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Steakholders vs Smallholders: The Political Economy of Kenya’s Sugar Industry

7 min read.

Western Kenya’s sugar industry has a productivity problem. Fortunate to have been given several reprieves by COMESA, growers, millers and policymakers have still been unable to move away from the protectionist thinking on which the industry was originally built. But time is running out. Can the industry survive without state protection? By DAVID NDII.

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Steakholders vs Smallholders: The Political Economy of Kenya’s Sugar Industry
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Kenya’s sugar industry circus continues. Late last year, the government formed a task force to look into the industry’s never-ending woes. Last week, a farmers lobby group formed a parallel task force, which is already convening in western Kenya and collecting views. The government has dismissed the private task force, and vice versa. Farmers seem to be behind the private one. Ironically, both are talking the same language— reviewing law and policy.

For more than a decade now, Kenya has been granted reprieves by the COMESA trade block to reform its sugar industry. Last year, the reprieve was extended for a further two years to 2020. The COMESA region has some very competitive sugar producers including Sudan and Malawi. Kenya runs a huge trade surplus with COMESA. Kenya’s excuses are wearing thin. This time round, the trade block set up a committee to supervise the implementation of the deal.

It is a tall order. Kenya’s sugar industry has a productivity problem. This has two components, low farm productivity and low sugar recovery. We have the lowest cane yields in the COMESA region (and the other COMESA countries have some of the highest yields in the world). The recovery rates are between 9 and 11 percent, that is, a tonne of cane produces between 90 – 110 kilos of sugar, while western Kenya manages to recover only 6 percent.

Why are cane yields in western Kenya so low? Simply put, this is because cane sugar production is a land and capital intensive crop. Western Kenya smallholders are land and capital poor. They don’t have the capital to invest in irrigation and high tech agronomy, or the scale to make such investments pay off. We do not leave the country to benchmark. Kwale International Sugar, the Mauritian investors who revived Ramisi Sugar report that they are harvesting 60 tonnes per hectare on rain fed cane, and 140 tonnes per hectare on irrigated fields. They describe their irrigation system as a “state-of-the art technology that includes a sub-surface drip-fed irrigation system which delivers 40 percent water saving.

We have the lowest cane yields in the COMESA region…the other COMESA countries have some of the highest in the world…

Assuming the rest of the agronomy is the same, irrigation alone more than doubles the cane yield. In fact, at 60 tonnes per hectare the rain-fed yield in Kwale is the same as western Kenya. However, cane at the coast matures faster, 12 months as compared to 15 to 18 months in western. This makes for significant productivity differences. In western, it translates to 120 tonnes per hectare over a three year cycle, which brings down the average annual production per hectare to 40, while in Kwale the yield and annual production remain at 60 tonnes per hectare. So, though we have 220,000 hectares planted, we only harvest 80,000 a year on average, which is just over a third of the planted acreage. To see the difference this makes, we produce on average 600,000 metric ton of sugar on 200,000 acres (440,000 acres) of land. Mauritius produces a similar about of sugar on 72,000 hectares (158,000 acres).

In economics, we think of resource allocation in terms of opportunity cost. The economic value of an industry is what it produces over the next best alternative use of the scarce resources that it employs. Kenya is a land-poor country. Only a third of the land is arable without considerable investment in irrigation and land improvement. The sugar belt is some of Kenya’s most productive rain-fed cropland. If the land under sugarcane could be made as productive as tea, it would generate $1.3 billion ( Sh.130 billion) at current exchange rates, compared to US$ 180 million worth of sugar currently.

By misallocating resources, western Kenya is losing KSh 100 billion worth of agricultural productivity. As a country we are losing more. Average ex-factory price of sugar is currently quoted at KSh 4,000 per 50-kg bag (KSh 80 per kilo) which translates to US$ 800 per tonne. Sugar is trading at about $280 a tonne, or KSh 30 per kilo in the world market. Kenyan consumers are paying more than double the world price. With current consumption at 80 kilos per household, the sugar industry protection works out to KSh 4,000 per household per year. If we were buying sugar at the world price, the savings would be enough to buy every Kenyan household a kilo of meat every month.

By misallocating resources, western Kenya is losing KSh 100 billion worth of agricultural productivity.

We pay western Kenya more than double the world price of sugar, but it has not made the region prosperous. All the public sugar companies are insolvent. The government and stakeholders continue to go round in circles. Waswahili have a popular saying “ukiona vialea vimeundua” (ships/vessels float because they are build to), meaning there are reasons why things are what they are.

After independence, the government set about identifying cash crops that smallholders could grow in the different “high potential” agro-ecological zones. Central Kenya had coffee, tea and pyrethrum. The white highlands had their cereals and dairy. In line with the import substitution industrialization strategy of the time, sugar and cotton were identified as ideal cash crops for the lake region. It is the misfortune of western Kenya that both crops were unsuited for a smallholder out-grower production system. To be sure, it is pure good luck that tea turned out to be suited for the model. In fact, the World Bank strongly advised the government against it, as there was no precedent of smallholder tea production anywhere in the world.

The sugar industry thrived behind the tariff barriers of import substitution industrialization. But by the mid-seventies, the structural and economic challenges that now plague the industry were already in place. Prof. Stephen Mbogoh, one of the country’s leading agricultural economists, who studied the sugar industry for his doctorate observed:

“At the macro-level planners are interested in other aspects of an enterprise, besides the profitability aspect. The potential for an enterprise to create employment in Kenya, particularly in the rural areas, is an important consideration. Cane production is found to be the most profitable enterprise, but it does not generate as much capacity for absorbing the rural unemployed as the alternative enterprises.” (Mbogoh, Stephen Gichovi. An Economic Analysis of Kenya’s Sugar Industry with Special Reference to the Self-Sufficiency Production Policy PhD Thesis. University of Alberta. 1980)

Mbogoh’s analysis showed that sugar had the highest income per worker, but the lowest job creation potential of the competing alternatives (See table). But this analysis does not bring the import protection factor to bear. Even then sugar was the most highly protected of the alternatives. From Mbogoh’s data sugar was retailing at KSh. 4.50 per kilo in 1976, which works out to US$ 750 per tonne, against a world price of US$ 250 per tonne— the same as now. If both the domestic resource cost (i.e. the cost of protection) and job creation were taken into account, the maize/groundnut combination would have come out on top. It is worth noting that even with import protection, the maize/groundnut gross revenue is comparable to sugarcane.

After independence, the government set about identifying cash crops that smallholders could grow in the different “high potential” agro-ecological zones. Central Kenya had coffee, tea and pyrethrum. The White Highlands had their cereals and dairy. In line with the import substitution industrialization strategy of the time, sugar and cotton were identified as ideal cash crops for the lake region. It is the misfortune of western Kenya that both crops were unsuited for a smallholder out-grower production system.

From an economic policy standpoint, gross revenue is a more important variable than the net profit because it captures all the incomes generated by an economic activity and not just the profit of that specific enterprise. The difference between gross and net income captures the multiplier effect of an enterprise. In this case, we see that while both sugarcane and the maize/groundnut option have roughly the same gross income, the maize/groundnut options buys 60 percent more (KSh 2,122) than sugarcane (KSh 1,296), which is indicative of a better distributional outcome than sugarcane.

By the mid-seventies, the structural and economic challenges that now plague the industry were already in place.

In summary the policymakers saddled western Kenya with an uncompetitive, capital intensive, low productivity, regressive (i.e. income concentrating) cash crop. One cannot help but wonder whether the predominance of western Kenya migrant labour in Nairobi has something to do with these policy choices.

In all fairness, this was not, as is sometimes insinuated, a conspiracy to impoverish the region. Rather, it was a reflection of the conviction behind import substitution industrialization. Indeed, the import substitution strategy was predicated on “export pessimism” – the idea that primary commodity exporters were condemned to deteriorating terms of trade (purchasing power vis-a-vis manufactured goods) in perpetuity. Viewed from this perspective, western Kenya with its sugar and cotton mills seemed brighter than that of primary commodity exporting central Kenya.

Policymakers saddled western Kenya with an uncompetitive, capital intensive, low productivity, regressive cash crop. One cannot help but wonder whether the predominance of western Kenya migrant labour in Nairobi has something to do with these policy choices.

By the end of the 70s, import substitution had run its course. Subsidies drained government coffers, and the imports of machinery and raw materials required to keep the industries afloat depleted foreign exchange without generating any. In Sessional Paper No.1 of 1986, Economic Management for Renewed Growth, the Moi government acknowledged that it was at the end of the road. Gradual liberalization began then, and ended with a bang in 1993. The textile industry, and cotton farming were wiped out.

But the sugar industry survived. How come? To the best of my knowledge, this question has not received much academic attention, but I have a theory. Cotton was by and large a poor man’s crop. Sugarcane outgrowers are both rich and poor. According to Prof. Mbogoh’s study, large scale outgrowers farming 40 to well over a 1000 hectares accounted for 40 percent of the outgrower acreage, and smallholders with between one and six hectares for the other 60 percent. I suppose that the sizes will have changed as land has become fragmented but the industry structure remains more or less the same.

Liberalization…ended with a bang in 1993. The textile industry, and cotton farming were wiped out. But the sugar industry survived. How come?

Because sugarcane production is capital intensive, the large scale outgrowers are able to achieve higher farm productivity than smallholders, but still benefit from the cane prices that are based on the smallholders cost structure. Moreover, the low husbandry requirements between planting and harvesting makes sugarcane very amenable to “telephone” farming by western Kenya elites. Additionally, the same said elites have preferential access to other business opportunities in the value chain, such as suppliers to the factories and sugar distribution. It is instructive that Mumias, which stands out by not having large scale outgrowers, was the only sugar company that was privatized, perhaps because there were no powerful elites with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. From this vantage point, the private task force begins to look more like a “steak holder” than a stakeholder initiative.

Because sugarcane production is capital intensive, the large scale outgrowers are able to achieve higher farm productivity than smallholders, but still benefit from the cane prices that are based on the smallholders’ cost structure.

But western Kenya’s sugar industry cannot be protected from competition indefinitely. Sooner or later, the COMESA safeguards will come to an end. If not that, other domestic producers will follow KISCOL and cash in on the high prices with lower costs of production. And as long as the wedge between the international and domestic prices remains what it is, episodes of import deluges will continue to destabilize the industry. The time for western Kenya sugar industry to face reality is now.

Steak holders should let the people go.

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

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The Pitfalls of African Consciousness

It took time to digest Beyonce’s Black Is King. Conclusion: it fails to deliver us. Instead, it’s just another capitalist construction of the world.

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African American imaginings of Africa often intermingle with—and help illuminate—intimate hopes and desires for Black life in the United States. So when an African American pop star offers an extended meditation on Africa, the resulting work reflects not just her particular visions of the continent and its diaspora, but also larger aspirations for a collective Black future.

Black is King, Beyoncé’s elaborate, new marriage of music video and movie, is a finely-textured collage of cultural meaning. Though it is not possible, in the scope of this essay, to interpret the film’s full array of metaphors, one may highlight certain motifs and attempt to grasp their social implications.

An extravagant technical composition, Black is King is also a pastiche of symbols and ideologies. It belongs to a venerable African American tradition of crafting images of Africa that are designed to redeem the entire Black world. The film’s depiction of luminous, dignified Black bodies and lush landscapes is a retort to the contemptuous West and to its condescending discourses of African danger, disease, and degeneration.

Black is King rebukes those tattered, colonialist tropes while evoking the spirit of pan-African unity. It falls short, however, as a portrait of popular liberation. In a sense, the picture is a sophisticated work of political deception. Its aesthetic of African majesty seems especially emancipatory in a time of coronavirus, murderous cops, and vulgar Black death. One is almost tempted to view the film as another iteration of the principles of mass solidarity and resistance that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.

But Black is King is neither radical nor fundamentally liberatory. Its vision of Africa as a site of splendor and spiritual renewal draws on both postcolonial ideals of modernity and mystical notions of a premodern past. Yet for all its ingenuity, the movie remains trapped within the framework of capitalist decadence that has fabulously enriched its producer and principal performer, Beyoncé herself. Far from exotic, the film’s celebration of aristocracy and its equation of power and status with the consumption of luxury goods exalts the system of class exploitation that continues to degrade Black life on both sides of the Atlantic.

That said the politics of Black is King are complicated. The picture is compelling precisely because it appears to subvert the logic of global white supremacy. Its affirming representations of Blackness and its themes of ebony kinship will resonate with many viewers, but will hold special significance for African Americans, for whom Africa remains an abiding source of inspiration and identity. Indeed, Black is King seems purposefully designed to appeal to diasporic sensibilities within African American culture.

At the heart of the production lies the idea of a fertile and welcoming homeland. Black is King presents Africa as a realm of possibility. It plays on the African American impulse to sentimentalize the continent as a sanctuary from racial strife and as a source of purity and regeneration. Though the movie does not explicitly address the prospect of African American return or “repatriation” to Africa, allusions to such a reunion shape many of its scenes. No doubt some African American viewers will discover in the film the allure of a psychological escape to a glorious mother continent, a place where lost bonds of ancestry and culture are magically restored.

The problem is not just that such an Africa does not exist. All historically displaced groups romanticize “the old country.” African Americans who idealize “the Motherland” are no different in this respect. But by portraying Africa as the site of essentially harmonious civilizations, Black is King becomes the latest cultural product to erase the realities of class relations on the continent. That deletion, which few viewers are likely to notice, robs the picture of whatever potential it may have had to inspire a concrete pan-African solidarity based on recognition of the shared conditions of dispossession that mark Black populations at home and abroad.

To understand the contradictions of Black is King, one must examine the class dynamics hidden beneath its spectacles of African nobility. The movie, which depicts a young boy’s circuitous journey to the throne, embodies Afrocentrism’s fascination with monarchical authority. It is not surprising that African Americans should embrace regal images of Africa, a continent that is consistently misrepresented and denigrated in the West. Throughout their experience of subjugation in the New World, Black people have sought to construct meaningful paradigms of African affinity. Not infrequently, they have done so by claiming royal lineage or by associating themselves with dynastic Egypt, Ethiopia, and other imperial civilizations.

The danger of such vindicationist narratives is that they mask the repressive character of highly stratified societies. Ebony royals are still royals. They exercise the prerogatives of hereditary rule. And invariably, the subjects over whom they reign, and whose lives they control, are Black. African Americans, one should recall, also hail from the ranks of a service class. They have good cause to eschew models of rigid social hierarchy and to pursue democratic themes in art and politics. Black is King hardly empowers them by portraying monarchy as a symbol of grandeur rather than as a system of coercion.

There are other troubling allusions in the film. One scene casts Beyoncé and her family members as African oligarchs. The characters signal their opulence by inhabiting a sprawling mansion complete with servants, marble statues and manicured lawns. Refinement is the intended message. Yet the conspicuous consumption, the taste for imported luxury products, the mimicry of European high culture and the overall display of ostentation call to mind the lifestyles of a notorious generation of postcolonial African dictators. Many of these Cold War rulers amassed vast personal wealth while their compatriots wallowed in poverty. Rising to power amid the drama of African independence, they nevertheless facilitated the reconquest of the continent by Western financial interests.

Black is King does not depict any particular historical figures from this stratum of African elites. (Some of the movie’s costumes pair leopard skin prints with finely tailored suits in a style that is reminiscent of flamboyant statesmen such as Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo.) However, by presenting the African leisure class as an object of adulation, the film glamorizes private accumulation and the kind of empty materialism that defined the comprador officials who oversaw Africa’s descent into neocolonial dependency.

Black is King is, of course, a Disney venture. One would hardly expect a multinational corporation to sponsor a radical critique of social relations in the global South. (It is worth mentioning that in recent years the Disney Company has come under fire for allowing some of its merchandise to be produced in Chinese sweatshops.) Small wonder that Disney and Beyoncé, herself a stupendously rich mogul, have combined to sell Western audiences a lavishly fabricated Africa—one that is entirely devoid of class conflict.

Anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon once warned, in a chapter titled “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” that the African postcolonial bourgeoisie would manipulate the symbols of Black cultural and political autonomy to advance its own narrow agenda. Black is King adds a new twist to the scenario. This time an African American megastar and entrepreneur has appropriated African nationalist and pan-Africanist imagery to promote the spirit of global capitalism.

In the end, Black is King must be read as a distinctly African American fantasy of Africa. It is a compendium of popular ideas about the continent as seen by Black Westerners. The Africa of this evocation is natural and largely unspoiled. It is unabashedly Black. It is diverse but not especially complex, for an aura of camaraderie supersedes its ethnic, national, and religious distinctions. This Africa is a tableau. It is a repository for the Black diaspora’s psychosocial ambitions and dreams of transnational belonging.

What the Africa of Black is King is not is ontologically African. Perhaps the African characters and dancers who populate its scenes are more than just props. But Beyoncé is the picture’s essential subject, and it is largely through her eyes—which is to say, Western eyes—that we observe the people of the continent. If the extras in the film are elegant, they are also socially subordinate. Their role is to adorn the mostly African American elites to whom the viewer is expected to relate.

There are reasons to relish the pageantry of Black is King, especially in a time of acute racial trauma. Yet the movie’s mystique of cultural authenticity and benevolent monarchy should not obscure the material realities of everyday life. Neoliberal governance, extractive capitalism, and militarism continue to spawn social and ecological devastation in parts of Africa, the Americas, and beyond. Confronting those interwoven realities means developing a concrete, global analysis while resisting metaphysical visions of the world.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Fractures and Tensions in the Anti-Racism Movement

Continental Africans have a lot to learn from their African American cousins in relation to race politics and white supremacy, not least because the phases of oppression developed by white supremacists simply keep mutating.

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Sometimes tensions between continental Africans and their African American brethren mount over trivial things due to their ostensibly deep-rooted differences. But really these differences ought not be so significant as to weaken the quest to confront and defeat racism wherever it is found. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are all testimonies as to why white supremacy is so toxic.

African Americans are undoubtedly best equipped to read, analyse and deconstruct white supremacy, having been on the battle lines for over four hundred and fifty years. From centuries of slavery to Jim Crow segregation, systematic lynching, civil rights activism and disillusionment and the present age of mass incarceration, African Americans have seen it all, and continue to suffer the devastating effects of living in the trenches of institutionalised racism.

Being minorities in a white-dominated United States, contained in bleak urban ghettoes that are now undergoing steady gentrification, they also have to endure the traumas of constant police brutality. They are a community under siege on multiple fronts as their neighbourhoods are being decimated by fractured and disappearing families, targeted gentrification, mass incarceration, drug abuse and despair.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, death rates among African Americans have been disproportionately higher than other racial groups and this had led to considerable public outcry. Again, their position within American society demonstrates their obvious vulnerability. They are especially vulnerable not only to disease but also have relatively few means of redress.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has received mixed reactions within the community as many argue that it lacks grassroots support and is being sponsored by white liberal donors and sympathisers. Since the era of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Huey Newton, amongst others, there has not emerged a cohort of black leaders with the vision, commitment, sincerity and energy to match those illustrious forebearers.

After the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the assassinations of Malcolm and Martin, the penetration of radical activist groups by the FBI, and the heroin epidemic that blighted black neighbourhoods, the political momentum has arguably not been sustained.

Following the gains of the civil rights movement, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton further inflicted harm on the black community through a series of repressive legislation that birthed the age of mass incarceration, chillingly covered by the author and academic Michelle Alexander in her bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

The scourge of crack cocaine must also be added to this already malevolent social equation. Families and neighbourhoods were denuded of health, social services, stability and financial viability. Knowledge, wisdom, and wholesome experience were substituted with fear, paranoia and degeneracy.

Hip hop as a cultural form was in its ascendency, having managed to crawl out of the neglected borough of the Bronx. Just like funk, R&B and other black music forms, this particular genre also aspired to be therapeutic, or at least soul-lifting. For a while, it represented the angst and perplexities of the “hood”, and subsequently, the righteous rage of the bona fide political rebel. But after experiencing phenomenal success, it fizzled out in an anti-climactic tsunami of bling, bombast, shallow consumerism and toxic misogyny.

For the first time in recent memory, blacks were able to produce a music utterly devoid of soul meant to soundtrack the last days of an era indelibly marked by Babylonian excess and decadence. In South Africa, droves of no-talent copycats, seduced by the grand spectacle flashed by mainstream American hip hop, discarded their indigenous traditions and sheepishly adopted American mannerisms.

Hip hop as a cultural form was in its ascendency, having managed to crawl out of the neglected borough of the Bronx. Just like funk, R&B and other black music forms, this particular genre also aspired to be therapeutic, or at least soul-lifting.

A source of tension between Africans and African Americans is the type of black people who are admitted to the United States to live and work. Radical black Americans claim that since the supposedly unfavourable experiences of white supremacists with radicals, such as the redoubtable black pioneer Marcus Garvey, who was originally from Jamaica, and activist Kwame Toure, who came from Trinidad and Tobago, white supremacists in the US have been careful with the type of people they admit from the Caribbean and Africa. An argument is made by black American radicals that only those who readily support and uphold the tenets and institutions of white supremacy are now being admitted.

Those same black American radicals point to the fact that the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama – who is not considered a foundational black American (FBA) by any stretch of imagination – whose father was of Kenyan origin, did nothing for black folk but went out of his way to benefit the LGBTGI community and immigrants, particularly from Mexico and other countries in the region. Obama, they claim, was not accountable to black America, and did not want to be accountable because he had not been made by black America.

Kamala Harris, the current vice presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, has a father originally from Jamaica and an Indian mother. According to radical black Americans, Harris is bound to create the sort of problems they encountered with Obama. They argue that the ever-calculating white media attempts to present her as a credible political representative of black America because she apparently looks like them. But all similarities end there. The white media is trying to foist Harris upon the black electorate with claims that she attended Howard University, a historically black college. But black radicals are not having any of it.

Instead, they (black radicals) dug into Harris’s past professional conduct and discovered that as an attorney working for the state of California, she notched an alarmingly high rate of prosecutions, convictions and incarceration of black people. Indeed these frightening rates could only please white supremacists and not black folk. So black radicals claim that if she is voted into power under a Joe Biden ticket as vice president, black folk are not to expect anything better from her. Before they give her their vote and support, they are asking her for tangible deliverables.

As of this point, Harris isn’t talking. Black radicals claim the days of black political representatives receiving their vote merely because of the colour of their skin are long gone. They now preach the mantra of “tangibles” to any prospective black political representative.

On the question of political and cultural representation in the present culture of hoods created by blacks, there does not appear to be a music genre that can inspire and transform lives as in the days of yore. Policies and strategies of integration pursued by US governments (which were meant to fool everyone) in the wake of the civil rights movement deceive no one. The partiality, inequality, division and bigotry are there for everyone to see.

However, the lives and accomplishments of Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey and a host of other pioneers are not always accorded their rightful place in the American public mind. And only “woke” folk know the true meaning of Pan-Africanism.

Black radicals claim the days of black political representatives receiving their vote merely because of the colour of their skin are long gone. They now preach the mantra of “tangibles” to any prospective black political representative.

On the African continent, befuddled by disemboweled US hip hop culture and the hype of #BlackLivesMatter, we attempt to take hesitant steps towards the blinding glare, unsure of how to act or how we would be received. The derelict hoods of the US seem to mirror our own mismanaged and misgoverned countries, which have variously been described as failed states.

African Americans, on the other hand, are filing into Africa at encouraging rates, tracing their genetic ancestry back to the motherland, often settling permanently along the coast of West Africa, longing to ingest melanin-rich air indefinitely. Away from relatively melanin-deprived political and cultural environments, they genuflect before myriad departed ancestors in rituals of ineffable spiritual communion: “We have come home, receive us steadily into the ceaseless warmth of your unfathomable bosom.”

Lost African youth, on the other hand, see these rejuvenated American returnees and hear the conflicted sounds of Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi, Fetty Wap, ASAP Rocky and Lil Nas X and sense Eldorado, a tortuous and deadly path of escape from the Western media-created images of their insufferable hell holes.

On both sides, namely black America and Africa, mass confusion often abounds, creating expectations that remain largely unfulfilled and hungers that are unlikely to be satiated.

First, in the recent past, the Western media manufactured false narratives about the Dark Continent. Now, children of both black America and Africa often neglect to discover the real truth about their heritage, leaving them both to re-live the unimaginable horrors of their past anew, only that this time around, they are locked in mental prisons entirely of their own making.

Undoubtedly, continental Africans have a lot to learn from their African American cousins in relation to race politics and white supremacy. In this regard, a great deal of humility and restraint is required. As things stand, African Americans have too much on their plate already. The chameleonic properties of racism are remarkably protean. American society was built on the prolonged enslavement of blacks, hence the rise of American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) activism. Then there was Jim Crow oppression and the destructive infiltration of the civil rights movement and other strategies of containment and suppression specifically targeting blacks.

Under the auspices of ADOS and its growing drive for social transformation and reparations for black Americans due to the multiple forms of suffering caused by slavery, the term African American is becoming obsolete. Black American, once fashionable and then passé, is returning as the appropriate term to call peoples of African descent in the United States. This group makes it abundantly clear that they are quite distinct from Africans and people from the Caribbean based in the US – a distinction that justifies their quest to secure the fruits of reparations. While initially it might prove to be a compact strategy for obtaining reparations, it blurs the Pan-Africanist vision and makes it arguably less potent. In this regard, ADOS, or foundational black Americans (FBA), as they now prefer to call themselves, may be viewed as somewhat shortsighted and unduly materialistic, which throws out of the window the accomplishments of the likes of W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey and John Henrik Clarke.

On the African continent, befuddled by disemboweled US hip hop culture and the hype of #BlackLivesMatter, we attempt to take hesitant steps towards the blinding glare, unsure of how to act or how we would be received. The derelict hoods of the US seem to mirror our own mismanaged and misgoverned countries, which have variously been described as failed states.

The phases of oppression developed by white supremacists simply keep mutating, refining tactile mechanisms of suppression even before their intended victims are able to anticipate them. These strategies have had centuries of experimentation to improve themselves. And then they possess false ideologies to camouflage themselves. Black resistance, on the other hand, is often reactive, kept on its hind legs, forever on the defensive due to the fact that oppressive mechanisms are constantly shifting. This is black America’s greatest challenge – to move successfully from a defensive posture to a proactive one while at the same time keeping in mind the many lessons learnt from centuries of struggle.

The Haitian Revolution, which birthed the first independent black country in the Western hemisphere, continues to be a shining example. In order to accomplish its success, it had to purge itself of its internal doubters and dissenters.

Currently, as mentioned earlier, black America has very few, if any, leaders within its ranks that possess undeniable mass appeal and grassroots support. It is also fractured by numerous ideological factions and tendencies that make it difficult to identify and pursue a cohesive agenda. Furthermore, the various institutions of racism have become more diverse and entrenched.

Nonetheless, all is not lost; true revolution has always been the art of the impossible and black America generally has proven itself, time and again, to be uncommonly resourceful and courageous.

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Time Out for the Millennium Dam?

The countries involved in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam are three of the largest in Africa and they could all benefit from coordinated action instead of belligerence and a zero-sum game.

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The African Union-led process to arrive at a conclusive agreement on the filling and subsequent operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) did not yield the expected results. Negotiations between legal and technical experts from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to draw up a binding document concluded without consensus at the end of August. Meanwhile, with the heavy rains, the dam has started filling up naturally.

This is a major issue around which Ethiopians have unified as the country confronts existentialist challenges to its federal polity. Sudan perhaps hopes for the best deal as it grapples with internal upheavals, a reduction in oil prices and the aftermath of its separation from South Sudan. Egypt is the most stable of the three countries but seems to be trying to reach out to Libya and possibly Ethiopia.

The reaction in Egypt and Sudan is quite different from the #It’smydam social media campaigns in Ethiopia where nationalist fervour is being stoked, with idolised singer Teddy Afro creating a new song celebrating the GERD as Ethiopia’s pride. Egypt on the other hand is focusing on getting international opinion on its side and has released a short video in several languages.

Constructed in the western Benishangul-Gumuz Region, in 2011, the GERD was initially named the Millennium Dam. Scheduled for completion in 2022, its 6.45 GW generating capacity will make it the world’s seventh largest and the biggest dam in Africa.

The White Nile and the Blue Nile meet in Khartoum in Sudan and flow into Egypt. The White Nile rises in the Great Lakes of East and Central Africa. The Blue and shorter Nile rises in Lake Tana in the Amhara region of Ethiopia and flows to Khartoum, gathering waters from the Dinder and Rahad rivers. Ethiopia had never previously tapped the Nile resources while Sudan has the Al-Ruṣayriṣ and Sannār dams on the Blue Nile. Egypt on the other hand has almost its entire economy dependent on the River Nile having harnessed it through the gigantic Aswan dam project.

Egypt opposed the GERD from the start as it felt that its share of the Nile waters would be diminished. Up until now the waters of the Nile have flowed unchecked through Sudan to Lake Nasser. Ethiopian reports indicate that the GERD will have no impact on annual flows to Egypt but this issue has yet to be resolved and even though the differences between the two countries have been narrowed down, mutual suspicion between the two populous neighbours has been revived, with Ethiopia fearing that Egypt might sabotage and undermine the project.

Moreover, both Egypt and Sudan fear that water flows will reduce to below their requirements during the dry season, negatively impacting the two countries. For its part, Ethiopia believes that it has patiently negotiated but that a common position on dry season flows is difficult to achieve. The country wants to start operating the dam as filling the reservoir may take up to five years, and considers that the dry season issues can be dealt with concurrently. And although the three countries seem to agree that , how to deal with this issue is now in contention.

The GERD project was of particular interest to the former prime minister of Ethiopia, the late Meles Zenawi, who foresaw that environmental factors would prevent Ethiopia from obtaining the support of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and the World Bank. Ethiopia therefore opted to fund GERD fully from its own resources. Borrowing from the Indian example, the country issued development bonds, tapped into the diaspora and obtained small domestic contributions.

The US$4.8 billion GERD contract was awarded to Salini Impregilo of Italy. The novel fundraising contributed US$3 billion while China provided US$1.8 billion for the turbines. Ethiopia has committed nearly 5 per cent of its GDP to GERD and is therefore unlikely to want a delay or disruption in the completion of the project.

Meles had often discussed Ethiopia’s development with me when I was India’s ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union from 2005 to 2009. He showed great interest in India’s large hydroelectric projects and we discussed the country’s engagement with its diaspora for development, Diaspora Bonds, and India’s terms of engagement with donors following the sanctions that were imposed after the 1998 nuclear tests. Our discussions on the Great Ethiopian Railway plan also focused on carbon-neutral electricity and since Ethiopia is not endowed with coal or oil (unlike Sudan and Egypt), harnessing water resources has become the country’s focus. The smaller dams on the Tekeze, Finchaa, Gilgel Gibe, Awash and Omo rivers are the trendsetters; located in the south of the country and close to Kenya, Djibouti and South Sudan, power exports are under consideration.

Ethiopians recall that Egypt has since the 4th century monopolised the use of the Nile waters and used the edicts of the Coptic Church, whose Patriarch was shared with Ethiopia until 1959, to curtail their usage. Ethiopia’s development plans include exploiting the waters of the Nile but the Nile Basin Initiative and its regional version, the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office, have been unsuccessful in convincing the partners that the project is technically sound and beneficial to all. In 2015, the three countries signed a declaration to abide by “the spirit of cooperation”. Egypt in particular thinks this spirit is lacking; it has committed itself to a negotiated process but the caveat that “all options remain on the table” causes anxiety in Ethiopia.

Egypt seeks access to 55 bcm of water as its Nile rights in perpetuity, based on its increased share in the 1959 treaty with Sudan. The 1929 Anglo-Egypt Treaty ceded almost all Nile rights to Egypt, overlooking the rights of British colonies in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika as well as Ethiopia. Technical discussions indicate a flow of 49bcm to Egypt, slightly more than the 48bcm provided in the 1929 Treaty. Ethiopia refuses to agree to a fixed figure and wants ad hoc decisions since droughts may not allow for such flow levels. It views the Egyptian stand as based on colonial treaties that were signed without Ethiopia’s agreement. Egypt is facing serious challenges due to pollution, climate factors and a growing population but it too did not consult Ethiopia when it built its giant Aswan High Dam. Technical discussions have taken place in various forums for the last eight years where Sudan has been assiduously wooed by both its neighbours. The need for a dispute settlement mechanism on technical issues remains a core concern.

In June 2018 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a visit to Cairo and pledged mutually beneficial regional cooperation on the basis of scientific evidence. Although the confidence-building visit seemed to have been a success, by 2019 Prime Minister Abiy was talking of mobilisation to counter Egyptian threats. Between November 2019 and February 2020, US President Donald Trump interceded with an initiative, pursued by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, but it reached an impasse with Ethiopia leaving the final negotiations. Egypt approached the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in June 2020 but the UNSC was informed that the AU had been seized of the matter. It is this AU effort which now needs to succeed but is faltering. Meanwhile, the US has suspended aid to Ethiopia in an effort to coerce the country to accommodate Egypt.

Ethiopia and Egypt are well placed to lead an African development process through the use of water resources for mutual benefit. An inclusive regional perspective which will bring the Nile basin countries into a sharing of knowledge and resources is vital for having sufficient water, energy, and food for all Nile Basin countries. Egypt depends on the river for 97 per cent of its water requirements and Ethiopia has invested in its future. Can the northeastern quadrangle of Africa create a new paradigm? The concept of an Eastern Development Corridor proposed by former Egyptian Assistant Foreign Minister Mohamed Higazy seeks multipronged cooperation for a development corridor with dams, irrigation, riverine transport, power distribution and access for Ethiopia to Egypt’s Mediterranean ports.

While Egypt is committed to negotiations and will seek the best possible deal, its occasional jingoism is matched by Ethiopian exhilaration. Egypt believes that the other countries have failed to restrain Ethiopia from filling the dam. This is why the country keeps returning to the UN Security Council option and, with Sudan, will play the Arab card unless the AU is able to bridge the differences.

It appears that South Africa as AU Chair is keeping the UNSC from acting until the AU effort is complete. Meanwhile it is a challenge to South Africa’s ability to keep aligned AU members whose animosity pre-dates the AU itself. Egypt’s twin identities as a member of the Arab League and as an African country are being tested. The country persuaded the League to support its stance when it went to the UNSC in June. Djibouti and Somalia, two Arab countries which border Ethiopia, did not concur fully with the resolution while Ethiopia remains critical of “blind” Arab League support for Egypt. The Arab Committee that was formed to follow up on the matter at the UNSC includes Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, countries which now have weightier US-Israel-Arab matters at hand.

Has Ethiopia outrun Egypt as Emad Al-Din Hussein wrote in the Al-Shorouq newspaper? Or is Egypt running too fast for its own good? Its options may expand if belligerence is replaced with a more visionary approach rather than a zero-sum game. Will Egyptian calm meet with the appropriate Ethiopian response?

The countries involved in the GERD are three of the largest in Africa and they could all benefit from coordinated action. The GERD exists and will function as Ethiopia has determined. Meanwhile the mistrust is deepening as Ethiopia feels empowered to alter past equations. The dry season issue is best left to a technical committee which will monitor the real situation during every season and work on actual water flows. If trust is restored and public belligerence diminishes, the mutual interests of the three countries may be served. With their large populations and growth indicators, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan could be the growth segment of Africa. The immediate need is to avoid diplomatic disagreements from degenerating into physical conflict. In the medium term the three countries could be persuaded to be partners for growth and in this Kenya can play a positive role by engaging all parties, since in 2021 South Africa will cede the AU leadership to DR Congo, a country which may not have an abiding interest in the issue.

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