The decade-long death march of Western capitalism continues to reap yet more victims. The latest is the British political establishment and the remnants of the Empire that created it.
The problem for the key actors, dwarfed as they are by a venerable political system they inherited from the time of their great-great grandparents when it yielded exclusionary benefits, is their inability to grasp that Brexit, the current crisis with which it is grappling, does not signal a change. It is an ending. Misreading the situation, the said actors continue to dream up remedies and strategies based on the vain assumption that the economic crisis will somehow be resolved by political initiatives.
The lone survivor may well end up being Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the official opposition Labour Party, and then only because he never believed in the virtues of western capitalism to begin with. He sees his mission more in terms of how to cater to the needs of all capitalism’s damaged survivors.
The problem for the key actors, dwarfed as they are by a venerable political system they inherited from the time of their great-great grandparents when it yielded exclusionary benefits, is their inability to grasp that Brexit does not signal a change. It is an ending.
The vast majority of British people are not wealthy. They merely live within a rich economy that provides them access to credit. For at least 350 years, the British economy expanded through the ruthless exploitation of resources and people from many parts of the world. The big question then, as now, was: who benefits, and how?
In his 1964 book, The Sins of the Fathers, James Pope-Hennessey explains that:
“Shipbuilding in Liverpool was gloriously stimulated by the slave trade, and so was every other ancillary industry connected with ships…… People used to say that ‘several of the principal streets of Liverpool had been marked out by the chains, and the walls of the houses cemented by the blood of the African slaves.’ The Customs House sported carvings of Negroes’ heads…”
The most contentious question at the core of British politics has always been the question of the domestic distribution of the proceeds of that global trade.
In particular the history of the social democratic movement in the UK, which culminates in the formation in 1900 of the Labour Party, has been the history of developing more efficient ways of systematically redistributing Empire’s wealth as it comes in. These initiatives culminate in the establishment of the provision of mass housing (1935), education (1944) and health (1946) as a clear statutory requirement, after the 1939-1945 war, and the economic crisis that preceded it. These three policies alone immeasurably changed the quality of life for ordinary British people, and are now the site of the ideological battleground between the main parties, regarding how best to “fix” the country’s crisis.
For at least 350 years, the British economy expanded through the ruthless exploitation of resources and people from many parts of the world. The big question then, as now, was: who benefits, and how?
Since the failure to recover from the 2008 economic crash, politics seems to have become an exercise in which everyone questions the legitimacy and role of every other participant. Empire’s redistributive template is being challenged from all angles: ordinary citizens challenge the corporate world regarding the rates of tax it pays to keep public services running; the corporate world in turn challenges the logic of ordinary people continuing to expect that such services should be provided for free and on demand; indigenous people begin to question why immigrants have the right to move in and partake of such services; the provincial regions begin to question why major infrastructural development tends to be focused on the major urban centres, and so on.
The history of the social democratic movement in the UK, which culminates in the formation in 1900 of the Labour Party, has been the history of developing more efficient ways of systematically redistributing Empire’s wealth as it comes in.
The latest development in these establishment contestations is the resignation of seven MPs from the Labour Party, and declaring themselves “independent”. They were soon joined by an eighth Labour MP, and then by four members of the ruling Conservative Party. There is every indication that there will be more resignations from both parties; some of these MPs will likely join the new group. This attempted re-alignment of Britain’s 150-year-old effectively two-party system may amount to little in itself, but will in the long-term, prove to be hugely significant.
Empire’s redistributive template is being challenged from all angles: ordinary citizens challenge the corporate world regarding the rates of tax it pays to keep public services running; the corporate world in turn challenges the logic of ordinary people continuing to expect that such services should be provided for free and on demand; indigenous people begin to question why immigrants have the right to move in and partake of such services…
This is in fact a debate about the future, paralysed by the past.
Britain sidestepped an obligation to undertake a principled and genuine retreat from Empire. Such a retreat would have entailed a costly reckoning with history. Empire’s unravellng came with huge costs: there was the risk of being forced into making material reparations to the colonies and descendants of those enslaved in the Trans-Atlantic trade; downsizing and restructuring her global corporate reach would have meant a significant reduction in income; and weaning her domestic population off the proceeds of Empire’s profits could have led to sharp political disruptions. Instead, Britain embarked on a series of pretend “withdrawals” and resorted to all manner of skullduggery so as to maintain back-channel influence and continue profiteering.
By postponing this decision, Britain now faces a stark question: how does she retain her economic pre-eminence? Is it by cleaving unto an ever-tighter embrace with the European Union, or independently returning to her own stall in the global marketplace, which first gave her pre-eminence?
Britain sidestepped an obligation to undertake a principled and genuine retreat from Empire. Such a retreat would have entailed a costly reckoning with history.
This is the dilemma expressing itself as the Brexit crisis, essentially the failure by the entire political leadership to manage the consequences of the 2016 referendum, in which UK citizens — by a small margin, it should be noted — voted to end their country’s 45-year membership of the European Union.
That referendum itself only came about as a consequence of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s bungling attempts to end dissent in his ruling Conservative Party. He sought to outflank growing voices from the Tory right wing insistent that a new type of Conservative Party was necessary to make Britain “great” again, not least by severing its links with the European Union, which they characterized as the source of unwanted immigrants, and a drain on the UK’s “hard-earned” Empire wealth. Cameron, shocked by the unexpected referendum result, resigned immediately, leaving the problem to his successor, current PM Theresa May.
The referendum itself only came about as a consequence of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s bungling attempts to end dissent in his ruling Conservative Party. He sought to outflank growing voices from the Tory right wing insistent that a new type of Conservative Party was necessary to make Britain “great” again…
The referendum result has had an equally damaging impact on the opposition Labour Party, already adrift from its ideological moorings, following its many years in opposition after its 1979 defeat by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. Originally, Labour was committed to the goals of a form of socialism: nationalisation of key sectors of the economy; widespread provision of social services and amenities as well as a safety net; and protection of workers’ rights to organize, assemble and agitate. Following a second defeat to Thatcher in 1983, a number of reformist party leaders like Neil Kinnock, began to reshape the party’s orientation while still in opposition. “Socialist” policies were progressively abandoned over the following decade and a half, as they became increasingly unsellable to the electorate, not least because of the pernicious influence of a corporate media hostile both to the Party and its policies, and the victory of Thatcherite neoliberalism as the dominant policy mantra across the political establishment. This paved the way for Tony Blair to emerge as a new type of Labour leader, and lead the reformed party — now freed of its previous ideological commitments and Trade Union obligations — back into power in 1997.
The referendum result has had an equally damaging impact on the opposition Labour Party, already adrift from its ideological moorings, following its many years in opposition after its 1979 defeat by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher.
Despite this, the ideological debate within Labour never completely ended. Many radicals blamed the party’s inability to recover quickly from the loss of the 1979 election on the narrow defeat of the radical Tony Wedgewood Benn in the deputy party leadership vote, in 1981. With the collapse of neoliberal economics after 2008, some of the old “socialist” ideas have experienced a resurgence. It is this that has brought current leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the futile 1980s battles to keep the party “socialist”, to the leadership. In fact, a number of the key actors in Corbyn’s camp — including Corbyn himself — were active pro-Tony Benn youth wingers back then.
Despite all those struggles, such “progressive” politics, directed from this “distributionist” framework never quite explained where the wealth to be distributed would come from, especially if Empire’s global resources were no longer available.
With the collapse of neoliberal economics after 2008, some of the old “socialist” ideas have experienced a popular resurgence. It is this revival that brought Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the futile 1980s battles to keep the party “socialist”, to Party leadership.
In a UK Guardian article of September 22, 2011, British Admiral Lord Alan West was quoted criticising proposed cuts to the UK defence budget:
“We are probably, depending on what figures you use, the fifth or sixth wealthiest nation in the world. We have the largest percentage of our GDP on exports … we run world shipping from the UK, we are the largest European investor in south Asia, south-east Asia [and] the Pacific Rim, so our money and our wealth depends on this global scene.”
This is why retaining a presence in the European Union is important to the UK establishment, which believes it would offset any contraction of the Empire economy as it tries to deliver on its redistributive “socialist” ideals. Even this may not work, as it is a strategy still premised, however indirectly, on the wealth generated by Empire.
Progressive politics, which operate from within this “distributionist” framework never quite explained where the wealth to be distributed would come from, especially if Empire’s global resources were no longer available.
Leaving or remaining in the European Union is therefore an argument represented by factions within each of the dominant political parties, not just the Conservatives. Whichever party finds itself in power in this period will simply implode, as is happening to the Conservative Party at the moment.
The central question, that is, the question concerning a long-term post-Empire economic strategy, goes back over 30 years, and has never been settled. It was only temporarily resolved by the rule of Margaret Thatcher. Faced with an EU demand then for greater economic integration against a growing domestic chorus to double-down and go it completely alone, the British, being British, attempted to do both. This left the UK with a somewhat hybridized EU membership. Unlike the rest of the Union for example, Britain kept her own currency.
Leaving or remaining in the European Union is therefore an argument represented by factions within each of the dominant political parties, not just the Conservatives. Whichever party finds itself in power in this period will simply implode.
Now the matter has returned to centre stage, not least due to the economic hardships bedevilling the EU’s 500 million citizens. The crisis has arrived at a time when politics in Britain is being managed by a generation of people dwarfed by their own legacy. Since at least the time of Gladstone in the 1860s, the British political system has been premised on managing the proceeds of an empire-based economy. The crisis therefore, goes to the heart of how British economics, and therefore politics, is constituted.
The end of Empire has been a prolonged period of discomfort, and left a wrong political fit. Those days, and the formations they spawned, are now over. The whole construct and edifice — the buildings, institutions, traditions, imperatives — are not fit for current purpose. So, the government system, which includes the official Opposition, is obsolete. Those were Empire-level political initiatives to keep the masses happy with their share of the spoils.
The current leaders on all sides seem incapable of understanding the full meaning of the weight of all that history, and so what is happening in the UK parliament is a splintering of the old order, but one which carries the misconceptions of that old order into the new.
In particular, Empire’s racial politics that played out in the colonies and was previously viewed with a certain metropolitan hauteur from London, became increasingly domesticated after decolonisation. At home, racial politics spawned a new lexicon, and new hitherto unfamiliar actors, both of which ended up in Empire’s parliament pursuing identity politics as a new dimension to the aforementioned politics of redistribution.
But real change will not come through thinking and speaking from the platform of Empire’s institutions. It cannot be re-ordered, or have its wrongs put right, from those pedestals.
The truth is that the 2016 referendum was not a decisive outcome. For a matter of that magnitude, a nearly 50/50 result cannot be said to be a clear “rejection” of anything. By the same token, neither can it be said to be an acceptance of the status quo.
The logical thing on paper would be to hold another referendum. However, given the polarized nature of the debate, as well as the real economic pain ordinary British people are experiencing, this would likely split both main parties internally. There is a strong suspicion that step three for the recently resigned MPs will be an attempt to create a new party, that would move to displace the current official opposition, in anticipation of the looming internal splits.
The truth is that the 2016 referendum was not a decisive outcome. For a matter of that magnitude, a nearly 50/50 result cannot be said to be a clear “rejection” of anything.
This, however, is to still miss the point.
What was important was the spread of the result. England, by far the most populous of the three national regions, voted most clearly to leave the EU. But again, this was outside the main urban concentrations (where a lot of non-indigenous minorities are to be found). While Wales voted alongside England, Scotland voted solidly to remain.
Instead of dealing with the implications of the result, all the other political factions appear strangely to have perceived their immediate task as being to prevent a Corbyn-led Labour Party from taking power. Corbyn espouses a fundamentally different agenda than the conventional mainstream: he wants a redistribution of the wealth of the country among a much wider demographic, through nationalization, and the massive expansion of social services. For Corbyn therefore, the issue of Brexit is secondary. He intends to pursue his programme regardless of whether Britain remains in the EU or not. But such economic plans are inimical to the now 40-year orthodoxy established by Margaret Thatcher, and injected into the Labour party by Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair.
Instead of dealing with the implications of the result, all the other political factions appear strangely to have perceived their immediate task as being to prevent a Corbyn-led Labour Party from taking power.
The fault line in this political quagmire is both factions of the Conservative Party, plus the Tony Blair remnants (and they are many) in the Labour party being on one ideological side, against Jeremy Corbyn’s faction of the party.
This will be a battle huge and distracting in equal measure.
First, it will keep British politics bogged down in a debate about the best distribution of Admiral West’s Empire proceeds, a lot of which is backstopped through the European Union’s “Economic Partnership Agreements” signed with much of the so-called “developing” world – that is, the old colonial world of Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Asia. The EPAs are basically the modern form of the unfair trade treaties of the last five centuries. Their most disruptive feature was ‘conditionality’: the overweening donor influence on where and how ‘aid’ is spent, and a heavy focus on private sector participation in ‘development’.
On the domestic political front, the threat of Corbyn implementing his redistribution agenda after the UK exits the EU,, would profoundly disrupt established corporate interests.
Third, given the historical economic pressure created by the emergence of other global economic players, it is inevitable that the UK will see her share of the spoils progressively decline. The reality of this permanent decline will then be used to drag the likes of Corbyn into a jingoistic debate about British “greatness” (which, incidentally, is built on a fallacious premise: what right does the UK have to global pre-eminence, and how is that pre-eminence to be kept in place anyway?).
Many of the current round of EPAs (negotiated for twenty-year periods), are due to expire between 2020 and 2025. Would a Corbyn government design their renegotiation to better reflect the principles of fair trade, a condition of staying in the EU? If so, would the EU want the UK back as a member?
Being in the EU has failed to suppress the UK establishment’s nostalgic fantasies of the return of Empire. Understanding this is to recognise that the nature of Britain’s current politics has no answers for the future. To confront the future would first require a recognition that the global Empire economy, which the EU also feeds off of, must be restructured in favour of a global fair trade regime, whether the UK in all or in part remains inside the EU.
Whether within the EU or out of it, Britain remains the fifth richest country in the world due to a legacy of malfeasance. Britain’s current political order is being dismantled by the force of this legacy; the current leaders know neither how to maintain their global advantage, nor how to make an orderly withdrawal from it.
To confront the future would require a recognition that the global Empire economy, which the EU also feeds off of, must be restructured in favour of a global fair trade regime, whether the UK in all or in part remains inside the EU.
This essentially means that the 2016 referendum produced three or four outcomes, not one.
For the British people then to be able to speak, the creation of an ENGLISH parliament is imperative. This is a call that comes up from time to time, but is then ridiculed and silenced.
However, before England became “the first, and the most deeply penetrated of all the British colonies” to quote Oscar Wilde, England’s Kingdoms did often have their own parliaments, such as the Anglo-Saxon Witangemot that operated between the 7th and 11th centuries.
Only after this democratisation process can Britain have a meaningful referendum in which each region decides for itself and negotiates to stay or go independently of the others.
Whether Britain were to have become a full member of the EU, or to have completely broken away from it, a central truth remains: this is actually the end of an epoch. The unravelling of the UK’s political system is part of it.
Only after Britain democratises her politics can she have a meaningful referendum in which each region decides for itself and negotiates to stay or go independently of the others.
THIS is ending.
The world will go on.
What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward
There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a buffoon. What happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way?
Consider something for a second: how severe could things have gotten, both in America and globally, if Trump weren’t an utter coward?
I can already hear the murmurs of dissent: “How can he be a coward? Trump just tried to overthrow the US government on live television!” Yes, that is entirely true — and yet he didn’t. The entire tenure of his administration seems to have been a series of near misses; flirting with dangerous ideas and flitting back under the umbrella of normalcy just before the precipice. Every disaster that he helped to foist on the world could have been exponentially worse — if only he had been as committed to being the strongman he always boasted to be.
He isn’t. He’s a little daddy’s boy, a frightened man-child who doesn’t have the courage to follow through on the bull he himself spouts in front of adoring supporters. He’s an entitled, rich, spoilt moron and always has been. For all the bluster, when the chips are down, he’s quick to back off. Remember that boastful kid in primary school who was probably dropped off in his family’s C-Class Mercedes and looked down on everyone within insulting distance? He’d puff himself up and spit on others, until one day someone slapped the hell out of him. Upon getting struck, and family power no longer mattering, it became apparent that he didn’t even know how to throw a punch. That’s Trump in a nutshell. But Trump was also the gleeful little sociopath who led the charge in starting a fire only to have it pointed out there could be consequences without Daddy around. Learning of possible repercussions, he was the type to throw others quickly under the bus and backtrack from his own fomented chaos.
To be clear, in the last year especially, Trump absolutely could have gone horrifyingly further than he did. Could you imagine if Trump, the wannabe little dictator that he is, had the convictions (terrible though they are) of a Museveni or an Uhuru? It was within his power to do so, but he kept pulling back. Take for instance the Black Lives Matter movement across the United States in the summer of 2020. Yes, there was horrible police violence, clashes amongst protesters, chaos and destitution. In the midst of all of those charred buildings and the all-pervasive sense of loss in Minneapolis (the city where George Floyd was executed by police), I had a feeling I could not quite shake off as masked marchers swarmed in the streets around me: couldn’t this have been so much worse? To be clear, there absolutely could have been martial law declared but all those Trumpian threats of militarising entire cities never fully materialised beyond a handful of arrests by unidentified officers of questionable loyalties.
Sure, all these things are a horror and an affront to “Western society”. We get it. But all things are relative in politics so imagine if Uhuru had been in Trump’s shoes. Kagame calling the shots. Museveni. What would have happened? Experience tells me that those ugly bruises and lost eyes from rubber bullets would have needed body bags; the amount of live ammunition used would have been innumerable, and the scale of the tragedy would have been of unheard of proportions. Ask a Kenyan university student how their protests tend to wind up; talk to a random Kampala youth about how things shook out a couple weeks after the presidential election. If you can manage to find one, talk to an opposition leader in Rwanda. If there are any brave enough to filter back into Burundi, ask anyone involved in the coup attempt against Nkurunziza a few years back. The point here isn’t to give undue credit to tyrants, but merely to point out that things can always be drastically worse.
What happened in November of 2020 in Kampala? Protests at the arrest of Bobi Wine were met with such utter brutality it was incredible that anyone would dare stick their head out. Officially 54 people were killed but there are claims that the real death toll is in fact far higher. Take the days after the Kenyan re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta back in 2017, when there seemed to be a sort of suspension of what was to come next as the election drama unfolded and the cops came down hard on Kawangware and Kibera. That’s what being a totalitarian looks like. It is cops firing on crowds, social media shutdowns and mass power cuts. Looking back years from now, the reality will prevail that Trump could easily have gone there but didn’t.
That is the essence of Trump, absolutely having the power to be a world-class dictator, but lacking the organisational skills, intelligence, or conviction to jump in all the way. He always dips his toe in at the deep end, but never dives. The waters of reality are always a bit too cold for him, the soup just a bit too hot for his liking. His legacy will be one of having half-assed it in all aspects of his administration, from fascism to COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. I don’t think that it is any real stretch to look at him and state plainly that he’s just too cowardly to really accomplish anything that he aspires to. While Sevo cranks out press-ups on state television, Trump has spent his time cranking out tweets in between bites of “quarter-pounder” cheeseburgers from the comfort of his own bed.
Of course, the Western media will not countenance such comparisons, let alone acknowledge how much worse the situation could have easily become at the US Capitol last January 6th. For the American media, this is (rightly) a major blow to US democracy, but (wrongly) the single worst thing that could have happened. For instance, what if just two more of the thousands of protesters had discharged the firearms they were carrying inside that crowded Capitol Building? What if the pipe bombs planted near the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee buildings had exploded? What if the mob had wedged its way into the chambers of the Senate and the House quickly enough to get their hands on members of congress? And what if Trump himself had not backed off and sent out a tepid message to his supporters at the 11th hour?
Think about this: in coup d’état terms, the Trump mob had pulled it off. They had taken the single most important government building in the US and had done so quite easily. Their flags were draped from balconies and their cronies were climbing the ramparts to continue streaming through the doors. They took the seat of government and, for a brief period during the process of transitioning power, successfully interrupted the proceedings and forced all the democratically elected members of congress to scurry into the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels below the Capitol Building to save their very lives. That is a coup. A successful one at that. For one committed to following through on his calls to overthrow the government, this would be a crowning achievement.
Picture this: if three years ago Raila Odinga had called on his supporters to storm State House, and they had successfully done so while Uhuru’s re-election was being certified, forcing members of parliament to flee in their government-issue Prados, what would that be called? I know what the Western media would have said about it, that it is another sad story of a developing country in Africa that just could not get over the hump of real democracy. There probably would have been some backroom deals with international powers, and an intervention from all those British troops that hold the base up on Mount Kenya may not have been entirely out of the question. Perhaps Raila is the most eloquent example as he does have a bit of a track record of stirring up his supporters after controversial elections then backing down “for the sake of the country” after chaos has already erupted.
The coup was complete but Trump pulled out of it quicker than from his marriage to a wife turning 40. Why? Could it be that it is only when his advisors managed to get his ear during cable news commercial breaks that he realised that he might drown in the madness? I for one certainly think so. When he realised that there would be consequences for his little civil war charade, Trump felt what he always feels — fear. Trump didn’t realise there could be ramifications for what he was doing until someone (not named Mike Pence) put the fear deep into him. He backed off, and American democracy continues shakily on into an uncertain future
Now there actually might be consequences — legal ones at that. Banks are cutting ties and media partnerships are being snuffed out in rapid succession. Some Republicans are now actively jumping ship, others have deflected blame or finally acknowledged that there is a central symptom to the American political condition. It is too little, too late of course, and the task of getting Americans locked in a tribal political death embrace to try not to strangle each other is now firmly in the hands of centrist Democrats who may not actually follow through on the massive economic recovery needed for the citizens of the US to survive the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic disaster. Is the US still the preeminent superpower as the Trump administration takes the exit? Yes, unfortunately it is. Imperialism is still alive and well, and frankly could have weighed way more heavily on the global community over the last four years.
A lingering question remains, one that hangs like a suspended piano over the heads of the Democratic establishment: what or who will come along next? It is obvious that the cat has been let out of the dark ethers of conservatism for a while now; just how much has that cohort been emboldened? It is a question that I have asked before, but now as flags were draped on the smoldering fences that were brought down around the US Capitol, the core of the issue remains; what happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way? There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a showman; he evoked something amongst a huge swath of the public consciousness, only for it to prove illusory for Trump never understood what he had within his grasp in the first place.
Whoever comes next might just push the boundaries further out, might commit to striking Iran, take concentration camps for immigrants to a greater extreme, declare martial law and put armed troops in the streets with a standing “shoot to kill” order. Someone who might take measures to outlaw efforts to combat global warming and do all of this without batting an eyelid or seeing any reason to back down. The part of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic wasn’t what was visible, but the larger mass just below the surface and out of sight. To put it bluntly, next time the United States might not be pulled back from the brink by cowardice.
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.
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.
Uganda: Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others
The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.
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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