by the Mwai Kibaki administration in 2007 and has quickly gained currency, being copied in Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Togo to name a few countries.

How does the BBI report propose to end this? It makes no mention of the problem, let alone offering proposals; there is, in fact, no mention of free and fair elections in the entire report. There is perhaps no greater indictment of the handshake than the fact that we are now hurtling towards another toxic, high-octane, do-or-die election. Had Uhuru and Raila stuck to the path of honest brokers committed to midwifing the new political dispensation that they had promised instead of the political intrigues and self-aggrandisement that we are now witnessing, things on the ground could have been very different.

A while back, this columnist enumerated four critical historical junctures at which nation-building opportunities were squandered through a failure of leadership. Make that five.

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