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Uganda Since 1986: Museveni, the World Bank and the Coming of Neoliberalism

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Was Uganda’s economic miracle a donor-inspired lie? A new book mines the data and presents an alternative economic history of the Museveni era. By MARY SERUMAGA

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Uganda Since 1986: Museveni, the World Bank and the Coming of Neoliberalism
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Title: Uganda, The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation
Editors: Jörg Wiegratz, Giuliano Martiniello and Elisa Greco
Pub.r: Zed Books, 2018
Pages: 408
Reviewer: Mary Serumaga, January 2019

Any political debate about Uganda tends to become polarised very quickly. Champions of the prevailing economic orthodoxy speak of the past 30 years as an almost unqualified development success. Critics of the establishment point to the absence of tangible benefits for a broad range of the population. These positions came into sharp focus in 2018 when the People Power movement gained momentum following the international outcry triggered by the abduction and torture of its de facto leader, R. Kyagulanyi, MP.

It is possible to argue either position depending on where one sits on a sliding timeline between 1986 and the present. After four coups d’état in the 24 years following independence – a time when, as was often pointed out to me by an NRM diehard, ‘Even Kampala Road was murram!’ – the economic developments after the NRM takeover in 1986 look like miracles: the introduction and spread of mobile telephony and the internet, construction and tarmacking of major highways, the availability of foreign currency, freedom to travel abroad, etc. It is this contrast, with its racist undertones – what more does a Third World country expect? – on which the ‘Uganda as a success story’ argument is built. It is the line adopted by champions of neoliberal policies, the IMF (“This is an African success story”, Lagarde in 2017), the ruling junta and the bilateral partners and foreign investors who benefit from the liberalization of key sectors of the economy and dismantling of the public service. They are positioned in or close to 1986.

After four coups d’état in the 24 years following independence the economic developments after the NRM takeover in 1986 look like miracles.

Those outside that elite circle, referred to by the authors of this timely collection of essays on the neoliberal project in Uganda, as ‘the wretched of the earth’, are located in the present day. Economically and spatially removed from elite society, what they witness and experience 33 years after the NRM took power is described thus: “High levels of suicide (especially among the youth), poverty-driven deaths, preventable illnesses and generalised destitution.” There is more: 80% youth unemployment, collapse of the education system, ever-recurring stock outs of essential drugs, high maternal and neo-natal death rates, land-grabbing by the rich, embezzlement of public funds, fraudulent grabbing of commercial banks by the Central Bank for sale to the competition or elimination from the market.

In 2018, President Museveni and his Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, were cited in a New York criminal court for receiving bribes in exchange of access to public assets. These things are all connected, and held in place by state brutality.

Those outside that elite circle…’the wretched of the earth’, are located in the present day. Economically and spatially removed from elite society, what they witness and experience 33 years after the NRM took power…is “high levels of suicide (especially among the youth), poverty-driven deaths, preventable illnesses and generalised destitution.”

For ‘the wretched of the earth’, this is the story of ‘Uganda in crisis’.

While affirming the physical, political and economic transformation of Uganda since 1986, the authors interrogate both the drivers of the changes (the regime or its foreign financiers?) and identify the beneficiaries.

First the changes. Taking Nystrand and Tamm’s definition of neoliberal interventions, they can be summed up as: “downsizing of the public sector, including retrenchment of staff; privatisation of social services and social protections; and decentralisation or devolution of state power.”

The main premise of the collection is that in addition to the sliding timeline, the discourse is skewed by the lack of scholarly attention to the ongoing processes of transformation. One important dynamic remarked on is that much of the existing social science analyses has been carried out by donor-funded academics and consultants who have in turn produced studies that have tended to support the ‘Uganda as a success story’ point of view. Their collective check-list has included progress in: governance, poverty reduction and political power dynamics including political settlements, political emergencies, party and electoral politics, patronage politics, conflict management, humanitarian assistance, or peace-making. Testing this proposition, it is clear to see how apologists for the military junta that rules Uganda can be portrayed as developmental. For example, poverty as measured by the neoliberals (dubbed by the authors as ‘official poverty’) fell sharply in the first decade reaching a low of 19% from a high of over 50%. (It has risen two percentage points to over 21% in recent years.)

In 2018, President Museveni and his Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, were cited in a New York criminal court for receiving bribes in exchange of access to public assets. These things are all connected, and held in place by state brutality.

However the recent sharp rise in undernourishment of 13% between 2006 and 2015 went largely unremarked. Similarly, wealth inequalities created by the restructuring were overlooked in the celebrations. As with the health sector, analyses of governance have been managed by gatekeepers and reported in Bank-speak. For example, small shifts in Uganda’s Transparency International rankings based on the perceptions of foreign investors have been reported as progress, regardless of the facts presented by Uganda’s own Auditor General, Ombudsman, local media and the public. (Note: Transparency International was discredited by its 2018 award to President Museveni for his ‘fight’ against corruption in the same year that he was named as a recipient of a bribe from the now convicted Patrick Ho.)

Much of the existing social science analyses has been carried out by donor-funded academics and consultants who have in turn produced studies that have tended to support the ‘Uganda as a success story’ point of view.

This narrow approach excludes areas of research that would address the issues raised by the increasingly vocal and genuinely suffering majority:

“The first gap is the impact of global capitalism and global political economy on Uganda. This requires a study of the dynamics of Western and Eastern imperialism and their political, economic and cultural dimensions. The second under-researched area concerns the processes of societal transformation, including class formation, consolidation, struggle and compromise (and related core aspects such as dispossession, exploitation etc.), and the ways in which they shape, for instance, political power and market structures. A third overlooked area is the interaction of local and national power structures and dynamics with international political economic patterns.”

More directly put, the impact of Western and Eastern imperialism manifested in the debt-trap, privatization and the foreign direct investment for which privatization made room, and which provides free assets, has not been adequately scrutinized. Indeed, the emergence of a ruling oligarchy (beneficiaries of said privatization, and FDI), and a faux middle class (founded on patronage and corruption – not production), is treated as anecdotal evidence of something amiss rather than a serious existential issue for the majority. This book is timely in pointing out a lack of interrogation of capital accumulation by the politically connected and its impact on the rest of the population by current social science studies on Uganda.

Nor is due attention paid to the fact that 60 years after independence Uganda is still an exporter of primary commodities because that is what her ‘development partners’ require for their own development. All of this occurs alongside the ‘successes’ such as regular elections, ‘concessions’ or ‘reforms’ such as decentralization, expenditure on civil service reform (without actual civil service reform) and the universal primary education programme (which fewer than 50% of programme pupils complete) and which in turn trigger further disbursements of foreign loans and grants.

The emergence of a ruling oligarchy (beneficiaries of said privatization, and FDI), and a faux middle class (founded on patronage and corruption – not production), is treated as anecdotal evidence of something amiss rather than a serious existential issue for the majority.

The authors confirm this reviewer’s assertions elsewhere that the facts were deliberately distorted. For example, the Bank publishes impressive statistics for vaccination coverage in Uganda ranging between 82% and 93% (Source: World Bank database – Health Nutrition and Population Statistics as updated on 12/18/2017). It has stopped publishing the percentage of immunizations actually paid for by the government of the country which is nowhere near as impressive. If the percentage of coverage funded by government resources is stagnant or falling, that is not just a development issue. It is a crisis. And with changing funding priorities owing to the rise of nationalism in Europe and America, will most likely result in further reductions in health sector aid.

The authors predict a future of ‘enclave economies’: large-scale plantations – tracts of land are already being distributed free of charge to foreign investors – tax and other concessions for ‘investors’ in mining, oil and gas. These enclave economies will have minimal linkages to the rest of the economy and will aggravate poverty and accelerate environmental degradation. A proposal for a Chinese fishing project on River Katonga is a case in point. It will come with 300 Chinese staff precluding any possibilities of indigenous job creation, and adding to the current trend of imported unskilled and semi-skilled labour. Fiscal delinking occurs when foreign investors are given tax holidays.

60 years after independence Uganda is still an exporter of primary commodities because that is what her ‘development partners’ require for their own development.

In his December 2018 report, the Auditor General points out for the second time in three years that there is no clear policy regarding tax waivers for investors. In 2016 one hotel was in its fifth year of an open-ended tax holiday. In 2018:

“[…] because of lack of a proper policy, tax incentives are given to Investors without an accompanying budget. Close of financial year debts for the incentives had grown by 83% to UGX 153.6 billion up from UGX 83.8 billion in the previous year.”

Therefore, a lot of development is not accompanied by jobs and only yields limited tax revenues. Activists find that discussions of the impact of corruption on lives unsupported by relevant studies are easily and routinely derailed with one or a selection of approved Bank statistics. It is gratifying to see apologist denials of these simple facts revealed as mere political gaslighting of opposition politicians and activists. The World Bank, through its monopoly of knowledge production about its clients has developed what is called here “Bank Speak’ with which it disseminates “severely a-historical, abstract and flawed accounts” of Uganda’s political-economic history (Mitchell 2002 cited by Wiegratz et al). By becoming the gatekeeper, the Bank has succeeded in manufacturing consents to their global programme of which Uganda has been made a partner through the NRM ruling class, itself a product of the Bank.

The authors confirm this reviewer’s assertions elsewhere that the facts were deliberately distorted.

Apart from important omissions in telling the Uganda story, the veracity of Bank statistics is questioned. Note the authors say ‘veracity’ as well as ‘accuracy,’ again suggesting intent.

Their finding that the World Bank minimizes embezzlement and incompetence in the public service is in line with the misreporting of planning, implementation and outcomes of Uganda’s foundational economic and social reform programmes comprehensively documented in The Case for Repudiation of Uganda’s Public Debt (Serumaga, cadtm.org, 2017). This book makes it clear that in addition to relevant studies, there is a need for an audit to establish completeness, accuracy and timeliness of World Bank and IMF data and other information on which Uganda’s development policies are based.

The authors predict a future of ‘enclave economies’: large-scale plantations – tracts of land are already being distributed free of charge to foreign investors – tax and other concessions for ‘investors’ in mining, oil and gas…[with] minimal linkages to the rest of the economy…

Also debunked is the link between public service reform and poverty reduction claimed by earlier studies. They are inapplicable in much of Eastern and Northern Uganda where poverty has barely been dented. In these studies, deep wealth inequality; wealth concentration among politically powerful beneficiaries of reform programmes, unemployment (and under-employment), and food insecurity is found to be a characteristic of neoliberalised countries (say WB/IMF clients) the world over.

In Uganda, corruption and incompetence, major barriers to implementation of the planned transformation from a peasant to an industrialized economy has created the opportunity to transfer public service delivery functions to the military. Notably Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) which has over the past five years edged out NAADS, the government agency responsible for distribution of and sensitisation about farm inputs (Wiegratz et al). NAADS was established with a repayable US$50 million loan (and the same amount in grants). OWC is run by the President’s brother and, unsurprisingly, has featured strongly in reports of the Auditor General. In 2016 deliveries of farm inputs worth close to UGX 3 billion were unverified; UGX 1.1 billion said to be expenditure on fuel lacked supporting documents. The fisheries department of the Ministry of Agriculture is now also under military command.

The World Bank, through its monopoly of knowledge production about its clients has developed what is called here “Bank Speak’ with which it disseminates “severely a-historical, abstract and flawed accounts” of Uganda’s political-economic history.

In the meantime, accumulated wealth has driven up land speculation, making it unavailable for productive investment.

What is interesting is that the current crop of political commentators and activists, the punditocracy increasingly visible in debates around politics, governance and development happen to have been founded, financed or otherwise supported by International Financial Institutions (IFIs). Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU), Uganda Debt Network (UDN), Civil Society Budget Advocacy Group (CSBAG), Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU).

Apart from important omissions in telling the Uganda story, the veracity of Bank statistics is questioned…Their finding that the World Bank minimizes embezzlement and incompetence in the public service is in line with the misreporting of planning, implementation and outcomes of Uganda’s foundational economic and social reform programmes.

While the book was produced primarily as a source to enable future scholars to avoid the omissions and errors of the past, the introduction alone is invaluable for navigating the miasma of Ugandan political affairs. It goes some way in answering the rhetorical demand put to activists: what are your policy alternatives? After reading this it should become evident what needs to be done.

Part I. The State, donors and development aid

Although much is made of the purported partnership between Uganda and the WB and indeed other development partners, Lie is of the view that the concept of partnership is merely a cover for the WB’s indirect rule over Uganda through its poverty reduction strategy mechanisms. In Donor-driven State Formation: Friction in the WB–Uganda Partnership he demonstrates with evidence that partnership “‘exists when they [government] do as we [WB] want them to do, but they do so voluntarily’” (Lie citing Randel et al. 2002: 8)

The current crop of political commentators and activists, the punditocracy increasingly visible in debates around politics, governance and development happen to have been founded, financed or otherwise supported by International Financial Institutions (IFIs).

He uses the gradual displacement of Uganda government’s Poverty Eradication Action Plan by the WB’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) to demonstrate this unequal relationship. The author reveals how Bank staff evaluate the implementation in four visits made during the year, putting a gloss on unfavourable outcomes to allow further disbursements for budget support yet sending messages of disapproval by reducing the amounts released (and disrupting implementation). He calls this process ‘developmentality.’

It is a little irksome that Lie’s chosen example dates from 1999 and no attention is given to the beginning of the relationship, the Economic Recovery Programme circa 1987. It is under this umbrella that work meant to provide the administrative foundation for future work like PEAP and PRSP was done with frankly disastrous results and undermined the possibility of success of later work.

Most importantly the legal implications of ‘developmentality’ are not addressed in the essay, namely that the appearance of voluntary cooperation gives the unsustainable loan agreements some legal standing in the event of attempted repudiation in the future. Lie’s conclusion after he has so ably demonstrated indirect rule by the WB, is that the WB is not hegemonic and that the government has not fallen prey to the donor community is perverse.

Readers of this collection will find a vocabulary with which to capture Uganda’s situation and to relate it to countries facing the same predicament – particularly useful are concepts such as ‘procedural democracy” as opposed substantial democracy. Rubongoya in his essay ‘Movement Legacy’ and neoliberalism as political settlement in Uganda’s political economy describes a transaction between the junta and foreign implementers of neoliberalism. In return for a free hand in forming and introducing policies favourable to their own constituencies, foreign actors provide the NRM the means to consolidate and prolong its grip on the State.

A related transaction took place in Acholi. There, even though the armed conflict continued for two decades after 1986, there was an agreement to treat it as a post-conflict zone. In Our Friends at the Bank? The Adverse Effects of Neoliberalism in Acholi Atkinson reveals that development partners turned a blind eye as increasing amounts of aid intended for development of the ‘post-conflict’ zone were channeled to the armed coercion of the Acholi.

Readers of this collection will find a vocabulary with which to capture Uganda’s situation and to relate it to countries facing the same predicament – particularly useful are concepts such as ‘procedural democracy” as opposed substantial democracy.

Without the more recent experience of the Arua Atrocities in 2018 and the internet connectivity that allowed the news to spread across the country it would be difficult to believe that foreign actors could be so cynical. Yet in August 2018, the donor community that had armed the junta sat silent as elected leaders were abducted and tortured. These essays serve to open eyes and minds to the magnitude of what is at stake for them and why in fact their cynicism is to be expected.

African dependency is a myth created to gain access to resources without which Western populations would have to live within their means and in relative austerity. The myth allows austerity and poverty to be permanently transferred to Uganda and other African countries via neoliberal policies. This reviewer has argued elsewhere that this manufactured poverty is mitigated by emergency aid, post-conflict aid, humanitarian aid and non-specific aid from Western tax-payers. The fears surrounding Brexit and the stocking up of emergency drugs and foodstuffs are a further indication that they enjoy a standard of living subsidized for example by Ugandan farmers, that would be otherwise impossible to maintain.

African dependency is a myth created to gain access to resources without which Western populations would have to live within their means and in relative austerity.

But they are secondary beneficiaries. The primary beneficiaries of neoliberalism are a class unto themselves: the Davos elite which includes individuals in autocratic regimes like the NRM, IFIs and foreign investors all of who became fabulously wealthy and influential via the proceeds from this system. Like their counterparts in other African IMF outposts, billionaires Museveni, Sam Kutesa, Muhwezi were all penniless in their pre-regime lives.

Part II: Economic restructuring and social services

As with many of the findings of these studies, the basic facts will not be new to Ugandans, for instance the rise in poverty alongside increasingly visible trappings of extreme wealth of the oligarchs. In The Impact of neo-liberal reforms on Uganda’s Socio-economic Landscape Asiimwe throws light on the mystery of how development by-passed some and benefited others.:

“Asiimwe’s chapter shows that the economic growth miracle was to a significant extent based on the effect of large sums of aid, which sometimes constituted half of the national budget, creating public-expenditure-driven growth. The reforms induced stagnation, decline or minimal growth in key productive sectors, such as agriculture and industry. Small-scale producers and workers –mostly youth and women – were systematically marginalised by the policy reforms. Asiimwe argues that Uganda’s growth is not based on a structural transformation of the economy, but rather on a deepening of primitive accumulation occurring through corruption – which is the use of extra-economic force to access and control resources – aid dependence, widespread economic trickery and the dumping of low quality foreign products that crowd out local products. Asiimwe observes that donors’ policy preferences systematically produced anti-poor and anti-development effects, as the commodification of health and education left the majority of the population with sub-par access, or denied access altogether.” (Wiegratz et al).

The primary beneficiaries of neoliberalism are a class unto themselves: the Davos elite which includes individuals in autocratic regimes like the NRM, IFIs and foreign investors all of who became fabulously wealthy and influential via the proceeds from this system. Like their counterparts in other African IMF outposts, billionaires Museveni, Sam Kutesa, Muhwezi were all penniless in their pre-regime lives.

The impact of neoliberal reforms on social services has been equally damaging. In Social service provision and social security in Uganda: entrenched inequality under a neoliberal regime Nystrand and Tamm describe how the commodification of basic healthcare and education – they are now consumer products rather than citizen entitlements – has increased inequalities along class, regional and urban/rural lines. Those locked out from access to the services evolve into the ‘chronic poor’.

“Those who have gained from neoliberal reform are, for example, not primarily the Ugandan business sector at large – as the domestic private sector is very weak with the exception of a few large companies and individual businesspersons close to the ruling elite – but rather the ruling elite, which has been able to use donor funding to preserve their power through patronage.” (Nystrand and Tamm citing Whitfield et al. 2015)

Primary health and education, two of what used to be known as priority programme areas, are reviewed in detail, restating familiar data showing low completion rate, high teacher absenteeism (60 percent on any given day), and demonstrating how the majority of UPE pupils never attain functional literacy or numeracy. The result has been migration to proliferating private services to avoid the deterioration and the gradual fall in the quality of public education. The authors thus demonstrate that migration was the goal of neoliberalisation but that decentralized government has failed to either improve or maintain quality.

Ssali in Neoliberal health reforms and citizenship in Uganda also states that quality as well as availability of health services has suffered. Although expenditure per capita on healthcare has increased threefold, service delivery has not improved. Her essay highlights the way in which governments surrendered health services to market forces thus creating two streams, a service for the spatially marginal (the rural population) and poor, and one for the rich. This is borne out by the previously known fact that even where maternal and neo-natal services are available, less than 20 percent of women use them opting for reliance on the extended family and other support networks.

Those who have gained from neoliberal reform are…not primarily the Ugandan business sector at large – as the domestic private sector is very weak with the exception of a few large companies and individual businesspersons close to the ruling elite – but rather the ruling elite, which has been able to use donor funding to preserve their power through patronage.

As with education, so with health. The sector is characterised by inadequate resources and high absenteeism (50 per cent no-shows on any given day). Competence is a major challenge: “It was found that only 35 per cent of public health providers can correctly diagnose at least four out of five of the most common conditions, and only one out of five knew how to manage the most common maternal and neo-natal complications.” Public health and education services have thus become the preserve of the poorest and most physically marginalized. Heavily dependent on donor funding, they are assessed to be unsustainable in the long run. (Nystrand and Tamm)

Part III: Extractivism and enclosures

Commodification of forests was executed via the doling out of concessions to private sector players for management. It has had the same result, namely, privileging of capitalist interests over smallholder indigenous interests. Readers may find Nel’s Neoliberalisation as Ugandan Forestry Discourse useful in understanding the impact of privatization on the crater lakes of Kabarole in 2017, which left fishermen without a livelihood and made the lakes vulnerable to environmental degradation. Wedig discusses this in relation to Lake Nalubaale (Victoria) in Water-grabbing or Sustainable Development? The same applies to more recent sand-mining concessions granted by the President’s brother, Caleb Akandwanaho (aka Gen Salim Saleh) to Chinese investors to the exclusion of indigenous artisanal miners.

As Smith and Van Alstine show in Neoliberal oil development in Uganda, any resistance to rampant dispossession is prevented by the deployment of the armed forces. In the case of oil, it has been the presidential elite Special Forces Command armed and trained by the United States. Military deployment together with the use of Public Order Management legislation to subdue populations that make the debt incurred during this phase of history odious and liable to repudiation.

There is similar commercial pressure for land and similar dispossession for the implementation of the envisaged transformation to an industrialized economy as discussed by Nakayi in The politics of land law reform in neoliberal Uganda.

Race, culture and commoditization

A new proposition is that even cultural identity has been commoditized in the neoliberal dispensation. Youth, race and faith are looked at from this perspective. In Youth as ‘Identity Entrepreneurs’; Emerging Neoliberal Subjectivities in Uganda, Vorhöller studies a group of dancers in Northern Uganda and concludes that: “They tend to prioritise short-termism, instrumentalism, flexibility, pragmatism and self-interest and often switch cultural styles and political allegiances depending on situational contexts and according to calculations of expected benefits.

The youth market their youth to the myriad NGOs promoting neoliberal policies and looking for exemplars of how they support and are embraced by the youth. Once sponsored, the youth adapt to the required value system of their sponsors. Another example would be the youth marketing their youth and numbers to political parties. They form savings groups at the behest of the President, which groups are then given cash at public events to demonstrate the regime’s interest in the youth. New enterprises such as radio calling, telephoning radio discussion programmes to push propaganda are performed by groups such as the Lango Radio Callers group. That the group is short-termist and not rooted in ideology or any belief is clear from the fact that it publicly announced its intention to desert the NRM for the opposition if it was not paid the millions of shillings and iron roofing sheets promised before the elections. Besides ethnicity, other identities emerging from youth celebrity culture, academic qualifications and even internet presence are also available for political branding.

The role of Pentecostal-charismatic churches in politics and their rise to prominence (originating in the rise of NGOs and faith-based organisations, the result of the government’s withdrawal from its role as principal driver of development) is covered by Barbara Bompani in Religious Economics: Pentecostal-charismatic Churches and the Framing of a New Moral Order. Bompani posits that PCCs endorsed neoliberal policies by their close relationship with the ruling class, legitimising neoliberalism and provide a moral framework within which those living (or enduring) the neoliberal experience can maintain hope in a country in crisis. It is further argued that they share an exclusionary world view with neoliberalism in which “the sinful, immoral, non-conforming are to be targeted for discipline, reform and legal action.”

The framework provided by this book, its definitions of neoliberal policy and examination of its effects, will facilitate public discussion even of issues as sensitive as race. The elitism created by the exaltation of FDI, where those with access to foreign capital are perpetually entitled to special favours such as tax waivers, is analysed in African Asians and South Asians in Neoliberal Uganda: Culture, History and Political Economy in which Anneeth Kaur Hundle proposes that “the FDI policy opens up new possibilities for racial elite class formation.”

Taken together, this collection of essays is a commendable effort in achieving its objective of determining by whom, why, how and to what effect Uganda was transformed since 1986. A criticism might be that few Ugandan analysts were cited by any of the contributors even where the same ground has been extensively covered by them. Secondly, the book may be slightly behind the curve. Much of this data has been available but is only being published in this context when the effects of the reported activities are leading to seismic changes. The great value of the collection is that it finally ‘mainstreams’ the discourse and will perhaps provoke debate on those issues of which Ugandans have been aware but which have languished in the ‘informal sector’ of scholarship and public debate.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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Referendum Without a Constitutional Moment: The Kenyan Story

With the country in the grip of a global pandemic and grappling with an ailing economy, is constitutional reform a priority when it’s not clear that the country is facing a constitutional moment?

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Referendum Without a Constitutional Moment: The Kenyan Story
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When they met and shook hands in March 2018, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga pledged to address a number of issues that, to them, bedevil Kenya’s politics. A plan, formally referred to as the Building Bridges Initiative to a New Kenyan Nation—or simply, BBI—was announced in front of an audience that had witnessed a rather chaotic turn of events in the preceding months.

Raila had successfully contested Uhuru’s presidential victory at the Supreme Court and proceeded to boycott a repeat poll, citing lack of a competent and impartial electoral commission. Two months before the two leaders met, Raila had also made real his threat to take a symbolic presidential oath as the “people’s president” in defiance of Uhuru. A joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that the police had behaved appropriately in some instances but, in many others, had shot or beat protestors to death.  Meanwhile, pressure from civil society organisations and the international community to find a political settlement was piling even as a debt-burdened economy was threatening to stall. Uhuru, like former president Mwai Kibaki before him, was probably worried about tarnishing his legacy.

Uhuru appointed an advisory committee in a matter of weeks. The members of the committee were instructed to make actionable proposals to address the BBI agenda, including proposals to review Kenya’s now ten-year-old constitution. The BBI’s nine-point agenda included ethnic antagonism, lack of a national ethos, devolution, divisive elections, security, corruption, shared prosperity, responsibility and inclusivity, as the main areas requiring intervention. It didn’t matter that protestors, including Raila himself, had singled out electoral malpractice as the main problem.

It wasn’t lost on many that nine days prior to the 8 August poll, the body of Chris Msando, the head of information, communication and technology at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), had been found on the outskirts of Nairobi. Very few people, if any, thought that the Kenya 2010 constitution was the poisoned chalice.

Since then, the BBI bandwagon has threatened to change the constitution. It has taken particular issue with the winner-takes-all system, a feature that the 2010 constitution had actually been designed to dampen by diluting the powers of the presidency and distributing them across parliament, and devolving some responsibility to the 47 newly-established county governments.

Despite its pure presidential system, some supporters of the BBI have even argued that the 2010 constitution did not create an imperial presidency, that, in fact, it created a system of checks and balances on how the president should exercise his/her authority. In addition, the terms of reference for the Committee of Experts (CoE) who wrote the 2010 constitution were strikingly similar to those that, ten years later, were assigned to the BBI task force. Similar to BBI, the idea of building bridges and creating a national ethos had also been at the heart of the CoE’s mandate.

The constitutional draft that the CoE proposed (now Kenya’s constitution) not only received the popular vote during a referendum, but it also received the support of a broad section of the country’s political leadership, Raila and Uhuru included. What the 2010 constitution has not received since its promulgation is fidelity and adherence to its spirit.

A key weakness of constitutions the world over is their dependence on traditions put in place by human beings, which often makes them vulnerable to prevailing political interests. In Kenya’s case, the problem has never been a constitutional one in nature, but the result of deliberate efforts by Uhuru Kenyatta, and the Kibaki administration before him, to undermine the constitution and to reassert direct presidential control over devolution and over the other arms of government, the legislature and the judiciary.

I have written elsewhere about the significance of the reduction of the role of county governments by central government bureaucrats—the most significant structural change in Kenya since the 1960s—to simple units of administration and development, while minimising their political features. In this way, feelings of exclusion and marginalisation, underpinned by unaddressed historical injustices, have continued to exist despite constitutional change. Measures that would enable real participation in matters of governance and policy at the local level are frowned upon. Dismissed. Ignored.

Assertive County Governors are viewed as a nuisance that should go away. Responsibility over land administration, education, mega-infrastructure and parastatals has remained in the hands of the central government, and as such, under the direction of the presidency. In fact, matters of devolution have been domiciled within a national government ministry. Despite the establishment of a National Police Service Commission and an Independent Police Oversight Authority, police officers have continued to function outside the law with the express direction and support of higher-ups, with some shooting suspects dead in broad day light. President Uhuru Kenyatta has violated the constitution he wants to amend by refusing to swear in 41 judges appointed by the Judicial Service Commission. A resolution to the land question remains as distant as ever, despite the establishment of a National Land Commission.

These multiple assaults on the constitution and the law by executive fiat mean that it would be very difficult to remove an incumbent president from office through an electoral process, and in 2017 many paid the price of attempting to do so with their lives.

The question is, what has changed since then? Why has it become necessary to review or change a document that was written to avert the very conflict that the BBI task force was assigned to address? Also, should constitutional reform be prioritised when it’s not clear that the country is facing a constitutional moment but is in fact grappling with a global pandemic, an ailing economy, and a political leadership that has a penchant for behaving badly?

The theory

The theory of the “constitutional moment” refers to lasting constitutional arrangements that result from specific, emotionally shared responses to shared fundamental political experiences, or when there are unusually high levels of sustained popular attention to questions of constitutional significance. The constitutions of the United States, nineteenth-century Belgium, post-apartheid South Africa, and the Kenya 2010 constitution come closest to demonstrating this theory.

In the absence of a constitutional moment, a constitutional review usually serves other—more technical—goals and cannot be considered to be a fundamental choice regarding the political design of a country. One of the drawbacks of a constitution that emerges without the blessing of a constitutional moment is that it does not contribute to a sense of union, or the formation of identity, among the members of the society to which it applies.

In short, absent of a constitutional moment, the BBI is beginning to look, feel and behave like no more than a mere pact between the elite.

It is unlikely that the BBI will constitutionalise ordinary politics. Without popular enthusiasm for a new constitution, many Kenyans will perceive the plan to be no more than a pragmatic form of protection of the interests of the elite.

And this, since the handshake in 2018, is what has been taking place.

The problem

For Raila’s supporters, the BBI promises their leader a place in a future government. Uhuru’s supporters continue to be divided over the plan, as some remain suspicious of Raila’s intentions, and others believe that the BBI will consolidate Uhuru’s legacy at the end of his second term in office. For the supporters of the Deputy President, William Ruto, the BBI is meant to frustrate his efforts to succeed his boss come the next elections in 2022.

In an environment devoid of political trust, it is unlikely that the BBI will put an end to political tensions and instability in the country. In fact, a cursory survey of social media language during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that extreme views and divisive political rhetoric are on the rise.

It is therefore more likely that the BBI will amplify the country’s ethnically polarised politics, setting the stage for future conflict. In this way, the BBI has quickly moved from building bridges to becoming the agent of their imminent destruction.

Kenya’s political class is yet again employing constitutional change as a tool to fight its traditional factional wars.

The results can only be disastrous.

The outcome

Raila Odinga, now BBI’s primary mover, has insisted that it is time to proceed to a referendum. Together with Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila has declared a second BBI report released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published on November 2019) to be final.

In his address to the Siaya County Assembly, Dr Adams Oloo, the BBI Steering Committee Vice-Chairperson and a close Odinga ally, intimated that only Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga have the final say on any further amendments to the document.

It is not clear whether it will be possible to complete the constitutional process in time for the embattled IEBC to effect the necessary changes ahead of the August 2021 referendum—which the IEBC estimates will cost Sh14 billion.

The electoral commission, whose term the BBI report has reduced from six to four years, has itself expressed reservations over the document.

Religious leaders and internally displaced people have also weighed in: the possibility of creating an imperial presidency and the fact that their concerns have not been addressed are, to them, key concerns. After promising the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group (PPG) that their concerns would be included in the document to be put to a referendum vote, Raila has backtracked, insisting that no changes will be introduced to the document after all.

The political struggles undergirding the BBI process have been laid bare. All language regarding consensus building has been thrown out. The main protagonists, in the wider race to succeed Uhuru Kenyatta in 2022, are Raila Odinga and William Ruto.

For the Ruto camp, a “Yes” vote in the referendum would be a disappointing measure of their popularity. For the Odinga camp, a delayed referendum would not leave them with much time to gauge Ruto’s and their own strength in the run-up to the 2022 polls.

Caught haplessly in the midst of these struggles, of course, are Kenyan citizens. They are now meant to forget that the Jubilee Administration had promised to tackle four big agendas –  affordable universal health care, food security, manufacturing and affordable housing –  now a near laughable prospect, given the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous economic record that preceded it. A Jubilee politician has bragged that the BBI is a clever innovation to save the Big Four Agenda from completely turning to ash.

Broadly, the proposals of the second BBI report seem to have tightened control around the presidency. If successful, the president gets to appoint a prime minister from parliament who will also be the leader of the largest political party or the largest coalition of political parties. The president will also appoint two deputy prime ministers and cabinet ministers drawn from within and outside of parliament. The report has also recommended the disbandment of the National Police Service Commission and the creation of a National Police Council to be chaired by a cabinet Sscretary, that is, a presidential appointee. It has also established the office of an ombudsman within the judiciary, to be appointed by the president. A number of (early Christmas) gifts have been presented to various key players, perhaps as seductive (and useful) distractions from the proposed tyrannical changes.

Changing the 2010 constitution will not be easy given the high constitutional guardrails. It requires securing both a majority of the votes in a referendum and a majority of votes from members of the 47 county assemblies. In this way, the BBI report proposes an increase of the minimum revenue distributed to county governments from 15% to 35% of national revenue. Members of county assemblies will be allocated 5% of county revenue for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, modelled on the Constituency Development Fund. Businesses set up by young Kenyans will be tax-exempt for the first seven years of operation. The number of members of parliament has been increased, with an additional 27 new senators and 10 new members of the national assembly. The second runner-up in a presidential contest will be named the Leader of the Official Opposition, with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget.

All this is in complete disregard of the debt overhang that Kenya has found itself in since 2013. In fact, the external debt has grown by 15.6 per cent to Sh3.7 trillion between March and August 2020. Over the same period local debt expanded by 9.7 per cent to Sh3.4 trillion. The overall cost of running parliament is already 2 per cent of the national budget, and that of running the Executive has increased by 20 per cent over the last two years alone. As the government suspends health insurance for COVID-19 patients in the midst of a second, spiking wave, no one is talking about the possibility of the proposed referendum facing funding shortfalls.

In their response to the first constitutional draft that was published by the Committee of Experts in 2009, Kenyans cautioned against the creation of a bloated government—a concern that is still close to their hearts. This also means that Kenyans are not opposed to the existence of an opposition, per se, but that the loser of an election needs to feel that they have lost fairly. The dispute during every electoral cycle is usually over the sloppy manner in which elections are conducted, coupled with a high trust deficit often cultivated by politicians.

The solution, in my view, is to respect the law and cultivate a culture of constitutionalism. The Kenya 2010 constitution is not perfect, but it is also true that the leadership has not adhered to its letter and spirit.

Reviewing the constitution less than a decade after it was first promulgated may be right and proper, but one may ask, what is the constitutional moment this time?

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Make Amazon Pay

The Progressive International is mobilising with Amazon workers and their allies around the world. Here’s why.

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Make Amazon Pay
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Amazon’s size and power place the corporation at the very center of the crises of climate breakdown and economic inequality that grip our planet. The growth of CEO Jeff Bezos’s astronomical wealth — up $100 billion since March, now surpassing that of any other human in history — is directly proportional to Amazon’s human and environmental costs: his corporation mistreats its workers, wrecks the climate, and undermines the public institutions underpinning our democracies along the way along the way.

Taking on Amazon, therefore, will require more than curbing Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth or calling for corporate social responsibility. It will require a global movement that is organized along every dimension of Amazon’s expanding empire: for workers, for peoples, and for the planet.

That is why today — Black Friday — an international worker-activist coalition begins a planetary mobilization to #MakeAmazonPay. From Sao Paulo to Berlin, Seattle to Hyderabad, activists will project this rallying cry onto key Amazon sites, putting the corporation on notice that its days of impunity are over. Bringing together unions, environmentalists, and citizens around the world, this coalition exercises the only power that can meet the force of transnational capital: solidarity.

Amazon’s size and power place the corporation at the very center of the crises of climate breakdown and economic inequality that grip our planet.

In just a few years, Amazon has established itself as a key node in the circuitry of globalized capitalism. Having first revolutionized the links between production, distribution, and consumption on its digital platform, the corporation’s cloud infrastructure and e-commerce give Amazon controlling influence over huge swathes of social and economic life across the planet.

Amazon’s network of corporate power extends through our workplaces and into our lives. Producers and suppliers have no choice but to partner with Amazon to retain or gain access to consumers. Consumers, for their part, feel that they can hardly avoid Amazon, unless they are willing to wait longer and able to pay more. Through mass surveillance technology like Alexa, Echo, and Amazon Ring, the corporation has infiltrated millions of households and collected their most intimate data.

Across this network sits Amazon Web Services, which has played a key role in the operation of extractive industries and law enforcement; as well as Amazon’s recent ventures into sectors like financial services, food provision, and health care. Amazon has, in effect, become a wholly unaccountable, predatory transnational private state – or, indeed, a 21st-century empire.

In the absence of a common movement to challenge it, Amazon has managed to expand its empire to all corners of the global economy. But the tide is beginning to turn. Tech workers’ recent participation in the global climate strike was followed by important concessions by Amazon management, and transnational labor alliances led by UNI Global Union and Amazon Workers International have managed to integrate previously diffused worker resistance. Internationally, public advocacy groups have moved the urgent need to break up Amazon towards the heart of policy debates.

Taking on Amazon, therefore, will require more than curbing Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth or calling for corporate social responsibility. It will require a global movement that is organized along every dimension of Amazon’s expanding empire: for workers, for peoples, and for the planet.

These efforts show us the way forward. To Make Amazon Pay its debts to workers, the planet, and society, we must pursue a three-point strategy:

Firstly, recognize the international and intersectional nature of the Amazon struggle. Secondly, organize across national borders and narrow spheres of activism. Thirdly, politicize this struggle by taking it straight to legislative arenas around the world.

These are the goals of the campaign that launched today.

With respect to the first, our coalition’s Common Demands are global in their scope. We realize that Amazon’s power depends on its ability to exploit differences in national jurisdictions to drive on the global race to the bottom on social and environmental protections.

We recognize, too, the intersections of Amazon’s injustice. The environmental injustice of Amazon’s pollution, for instance, disproportionately affects people of color. The corporation’s monopolization of the cloud computing sector, meanwhile, is the basis of its close ties with Big Oil. Our coalition therefore brings together the environmentalists of Greenpeace and 350 with groups like Data 4 Black Lives, the Athena Coalition, and the Hawkers Federation of India.

With respect to the second point of strategy, today’s action unites workers across Amazon’s supply chain — from the tech workers in Amazon’s Seattle headquarters and warehouse workers organized by UNI Global Union affiliates, the Awood Centre, and Amazon Workers International, all the way to supply chain workers in garment factories in Bangladesh.

And with respect to the third, our coalition does not demand that Jeff Bezos change Amazon’s business model out of the goodness of his heart. Instead, the movement aims to build legislative power that can put an end to the “Amazonification” of our economies and societies. We invite progressive lawmakers across the globe to join us, and stand with this global movement to Make Amazon Pay.

The mission of this campaign is as simple as it is radical: to win a different world. A world in which corporations that primarily serve the interests of their CEOs are replaced by cooperatives that serve the interests of the many. A world in which economic activity does not lead to climate destruction, but to environmental reconstruction and flourishing. A world in which markets are governed by democratic institutions, rather than vice versa. Solidarity is the vehicle to deliver this world. Making Amazon pay is where we start.

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Is the BBI a Trojan Horse Disguised as a Guardian Angel?

The Building Bridges Initiative fails to inspire because it offers simplistic solutions to problems that have more to do with poor leadership than with Kenyans’ inability to be responsible citizens.

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Is the BBI a Trojan Horse Disguised as a Guardian Angel?
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I have resisted commenting on the recently launched Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report, mainly because in Kenya today if you oppose the BBI, you are labelled as being in Deputy President William Ruto’s camp, and if you support it, you are seen as being on the side of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his new ally, former opposition leader, Raila Odinga. And since I do not belong to either of these groups, I was afraid that by commenting on the report, I might inadvertently be labelled pro-Uhuru or pro-Ruto.

Critics of the BBI have mainly focused on whether amending the constitution through the BBI process is, in fact, unconstitutional as it would bypass many of the requirements for amending the 2010 constitution, which are onerous and virtually impossible to fulfill without a national consensus. Some critics, like the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, say that by giving the president power to appoint a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers, the BBI is calling for a return to an imperial presidency.

On the other hand, supporters of the BBI – particularly the “handshake” stakeholders and many commentators in the mainstream media – have lauded the BBI for being the magic pill that will unite the country and spur social and economic development.

Intellectual surrender 

Having now read the abridged version of the BBI report, I can conclusively say that it has failed to address the biggest crisis facing this country – that of poor leadership. The most offensive and egregious section of the report is undoubtedly the opening Validation Statement, which places the responsibility for all that is wrong with this country squarely on the shoulders of Kenyans – not on our leaders, who got us into the mess we are in in the first place.

The report states: “Kenyans decried the fact that Kenya lacked a sense of national ethos and is increasingly a nation of distinct individuals instead of an individually distinct nation. And we have placed too much emphasis on what the nation can do for each of us – our rights – and given almost no attention to what we each must do for our nation: our responsibilities.”

As Wandia Njoya pointed out in a recent article, what the BBI has effectively done is told Kenyans that they are to blame if their rights are violated. And if moral and ethical standards have dropped across the country, it’s not because the country’s politicians have lowered moral and ethical standards and have set a bad precedent, but because Kenyans just don’t know how to behave properly. It’s called blaming the victim.

It suggests that Kenyans are somehow wired to be evil or corrupt, that decades of state-inflicted brutality against citizens – an offshoot of a neocolonial dispensation where citizens are treated as gullible and exploitable subjects – has nothing to do with the culture of impunity we find ourselves in. That the contemptuous way in which we are treated by state institutions – at police stations, in public hospitals, in government offices – is somehow our fault. And that the example of how to behave was not established by the state and its officials that consistently fail to deliver justice to Kenyans and turn a blind eye to violence committed by state and security organs, especially against the poor. Remember, this is a country where a chicken thief can end up spending a year in jail, but a minister who has stolen billions from state coffers can get away scot-free.

Njoya writes:

We are told that discussing history is blaming colonialists and refusing to take responsibility for our own actions. That discussing ethnic privilege and patronage is attacking every single member of that ethnic group. That discussing patriarchy is blaming men. That explaining systemic causes of problems is explaining away or excusing those problems. Every public conversation in Kenya is a war against complex thinking. We have reached the point where Kenyan public conversations are pervaded by this system of intellectual simplification.

Hence the BBI’s proposal to set up a new commission to address “indiscipline in children, breakdown of marriages and general erosion of cultural values in today’s society”. Presumably, this commission will take on the role of parents, school teachers and community leaders “by mainstreaming ethics training and awareness in mentoring and counselling sessions in religious activities and through community outreach programmes”.

What is being implied here is that if only Kenyans were more religious, they might not behave so badly. (I wonder if the drafters of the report know that Kenyans are among the most religious people in the world. Yet we are consistently ranked as among the most corrupt countries on the planet.)

The BBI report recognises that ethnic divisions have polarised the country, but it does not acknowledge that ethnic polarisation is the result of a political leadership that forms opportunistic tribal alliances for its own advantage and is happy to pit one ethnic community against another in order to win elections.

Moreover, its recommendations on how to reduce ethnic animosity appear to be based on the idea that if you force different ethnic communities to live in close proximity to each other, Kenya will miraculously become a society where all ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony.

There is also this misguided belief that if the people in authority are from an ethnic group that is distinct from the ethnic group that these people lord over, there will be more accountability (a model borrowed from the Kenya Police and the colonial and post-colonial district and provincial commissioners’ templates). Hence the Ministry of Education should “adopt policy guidelines that discourage local recruitment and staffing of teachers”.

Many sociologists and behavioural scientists might argue that, in fact, if you want more accountability and cohesion in a community, the leadership should come from that same community. So, for instance, if police officers belong to the same ethnic community that they serve and protect, they are more likely to be more accountable to that community because any signs of misconduct on the part of the officer will be perceived as having a direct bearing on the welfare of that community. A bribe-taking officer is more likely to be reprimanded by his community because it is his community that suffers when he takes a bribe. A Kalenjin police officer posted in Malindi, for instance, will not care what the Giriama community he is extorting bribes from or is brutalising think of him because he is not part of them and is not accountable to them or to their community leaders and elders. This accountability is further diminished by the current practice of police officers regularly being transferred to different localities.

Similarly, in schools, particularly those in remote or marginalised areas, it is important that the teachers be from that community because they also play the role of mentors and role models. We are more likely to follow in the footsteps of someone who looks like us and who has a similar history than someone who doesn’t. Which is why Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has opened the doors to leadership for so many girls and women of colour in the United States.

This is not to say that the BBI report glosses over the problems facing marginalised communities. On the contrary, it makes it a point to highlight that “the marginalised, the under-served and the poor” are suffering and are in urgent need of “an immediate helping hand and employment opportunities to help them survive”. What the report fails to recognise is that the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was designed to ensure that such communities are not condemned to perpetual poverty. Devolution was supposed to sort out issues of marginalisation by ensuring that previously marginalised communities and counties are empowered to improve their own welfare. By making them recipients of hand-outs, the BBI has added insult to their injury.

Thankfully, the report does recommend that previous reports by task forces and land-related commissions, including the Ndung’u Land Commission and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), be implemented. My question is: If President Uhuru Kenyatta did not implement the recommendations of the TJRC, which handed its report to him in May 2013 shortly after he assumed the presidency, what guarantees do we have that he and his BBI team will implement the recommendations now? The president has also failed on his promise of a Sh10 billion fund for victims of historical injustices. What has changed? Clearly not the leadership (and here I mean the entire leadership, not just Uhuru’s).

Silences and omissions

Moving on to another marginalisation issue: women’s representation. We all know that Parliament has actively resisted the two-thirds gender rule spelled out in the constitution. So what epiphany has occurred now that suddenly there is an urgent desire to include more women in governance institutions? If Parliament had just obeyed the constitution, there would not be a proposal in the BBI to ensure that no more than two-thirds of members of elective or appointive bodies be of the same gender. It would be a given.

And yet while BBI gives with one hand, it takes with the other. The BBI task force proposes that the position of County Women’s Representative in the National Assembly be scrapped.

What’s worse, the BBI actually appears to welcome the recommendation of “some Kenyans” that Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) commissioners be appointed by political parties. Really? If you think that the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections were fraudulent and chaotic, then wait for serious fraud and possible violence in an election where the electoral body’s commissioners represent party interests. (If I had my way, I would disband the IEBC altogether and put together a non-partisan body comprising foreign officials to run elections in this country. Maybe then we would have some hope of a free, fair and corruption-free election.)

The BBI is also silent on the role of the IEBC in vetting candidates, and ensuring that they adhere to Chapter Six of the Constitution on leadership and integrity. Let us not forget that many of the candidates in the last two elections had questionable backgrounds, and some were even facing charges in court. Why did the IEBC not ensure that those running for office had clean records?

On the economy, or what it calls “shared prosperity”, the BBI, emphasises the role of industry and manufacturing in the country’s economic development but is silent on agriculture, which currently employs about half of Kenya’s labour force and accounts for nearly 30 per cent of Kenya’s GDP, but which remains one the most neglected and abused sectors in Kenya. It’s a miracle that our hardworking and much neglected farmers are able to feed all of us, given that they receive so little support from the government, which consistently undermines local farmers by importing cheap or substandard food and by providing farmers with few incentives.

Besides, it is highly unlikely that Kenya will become a factory for the region, let alone the world, like China, because it simply does not have the capacity to do so. Why not focus on services, another mainstay of the economy?

The BBI also talks of harnessing regional trade and cooperation and sourcing products locally but, again, we know this is simply lip service. If Uhuru Kenyatta’s government was keen on improving trade within the region, it would not have initiated a bilateral trade agreement with the United States that essentially rubbishes and undermines the country’s previous regional trade agreements with Eastern and Southern African countries and trading blocs.

On the yoke around every Kenyan’s neck – corruption – the BBI’s approach is purely legalistic and administrative. It wants speedy prosecution of cases involving corruption and wastage of public resources and it wants to protect whistleblowers. (Good luck with the latter. In my experience, no whistleblower protection policy has protected whistleblowers, not even in the United Nations.)

BBI also wants to digitise all government services to curb graft. But as the economist David Ndii pointed out at the recent launch of the Africog report, “Highway Robbery: Budgeting for State Capture”, if corruption is built into the very architecture of the Kenyan government, no amount of digitisation will help. Remember how the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) was manipulated to steal millions from the Ministry of Devolution in what is known as the NYS scandal? Computer systems are created and run by people, and these people can become very adept at deleting their digital footprints from these systems. As the former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko, pointed out, when corruption is factored into the budget (i.e. when budgets are prepared with corruption in mind), corruption becomes an essential component of procurement and tendering processes. So let’s think of more creative and innovative ways of handling graft within government.

Which is not to say that the BBI task force has not struggled with this issue. There are various proposals to amend public finance laws to make the government more accountable on how it spends taxpayers’ money. But we know that these laws can be undermined by the very people responsible for implementing them, as the various mega-corruption scandals in various ministries and state institutions have shown.

A Trojan horse? 

Many Kenyans suspect that perhaps the real and only reason for the BBI is that it will allow for the creation of new powerful positions – such as that of prime minister to accommodate both Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta – and will set the stage for a return to a parliamentary system of governance instead of the current presidential “winner-takes-all” system. But while the latter might appear to be a worthwhile endeavour, the fact that former opposers of the new constitution and the parliamentary system now appear to be endorsing both suggests that there is something more to this than meets the eye. As Prof. Yash Pal Ghai has repeatedly stated, the constitution endorsed at Bomas was premised on a parliamentary system and was only changed at the last minute to accommodate a presidential system. That is how we ended up where we are now.

It also appears strange that those who benefitted most from the presidential system now want to change the constitution.  As Waikwa Wanyoike, put it:

Worse, those hell-bent on immobilising the constitution have done so by conjuring up and feeding a narrative that it is an idealistic and unrealistic charter. Because they wield power, they have used their vantage points to counter most of the salutary aspects of the constitution. Uhuru Kenyatta’s consistent and contemptuous refusal to follow basic requirements of the constitution in executing the duties of his office, including his endless defiance of court orders, stands out as the most apt example here.

Yet all this is calculated to create cynicism among Kenyans about the potency of the constitution. Hoping that the cynicism will erode whatever goodwill Kenyans have towards the constitution, the elites believe that they can fully manipulate or eliminate the constitution entirely and replace it with laws that easily facilitate and legitimise their personal interests, as did Jomo Kenyatta and Moi.

If indeed we want to go back to a parliamentary system through a referendum, then we should hold the referendum when the current crop of politicians (some of whom, including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, were opposed to the 2010 constitution in the first place) are not in leadership positions because many Kenyans simply don’t trust them to do what is in Kenyans’ best interest. After all, a fox cannot be relied on to guard a chicken coop.

Already the president has urged Parliament to pass laws that conform to the BBI proposals – this even before the proposed referendum that will decide whether the majority of the country’s citizens are for or against the BBI’s raft of recommendations. In other words, the BBI proposals may become laws even before the country decides whether these laws are acceptable and are what the country needs.

Are the goodies proposed in the BBI, such as providing debt relief to jobless graduates and allocating a larger share of national revenue to the counties, just enticements to lure Kenyans onto the BBI bandwagon so as to ensure that the current political establishment consolidates its hold on power? Is the BBI a Trojan horse disguised as a guardian angel? Only time will tell.

One possibility, however, is that a groundswell of public opinion against the BBI might just overturn the whole process.

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