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Mind the Gap: Notes on Neoliberalism and Africa in the new world disorder

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Beyond the linguistic cannibalism that characterises much of the critique against it, is neoliberalism Africa’s war?

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Mind the Gap: Notes on Neoliberalism and Africa in the new world disorder
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It is virtually impossible these days to have a discourse on public affairs, without a ritual flogging of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, writes Daniel Rogers (Dissent Magazine, Winter 2018) “is the linguistic omnivore of our times, a neologism that threatens to swallow up all the other words around it.” He postulates that the (anti) neoliberalism narrative is a blowback from the 2007 financial crisis. As evidence, he cites a seventeen-fold increase of academic and media references as captured by ProQuest database from less than 2000 hits in the decade preceding the financial crisis to more than 33000 since. This should give the many African intellectuals and activists that have jumped on the anti-neoliberalism bandwagon cause to pause. Is this our war?

But first, and for the benefit of the uninitiated, what is this beast neoliberalism? After scouring the online dictionaries, I find the that Encyclopedia Britannica provides a sufficiently elaborate but still succinct description of its salient elements:

“Neoliberalism [is] an ideology and policy model that emphasizes the value of free market competition. Although there is considerable debate as to the defining features of neoliberal thought and practice, it is most commonly associated with laissez-faire-economics. In particular, neoliberalism is often characterized in terms of its belief in sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress, its confidence in free markets as the most-efficient allocation of resources, its emphasis on minimal state intervention in economic and social affairs, and its commitment to the freedom of trade and capital.”

Of essence, I think is the observation that neoliberalism is an ideology. The sage from Dar, Prof. Issa Shivji in his essay Battle of Ideas: The Social Responsibility of Intellectuals in Building Counter-Hegemonies, published in this Review distinguishes it from bourgeois liberalism, associating neoliberalism with “individuation” and bourgeois liberalism with “individualism.” This is getting complicated.

Neoliberalism [is] an ideology and policy model that emphasizes the value of free market competition….it is most commonly associated with laissez-faire-economics…is often characterized in terms of its belief in sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress, its confidence in free markets as the most-efficient allocation of resources, its emphasis on minimal state intervention in economic and social affairs, and its commitment to the freedom of trade and capital.

My reading of distinction is that Prof. Shivji associates neoliberalism with the ideology commonly referred to as libertarianism. Libertarianism and conventional liberalism are distinguished by their conception of the State vis-a-vis freedom. Libertarianism posits the State as a malevolent freedom devouring Leviathan, in the spirit of Locke. It is, according to Libertarians, the duty of freedom loving citizens to defend the private sphere from encroachment by the overbearing state. Conventional liberalism conceives the State as an enabler of freedom in the spirit of Rousseau.

My reading…is that Prof. Shivji associates neoliberalism with the ideology commonly referred to as libertarianism.

The two ideologies can be helpfully related to Isaiah Berlin’s “two concepts of liberty” thesis, namely negative liberty (“freedom from”) and positive liberty (“freedom to”). Libertarians champion negative freedom (from interference) which corresponds to fundamental political rights and civil liberties i.e. freedom to mind one’s business as long as the business does not interfere with the business of others. Liberals privilege positive freedom which speaks to what we now call empowerment, that is freedoms that accrue from belonging to community, in the spirit of Amartya Sen’s idea of “development as freedom.” Education is a positive freedom. If a literate society leaves people free to choose to educate their children or not, some children will grow up and fail to enjoy the freedoms that come with literacy, including being severely disadvantaged in participating in civic and political life.

Libertarians champion negative freedom (from interference) which corresponds to fundamental political rights and civil liberties i.e. freedom to mind one’s business as long as the business does not interfere with the business of others. Liberals privilege positive freedom which speaks to what we now call empowerment…

These freedoms can conflict in interesting ways. Bridge International Academies, an enterprise that prides itself for providing affordable quality private “slum schools” in this part of the world, is a prime target of the anti-neoliberal advocacy, accused of being the beachhead of a neoliberal conspiracy to commercialize basic education. It glosses over the fact that the poor parents actually choose to send their children and to pay fees in Bridge Academies instead of free public ones. The middle classes and wealthy do the same thing (yours truly included). Only when the poor make the same choices does it become a neoliberal conspiracy. It seems that in the pursuit of the belief that education must be state provided, itself a socialist dogma, the equality rights of the poor get the short shrift. Recently, it has been suggested that the way to ensure that the government provides quality services is to compel public officials to use the same said services. This amounts to the proposition that in pursuing the positive freedoms of the many, it is justifiable to violate the negative freedoms of the few. Of course the unintended consequence of such a policy is that many talented and highly skilled people who the public service needs, would shun it.

Bridge International Academies…that prides itself for providing affordable quality private “slum schools”… is a prime target of the anti-neoliberal advocacy… It glosses over the fact that poor parents actually choose to send their children and to pay fees in Bridge Academies instead of free public ones.

Neoliberalism’s political ascendancy is traced back to the Reagan-Thatcher era of deregulation and rolling back of the state. It is said to have arrived on these shores via the “Washington Consensus”. The term Washington Consensus was coined by John Williamson, a World Bank economist and Senior Fellow at the Petersen Institute, a Washington think tank, who in 1989 framed structural adjustment into a 10-point reform agenda. The “Washington Consensus” moniker is arguably the first victim of the linguistic cannibalism of neoliberalism that Rogers talks about. For years, Williamson has maintained that the Washington Consensus was mischaracterised but to little avail, as in this 2002 paper Did the Washington Consensus Fail?:

“It is difficult even for the creator of the term to deny that the phrase “Washington Consensus” is a damaged brand name. Audiences the world over seem to believe that this signifies a set of neoliberal policies that have been imposed on hapless countries by the Washington-based international financial institutions and have led them to crisis and misery. There are people who cannot utter the term without foaming at the mouth. My own view is of course quite different. The basic ideas that I attempted to summarize in the Washington Consensus have continued to gain wider acceptance over the past decade, to the point where Lula has had to endorse most of them in order to be electable. Some of the most vociferous of today’s critics of what they call the Washington Consensus, most prominently Joe Stiglitz (whose recent book, for example, specifically endorses gradual trade liberalization and carefully done privatization), do not object so much to the agenda laid out above as to the neoliberalism that they interpret the term as implying. I of course never intended my term to imply policies like capital account liberalization (as stated above, I quite consciously excluded that), monetarism, supply-side economics, or a minimal state (getting the state out of welfare provision and income redistribution), which I think of as the quintessentially neoliberal ideas. If that is how the term is interpreted, then we can all enjoy its wake, although let us at least have the decency to recognize that these ideas have rarely dominated thought in Washington and certainly never commanded a consensus there or anywhere much else except perhaps at meetings of the Mont Pelerin Society.”

The Mont Pelerin Society conspiracy features frequently in the pages of The Guardian including in an interview published last week featuring Winnie Byanyima and Rutger Bregman’s exploits at the World Economic Forum last month that went viral on social media. Named for the Swiss alpine resort where its founders first convened in 1947, the Mont Pelerin Society, a liberal/libertarian think tank describes itself as a society of persons “who see dangers in the expansion of government, not least in state welfare, in the power of trade unions and business monopoly, and in the continuing threat and reality of inflation.”

The “Washington Consensus” moniker is arguably the first victim of the linguistic cannibalism of neoliberalism…

If neoliberalism is the outgrowth of the Mont Pelerin Society, it is very bad karma, in view of its unleashing of the very ultra-nationalist political dynamic that brought the fascists to power, for in addition to being the 20th century’s intellectual giants, the society’s founders—Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises—were themselves Jewish emigres who had fled persecution. But it should not entirely surprise. If we go back to history, the decades leading up to WW I feature many elements reminiscent of the current wave of globalization. This was the era of the Gilded Age, a communication revolution (telegraph and telephone), a transport revolution (from steam to the internal combustion engine), aviation and poignantly, the1885 Berlin Conference that carved up this continent for plunder, all leading to the crash of 1929, the Great Depression, and the fascist ascendancy. But for these conflagrations, colonialism would have very likely lasted a while longer.

The Mont Pelerin Society conspiracy features frequently in the pages of The Guardian including in an interview published last week featuring Winnie Byanyima and Rutger Bregman’s exploits at the World Economic Forum last month that went viral on social media.

Which brings me back to the question, is this our war?

Fifty years ago, Samuel Huntington opened his definitive study of “Third World politics” Political Order in Changing Societies, with a sobering contention that I think deserves to be quoted at length:

“The most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government. Communist totalitarian states and Western liberal states both belong generally in the category of effective rather than debile political systems. The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union have different forms of government, but in all three systems the government governs. All three countries have strong, adaptable, coherent political institutions: effective bureaucracies, well-organized political parties, a high degree of popular participation in public affairs, working systems of civilian control over the military, extensive activity by the government in the economy, and reasonably effective procedures for regulating succession and controlling political conflict. These governments command the loyalties of their citizens and thus have the capacity to tax resources, to conscript manpower, and to innovate and to execute policy. If the Politburo, the Cabinet, or the President makes a decision, the probability is high that it will be implemented through the government machinery. In all these characteristics the political systems of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union differ significantly from the governments which exist in many, if not most, of the modernizing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These countries lack many things. They suffer real shortages of food, literacy, education, wealth, income, health, and productivity, but most of them have been recognized and efforts made to do some thing about them. Beyond and behind these shortages, however, there is a greater shortage: a shortage of political community and of effective, authoritative, legitimate government. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” Madison warned in The Federalist, No. 51, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” In many modernizing countries governments are still unable to perform the first function, much less the second.”

Huntington called this dichotomy the “political gap.” Five decades on, it is as yawning as ever.

Fifty years ago, Samuel Huntington opened his definitive study of “Third World politics”, with a sobering contention: “The most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.”

Islamic hegemony is unravelling in Sudan. In Ethiopia developmental autocracy—the so called benevolent dictatorship has run into the headwinds of ethnic nationalism. Post Mugabe Zimbabwe is rudderless, and leaderless. Uganda and Rwanda wait for their trysts with destiny upon the exit from the stage of the reigning strongmen. Ditto Cameroon. DR Congo has successfully transferred power for the first time ever through an election – but not to the winner. Plunder can continue. Nigeria has postponed the general elections—the grapevine says, there was not enough time to pre-mark ballots. Here in Kenya, the political class has thrown in the towel on competitive politics, and is now preparing the ground for an eat-and-let-eat grand ethnic coalition. In summary, “shortage of political community and of effective, authoritative, legitimate government.”

As they would say in London: Mind the Gap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was not the case in 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are the boss’ options.

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

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

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

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Dear Readers/Viewers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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