Did the economy really grow by 6.3 per cent last year, or is someone pulling wool over our eyes? Or as we say these days, is it real growth or the one you have to log into the #GoKDelivers portal to see? When the figure was first disclosed by Uhuru Kenyatta in his State of the Nation address last month, I received a call from a very disturbed Nairobi businessman who challenged me to explain to the public, in language they can understand, how the economy can be said to be growing as fast as it was during the Kibaki years yet businesses are collapsing and ordinary citizens can barely make ends meet. As it happens, my very first op-ed of this, my second stint as a columnist (I wrote a weekly column for the Sunday Nation in the mid to late 90s), published in January 2014 and titled Why you are struggling to make ends meet, was on this very subject.
One of the observations that has led people to question the 6.3 per cent growth is the poor performance of big companies. Year after year, listed companies are issuing profit warnings. There is now hardly a listed company – other than banks – that has not issued a profit warning over the last three years. Is it possible for the economy to grow while businesses are making losses? The answer is yes.
To see how this could happen, we need to understand what GDP actually is and how it is computed. GDP is short for Gross Domestic Product, which means the quantity (not value) of all goods and services produced in an economy. Sukari Mills is a sugar producer. In 2017, Sukari produced 20,000 tonnes of sugar, down from 25,000 tonnes in 2016, due to drought.
In 2018, production recovers to 25,000 tonnes. Trouble is, during 2017, the government opens the duty-free import window, and “tenderpreneurs” inundate the country with (contaminated) sugar. Consequently, in 2018, Sukari suffers both depressed prices and depressed sales, and posts a huge loss. The GDP accountants will capture the 25 per cent increase in production, as well as the economic activities created by the imported sugar, that is, the transportation, warehousing, packaging and distribution. Sugar GDP will be up big time, even as Sukari and other millers chalk up losses.
The recovery of the agricultural sector from drought is in fact the story behind the 6.3 per cent growth figure. Agricultural sector GDP grew 6.4 per cent, just about the same rate as the economy. But it was all recovery growth since the sector had slumped from 4.9 per cent in 2016 to 1.9 per cent in 2017.
Because agriculture is the single largest sector, accounting for a third of the economy, what happens to agriculture has a big effect on the overall GDP growth figure. This year’s long rains were late, and have been poor – another challenging year for agriculture
Looking at the actual production of some principal commodities, we see that coffee, sugarcane and milk are well below 2016 levels and that tea is only 4 per cent higher. Only maize production is well above the 2016 harvest (see table). Moreover, while production increased, prices for most products were lower in 2018. Maize led the way with prices down 56 per cent, from Sh4,000 to Sh2,260 per bag. Coffee prices were down 15 per cent while tea, sugar and milk prices were down by between 6 and 9 per cent. But as observed, GDP growth only captures volume, not value – hence the fact that milk farmers are suffering from depressed prices will not be reflected.
It is readily apparent that a number that fluctuates with the weather is not an ideal measure of economic performance. In fact, in economics this is not what we mean by economic growth – we refer to it as “change in output”.
Because agriculture is the single largest sector, accounting for a third of the economy, what happens to agriculture has a big effect on the overall GDP growth figure. This year’s long rains were late, and have been poor – another challenging year for agriculture. Next year the story may be the opposite.
It is readily apparent that a number that fluctuates with the weather is not an ideal measure of economic
performance. In fact, in economics this is not what we mean by economic growth – we refer to it as “change in output”. It is useful for studying macroeconomic policy on managing inflation and the like, but not as a measure of progress towards prosperity or lack thereof. For prosperity questions, we are interested in how two – often very similar – countries start out at an income level of $500 per person and twenty years on, one is at $1,500 and the other $5,000. This boils down to the following simple question: how countries raise productivity. Let me illustrate.
Land is the ultimate finite resource, and when you use it for one thing, it not available for another. Material inputs, fertilizers, tractors, irrigation systems, etc. require us to save and invest, and there is a limit to how much we can save. The whole point of saving and investing is to consume more tomorrow, but starving oneself today in order to eat endlessly tomorrow does not make economic sense.
Nanjala, a maize farmer in Busia produced 100 bags of maize last year on ten acres of land. This year she has produced 120 bags. There are a number of ways in which she could have done this. I’ll focus on three. One, she could have obtained the additional 20 bags from tilling two more acres of land. Two, she could have applied more fertilizer on the ten acres and increased her yield to 12 bags per acre. Three, she could have adopted a new high yielding variety that gives 15 bags per acre, meaning that she obtained the 120 bags from tilling eight acres. To till more land, it stands to reason that she would have had to use more labour as well. It is also the case that if she used more fertilizer, more labour and more capital were also used. But the case of adopting new high yielding seeds is different. The additional 20 bags were obtained by using less land, less fertilizer and even less seeds. The only additional input is knowledge, that is, the science and research resources that developed the new seed variety.
It is not too difficult to see that we cannot sustain growth by using more resources. Land is the ultimate finite resource, and when you use it for one thing, it not available for another. Material inputs, fertilizers, tractors, irrigation systems, etc. require us to save and invest, and there is a limit to how much we can save. The whole point of saving and investing is to consume more tomorrow, but starving oneself today in order to eat endlessly tomorrow does not make economic sense.
Knowledge is different. New knowledge and technology enable us to do more with less. And once new knowledge is introduced, in this case a seed variety, its benefits will spread widely at little or no cost; word of mouth is sufficient to spread the news about Nanjala’s 15 bags per acre all over Busia County. In economics, we say that consumption of knowledge is non-rivalrous. We can’t farm the same land, but we can share seeds. In today’s tech parlance, we say that it has high scalability.
In economic accounting, we call the growth associated with more material inputs factor accumulation. The growth that remains after we have accounted for factor accumulation we refer to as total factor productivity (TFP). TFP is the growth that enables a society to become wealthy over the long haul. If we were to rely on tilling more land to feed the burgeoning population we’d wake up one day and find that we’ve cleared the entire Mau forest – which is where we are headed. If we are to rely on irrigation and other material inputs we will, sooner or later, run out of water and drown in a mountain of debt – which is where we are headed.
But TFP is not reported in the GDP growth headline news, and you cannot see it in the data unless you know where to look. We need to do a number-crunching exercise we call growth accounting, which decomposes the growth into its sources, namely capital accumulation, labour force growth and TFP. I do not have growth accounting analysis of Kenyan GDP readily available but as it happens, the most recent edition of the IMF’s Africa Regional Economic Outlook published this past April has just what we need.
The chart shows Africa’s and Asia’s growth decomposed into physical capital, human capital and TFP. These three components are what I defined earlier as factor accumulation. Human capital is “proxied” by the change in average years of education in the workforce. By proxy we mean that it is not the actual human capital but the closest data we have that approximates it.
In the decade and a half from 2000 to 2014, Africa’s economy grew by 5 per cent per year. Productivity grew at less than 1 per cent per year – about 17 per cent of the growth – with the rest coming from factor accumulation. Asia grew by 7.2 per year, with productivity growth at 2.7 points per year, contributing close to 40 per cent of the growth.
The red segment at the bottom of the bar is the TFP while the green, light blue and dark blue segments above represent growth attributable to more workers (or labour force growth), more human capital (better educated/skilled workforce) and more physical capital (infrastructure, machines, etc.) respectively, all of which add up to factor accumulation. But the IMF has its colours the wrong way round. The red ink is what corresponds to profit in a business, while the blue ink is capital expenditure, a cost. The red ink is what pays the bills.
In the decade and a half from 2000 to 2014, Africa’s economy grew by 5 per cent per year. Productivity grew at less than 1 per cent per year – about 17 per cent of the growth – with the rest coming from factor accumulation. Asia grew by 7.2 per year, with productivity growth at 2.7 points per year, contributing close to 40 per cent of the growth.
From 2015 onwards, Africa’s productivity growth has slumped to 3 per cent per year, and productivity growth has turned negative. This translates to investing more and getting less output per unit of investment. If we go back to Nanjala’s farm, it is the equivalent of increasing acreage from 10 to 12 acres but getting 108 bags, meaning that average yield has declined from 10 to 9 bags per acre. While Asia’s economies have also slowed down a little, productivity growth has actually increased to 3 per cent per year and, in fact, it is investment in physical capital that has slowed down the most.
The seemingly small magnitude of this divergence in productivity growth is deceptive. An economy where incomes are rising by three per cent per year doubles its income in 25 years; the one per cent economy will take 70 years. This is precisely the difference in growth rates that has left people asking how the Asian Tigers left us behind. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Kenya is typical of the Africa growth story. This analysis is making a point that I have belaboured over the last five years – that we are squandering money on vanity infrastructure projects of little or no economic value. When the government borrows domestically and invests unproductively, it deprives the private sector of the use of those domestic savings on more productive investments. We also do not produce the capital goods that go into these investments. There is no money that comes into the economy when we borrow from China to build a railway. What we are really doing is taking Chinese goods and services on credit, but as every shopaholic knows, the credit card starts burning a hole in the pocket right away. Asia on the other hand, manufactures its capital goods, hence its infrastructure and other capital investments stimulate and create jobs domestically.
We already know that most of the capital is in public infrastructure with little or no impact on productivity – you need only think of the SGR railway. While the growth accounting analysis shows us the employment contribution, it does not tell us what the expanding workforce is doing. We know that the majority are absorbed in the informal economy where they have little capital to work with, since the government has hogged all the domestic savings, leaving little for the private sector to equip workers with productive capital. While the aggregate data will show that capital per worker is rising, in reality, it is falling since the aggregate figure includes every worker’s slice of the SGR railway, for example. Moreover, we do know that our economies are not creating nearly as many jobs as they should. As the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) most recent Africa Economic Outlook report laments, “the rapid growth achieved in Africa over the last two decades has not been pro-employment”. This is a consequence of the infrastructure-led growth paradigm that this very institution bears most responsibility for promoting.
The economies may be growing, but because unemployment and underemployment are also rising, the incomes of those that are earning are supporting more people. People are not feeling the growth. They are feeling the financial burden of adult children who were expected to be contributing to family upkeep.
Next time you hear them trumpeting five, six, seven per cent GDP growth, you know what to show them.
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Kenyan Media and the War in Somalia: In Bed With the Troops
Ten years ago this month Kenyan troops invaded Somalia. Coverage of the incursion by the Kenyan media has consistently and uncritically favoured the Kenya Defence Forces.
Precisely ten years ago, Kenyans woke up to the news that about 2,000 troops of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) had been deployed to fight al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terror group.
In an invasion dubbed Operation Linda Nchi, the troops made their way into southern Somalia through the semi-arid porous border that divides the two neighbouring nations. The deployment followed news reports that al-Shabaab was behind abductions targeting aid workers in northern Kenya and tourists along Kenya’s coast.
But while there is no shortage of reports on the hidden reasons behind this decision, analysis of how the Kenyan press has constructed the narratives about the conflict for its audiences is limited. Scholars and analysts have scrambled to put forth solid analyses of the dynamics of the Kenyan elites, al-Shabaab, and other actors involved in Somalia yet few have attempted to address the question of how the Kenyan mass media mediates this war.
Further, researchers have undertaken the essential task of informing us how media outlets in the global north cover wars involving troops from their countries’ perspectives. However, analysis on how invasions in countries like Somalia are mediated by news media organizations from invading countries like Kenya remains minimal.
Wars and the news media
The intersection of news media and conflict is complex. There is consensus in the existing academic research that journalists throw away their professional hats when covering wars involving their home countries. This is explained by the fact that they are guided by military elites who control the information coming in from the frontline. The shared cultures and ideologies with soldiers on the battlefield render journalists sympathetic to their governments’ interests. In short, they remain patriotic and loyal.
As primary agenda setters, the news media remains a powerful force. In Kenya, the existing digital divide reminds us that the traditional press still dominates the dissemination of information across the country. This requires that we explore what shapes the decisions of Nairobi-based editors when bringing the war in Somalia to Kenyan living rooms.
The KDF has participated in numerous peacekeeping missions across the world since its inception. From the Bosnian war in the 90s to the Sierra Leone civil war that ended in the early 2000s and Sudan’s Darfur conflict, the Kenyan government has generously contributed its military troops to UN-led peacekeeping missions. These missions largely go uncovered by the Kenyan press since the country is effectively not at war, and also because distance discourages editors from spending resources on these countries.
However, the October 2011 decision to invade Somalia, a country that shares a border with Kenya, was unprecedented. The unilateral decision by former President Mwai Kibaki’s government opened a decade of countless terror attacks across the country. And for the first time, Kenyan journalists were covering a war in which their own country was prominently involved.
Undoubtedly, Kenya’s hasty decision to invade Somalia cemented al-Shabaab’s prominence as one of the deadliest terror groups in the continent. Helped by Kenya’s weak security system which was a result of rampant corruption and limited resources, al-Shabaab executed some of its worst attacks in the country.
The unilateral decision by former President Mwai Kibaki’s government opened a decade of countless terror attacks across the country.
The group was behind the killing of over 4,000 people across East Africa in 2016 alone. The Garissa University terror incident in early 2015 that led to the deaths of 147 students and staff remains the deadliest attack by the group in Kenya. Inside Somalia, the group was behind the January 2016 massacre in El Adde and the 2017 attacks in Kulbiyow that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of KDF personnel. Thus, the Kenyan mass media found itself covering a war that was killing military personnel in Somalia and Kenyan citizens across the country.
KDF and the media
It is almost impossible not to think about patriotism when discussing the intersection of the Kenyan mass media and the country’s military institutions. Even before its invasion of Somalia, the KDF consistently enjoyed favourable media coverage and, with the exception of the people of northern Kenya who carry the scars of attacks such as the Wagalla massacre perpetrated in Wajir in 1984, Kenyans’ perception of the KDF was positive.
The Kenyan media’s uncritical treatment of the KDF when the invasion commenced was therefore not surprising. Kenyan journalists share cultures and ideologies with the troops and this creates a bias in how they view this war.
We have often seen how citizens of African countries—with Kenyans leading by example—react to Western media misrepresentations of their stories. From #SomeoneTellCNN to #SomeoneTellNewYorkTimes, Kenyans have taken to social media platforms like Twitter to vociferously criticise how the Western press covers terror in their country. And while pushback against misrepresentations and negative portrayals by foreign media is necessary, it is equally important to question how our own news media portrays war and terror in Somalia.
It is common knowledge that US reporters tend to interpret foreign news with American audiences in mind. But this is not only true of Western reporters; journalists across the globe tend to behave this way when they cross their borders to report on a war led by or involving their own country.
Kenyan news media gatekeepers <> through the lens of nationalism when reporting conflict across the border and within the country. Moreover, whether it be the shifta war, the atrocities in Somalia, the Somali refugees in the Dadaab camp, the Kenyan mass media places Somalia and northern Kenya within the same frame, and the published stories are perceived as synonymous with Kenya’s policy in Somalia. Kenyan reporters write these stories with Kenya in mind, creating the ideal environment that enables Kenyan citizens to accept and approve of the conflict.
After conducting a content analysis of how the Daily Nation and Standard newspapers have covered the war, Cliff Ooga and Samuel Siringi conclude that the Kenyan press has “relied a lot on the news from government agencies instead of residents and eyewitnesses accounts of the combat in Somalia.” This cements the argument that the sources used in covering the conflict frame the KDF as the winning side and shape a favourable public opinion that approves the mission.
My findings of an analysis of over 200 articles in Kenyan and US newspapers about the 2013 Westgate Mall attack were consistent with those of scholars who had examined other attacks such as the Garissa University and Dusit Hotel terror attacks. More than 70 per cent of the sampled articles received episodic framing, meaning they were covered as a single event.
This type of framing doesn’t inform the audience about why these attacks are occurring. It lacks in-depth analysis, nuance, and thematic demonstrations of how Kenya found itself in the conflict. Tellingly, these findings were synonymous with how American newspapers covered the same attacks.
The primary reason behind the Kenyan news media’s uncritical reportage of the war in Somalia is embedded journalism. This type of journalism occurs when reporters are invited and attached to military personnel in the battleground to cover conflicts. This approach defeats critical journalistic values—fairness, neutrality, and impartiality are replaced by patriotism, loyalty and empathy. The value of ethical journalism and independence on the battlefields is lost since military personal provide security to these reporters.
Moreover, the military covers the journalists’ costs and sets the ideal timing for combat. The location of the coverage, how and who is interviewed, these are strategically structured so as to portray Kenya as winning the war, a classic example of public relations through the mass media. Kenyans are presented with news coming in from the battlefield wrapped in such headlines as KDF, No Retreat, No Surrender in Somalia Operation, and The Frontline: KDF Continues to Combat al-Shabaab in Somalia.
The concept of embedded journalism flourished in the 2003 Iraq war. The US military was eager to control information coming out of the oil-rich country. The use of this tactic by American military elites was motivated by the embarrassment it experienced in the Vietnam War, often referred to as the “first television war”. The advent of television technology took journalists to the frontline, a perilous yet enticing undertaking that brought with it recognition among their peers and prestigious prizes that acknowledged their prominence in the realm of journalism.
The primary reason behind the Kenyan news media’s uncritical reportage of the war in Somalia is embedded journalism.
With unrestricted coverage, positive reportage of the Vietnam War soon turned to critical reporting that portrayed the government in a bad light. With journalists having free access to the affected communities, bloody images of innocent victims of the war found their way onto television screens in American living rooms. The footage contradicted “the official war narrative and undermined public support for the war effort” and calls by anti-war activists for the American government to end the war in Vietnam escalated. This is why military elites in Washington DC view the unfettered access of news media to the frontline as a threat that needs to be contained.
In 2003, embedded journalism played a significant role in advancing the interests of the US in the Middle East and beyond. Reporters were given protection by the military in cities across Iraq. This is little more than tourism on the battlefield, where the troops are the tour guides who control journalists during the adventure that is war coverage.
Imitating the West, the KDF employed this tool to deal with the news media. Coverage of Kenya’s invasion of Somalia is Kenyan-centric, with sources comprising of military personal and the personal views of the journalists. Somalis are completely disregarded and the few who are interviewed are beneficiaries of KDF-driven humanitarian efforts such as free medical camps and distribution of foodstuff.
A culture change is needed
How can the Kenyan news media change this culture of violating journalistic values? Can Kenyan journalists redeem themselves by giving us a clear picture of the KDF’s engagement in Somalia?
These questions need immediate attention as we enter the second decade of Kenyan military activity in Somalia. We have witnessed how the lack of critical coverage of war and terror in countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has derailed efforts towards finding durable solutions to end these wars.
Kenyan journalists need to acknowledge that their coverage of Kenya’s incursion into Somalia has uncritically embraced the government’s position and that Kenyans have not been given an accurate picture of the ongoing conflict. Their editors, the decision-makers in the newsroom, should strive to allocate resources for journalists to be deployed independently to cover this conflict. This essential element in the news production process is key to a fair, impartial, and critical coverage of Kenya’s engagement in Somalia.
This is tourism on the battlefield and the troops are the tour guides who control journalists during the adventure that is war coverage.
Journalists covering these stories should strive to reach out to different sources. Including the voices of those in the local communities who face the wrath of both the KDF and al-Shabaab would be a bold step towards constructing clear narratives for citizens in Kenya and elsewhere.
Newsrooms should also hire full-time, Somali-based journalists to cover the conflict; deploying journalists from Nairobi who lack contextual knowledge will make it difficult to produce fair and impartial reporting. Perhaps engaging properly remunerated local correspondents would address some of the challenges of the last ten years.
When news of the invasion was announced a decade ago, elites in Nairobi were quick to promise that it would be a short war. However, our troops are still “fighting terror” that has killed thousands of Kenyans inside and outside Somalia. It is conceivable that critical news coverage of this war by the Kenyan mass media would lead to the long-overdue exodus of KDF from Somalia.
Open Letter to Kenyans Who Do Not Behave Like Jonah
Democracy is supposed to be this magical space where we come together with our unique individual contributions and make something beautiful to the glory of God and in praise of our ancestors. Democracy is modelled on the arts, and that is why we must do our art.
This is an open letter to all of us Kenyans who do not behave like Jonah who tried to evade his divine calling to preach God’s message in Nineveh.
I know that I speak for many when I say that in Kenya, the arts sector is abusive. To enter it is not for the faint-hearted, and few of us come out of it intact. Many of us, myself included, have experienced depression or panic attacks. A number of us have been shot in the neck or are victims of rape. And each time the violence happens, the public winks and says we should have seen it coming. They say that we brought it on ourselves by talking, dressing or thinking differently.
When we work as artists, our work is demeaned. It is treated as “talent” and therefore not requiring any pay. We are cheated out of our earnings by not being paid at all, or by accountants lying to us that the cheques are not yet signed so that they can buy more time to play with our hard-earned money. When we are asked “What do you do for a living?” and we say that we are writers or painters or photographers or musicians, we are told, “That’s fine, but what do you do from 8 to 5?” When we say that we are studying the arts, we are asked, “So where do you hope to get a job with that?” One of my students studying music was once advised to have a back-up plan.
The only time we get recognized in Kenya is when we succeed abroad or get recognized abroad. Even here, because the politicians have grabbed the cinema halls, the playgrounds and the social halls, we cannot find anywhere where people can gather to watch or listen to a performance. Instead, we find ourselves running to the halls built by foreign embassies in the Central Business District, far from the neighbourhoods where we live.
Why is being an artist so abusive?
I will tell you why. In Kenya, the state, businesses, the church, the media and the education system (the hegemony) are united in making our lives as artists a living hell.
The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules. In the arts, we privilege listening to God and the universe over listening to human power. When we dance, for instance, we switch off our consciousness about who is looking at us. We concentrate our minds on following the beat and on being in sync with other dancers. This means that, for that moment, we are focused on the arts – we suspend what the church thinks, what the government thinks, what the school thinks or what the media thinks.
In Myth, Literature and the African World, Wole Soyinka says ritual (or what I will call here the arts) is the space in which human beings collectively come to terms with their place in the world. Through the arts, we accept life as it is, both the good and the bad, and at the same time – not like an accounting balance sheet. We accept pain and love, life and death, as inevitable. We also accept that despite being human, the world operates on rules that even we humans cannot change. In the arts, Soyinka argues, we are even allowed to collectively call the gods to account, as Mother Nature and the gods also hold humanity to account.
The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules.
So the arts is the space where we bend the rules and break the barriers. It is where we reset the cosmic balance and provide justice to the vulnerable and clip the powers of the mighty. In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.
All these things I have described defy the human institutions of the hegemony. That is why the hegemony fights back at the arts.
The autocratic foundations of Kenya
In order to understand why Kenya is this way, it is important to understand that Kenya was constructed on a very narrow agenda – to control the resources (including us) for the profit of the few who did not even live here.
How do absentee plantation owners control a proud people with their own histories, identities and livelihoods? By creating a fiction or stories about how we are such degraded human beings who can only be helped to survive by the very same people who get rich from exploiting us. The arts inevitably became the enemy of our exploiters because the arts are where we can suspend these rules and connect to ourselves and to each other as human beings.
If you understand how power was handed over at independence, through careful selection of the Kenyan colonial sympathizers who joined the colonial civil service, then you’ll understand why that system has remained intact to this day.
The colonial rules which we never got rid of are still constructed on a narrow path to “success”, namely going to Western schools, getting employment, joining politics and becoming rich and displaying that wealth with cars, houses, children in foreign schools and other symbols of Western consumerist wealth.
For this system to continue, it also needs the stories that the colonizers told our ancestors. In church, we’re told that God loves the exploiters and that God is disappointed that we are not like them. In school, we are told to learn so that we become the next generation of exploiters, and that the only purpose of learning is to join the market. In the media, we are told that those who are successful are those who make the most money, not those who do the best for society. Meanwhile, the government sees its only role as setting laws and policy to rule us and sending us the police to punish us.
In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.
As you probably know, the system supported by these stories is brutal. In school, children are on their feet from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. In the workplace, the more we work, the more we are insulted and the less we are paid. In the media, we are told that we are irrelevant to development. At church, we are told that God is disappointed in us. The government calls us immoral and the politicians patronizingly call us “talented youth”.
Many Kenyans who go through this brutal system make peace with it. But we artists don’t. And often, that’s not even a decision that we make. It’s just that the fire of God and the universe that burns inside of us is so strong, that we start to ask questions like, “What if God is not as brutal and punitive as we are told? What if we had another definition of success? What if I love the person whom the politician is telling me to hate? What if I dance instead of being miserable? What if I wear orange instead of brown? What if I sing instead of being quiet? What if I admit that I am sad? What if. . . .”
And that scares the people in power, because their power depends on us thinking we have no alternatives. And so, at the pulpits, on the airwaves, in the classroom, at the workplace and in government offices, people are taught to hate us for being different and for refusing to conform. We grow up being told that there is no future in a career in the arts and that we are responsible for immorality and underdevelopment. We are lied to that 80 per cent of students in university are in arts programmes, when the number is below 20 per cent.
So I want to encourage you not to give up. You are on the right track. The road may be difficult now, the system may be abusive, but we are suffering because we reveal the truth about the powerlessness of the system. If we try to suppress the creativity God put in our hearts, God will send a fish to swallow us and spit us out with the command that we must be artists. So we have no choice but to see this through.
We must see our calling through because society depends on it. The arts are the soul of a people. Without the arts, we will feel powerless to change anything, or too much in despair to hope. The arts are the quintessential space for democracy and freedom, because in the arts, we come together collectively but at the same time express our individuality. It is this magic that we know as freedom.
Think of a painting with different colours, or a choir with different voices. Although each colour or each voice is unique on its own and remains unique in the painting or in the singing, the combination of colours produces a sight that is pleasing to the eye and the combination of voices produces a sound that is pleasing to the ear.
That is what democracy is supposed to be. Democracy is supposed to be this magical space where we come together with our unique individual contributions and make something beautiful to the glory of God and in praise of our ancestors. Democracy is modelled on the arts, and that is why we must do our art.
I know that this encouragement does not mean much when courage does not pay the bills or put a roof over our heads. But in my further letters to you, I will explain what we can do to resist the abuse. We have a lot of work to do in terms of education, media, economy and faith. I will talk about how each sector abuses us, but also how we also are sometimes complicit in the abuse.
Joy will come in the morning.
Towards a Joint Antimilitarist Struggle: From Israel to Europe
The struggle to demilitarize European borders needs to be part of a global antimilitarist struggle that resists agencies like Frontex but also takes on the global military-industrial complex.
By the end of 2020, a total of 82.4 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced from their homes according to the UNHCR. The number of forcibly displaced persons globally has doubled since 1990 and is likely to increase significantly in the coming decades due to a convergence of factors, including armed conflict and other forms of violence, as well as climate breakdown, which will compound pressures to migrate.
Displacement occurs in the context of a capitalist economic system in which profits are made both through the sale of arms that are instrumental in causing conflicts and wars, and through the militarization of migrant routes and borders. Alongside the steady increase in the value of the arms trade and the spiraling number of forcibly displaced persons, the market for border security is growing with an expected worth of US$65-68 billion by 2025. War is highly profitable and the war on migrants is becoming increasingly so too.
Israeli military technologies, central to a system of settler-colonialism, apartheid and occupation, are big players in the international arms industry. “Tried and tested” on Palestinians, Israeli arms are sold to states and private agencies around the world and Israeli arms companies are now established partners of European Union border security agencies, such as Frontex, supporting the militarization of EU borders.
The Israeli arms industry is part of a global process of border militarization in a world increasingly characterized by profit-driven conflicts and militarism, all leading to further displacement — more migration and more people seeking refuge. The struggles for freedom of movement and against militarism need to work on making these links clear so that we can tackle these challenges at the root.
Frontex and EU border militarization
Frontex has a huge role in the militarization of European borders, the criminalization of migrants and the monitoring of their movements. One of Frontex’s main objectives is to identify migrants and organize operations to return them to their countries of origin. The agency increasingly works together with third countries, such as Libya, Sudan, Turkey and Belarus, coordinating containment and deportation efforts beyond EU jurisdictions.
In 2020, humanitarian groups claimed the EU is using aerial surveillance to spot stranded migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, alerting Libya’s coast guard to intervene — a move that facilitates illegal pushbacks, while non-governmental rescue operations are actively prevented and criminalized. Intercepted migrants are placed in arbitrary detention facilities in Libya, where they face human rights violations including torture, sexual violence and denial of health care. Also, on the border between Greece and Turkey, human rights organizations have documented pushbacks of refugees to Turkey by official coast guard agencies, among them Frontex and national coast guards.
The expansion of the agency has been a staple of EU policy in recent years. Frontex has now secured a €5.6 billion budget until 2027, with plans to hire 10,000 armed border guards by the end of that period. Its budget has grown by a staggering 7,560 percent since 2005, with its new resources used to buy equipment including ships, helicopters and drones. Fortress Europe, meanwhile, is increasingly covered in border walls and fences: since the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, European countries have built or commenced building 1,200 kilometers of fencing — a distance almost 40 percent of the length of the US-Mexico border.
What does Israel have to do with it?
This whole process is one in which both EU security agencies and European states purchase military equipment, including small arms, drones, ships and cybersecurity technology as part of their border security policies — much of which is sourced within the EU. This is also where the Israeli arms industry comes into the story. As the Israeli Database of Military and Security Equipment (DIMSE) shows, Israeli arms play a significant role in the militarization of EU borders.
Israeli arms that have been purchased among others by Italy, Greece and Germany include drones, radar systems and patrol vessels. But even more interesting are the direct military and security relations between Israel, the European Union and EU security agencies.
While US “aid” to Israel’s security capabilities of around $3.8 billion a year is well-documented, the collaboration of the EU with Israel can often be overlooked by critics. As an EU-associated state, Israel has enjoyed close economic and diplomatic ties with the EU for many years. Through research and innovation funds, the EU has invested billions in Israeli companies and organizations, including arms manufacturers like Elbit, Verint System and Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI). Among dozens of EU-funded projects since 2007, IAI and Elbit reportedly landed contracts to develop drones for European security agencies like Frontex and EMSA (European Maritime Safety Agency) to “autonomously” stop “illegal migrants” and “non-cooperative vehicles.”
After conducting test flights between 2018-2020, IAI was awarded a contract in 2020 to provide Frontex with the Heron drone for maritime patrols. As the Times of Malta reported, the EU border agency carried out a first test flight in Malta at the beginning of May 2021. Different flight reports showed Heron drones making operational flights at the Libyan border in June 2021.
The main issue here is that drones are an effective way to elude the EU’s obligation under international law to save the lives of those trying to cross the Mediterranean — as they were obliged to do when patrolling with ships. Furthermore, in the new arrangement, Frontex continues to be present in the area from the air so they can be aware of different migrant boats setting out from the Libyan shores and to feed that information to the Libyan Coast Guard.
Frontex’s move of pulling investment in maritime patrol vessels and diverting it to drones is a way to spend money without having the responsibility to save lives and enables them to organize pushbacks through third countries. Beyond Israeli drones, the EU is operating European air vehicles and testing new robot systems, including long- and short-range drones.
Israel is essentially a go-to for countries looking to secure and militarize their borders. Israeli companies, specialists and top military generals have become increasingly visible at border and homeland security trade shows in the past 20 years. In that time, Israel became one of the top-ten largest defense exporters in the world and a leading supplier and consumer in the border security industrial complex. Israel’s military industry has been lobbying for years to get a share of EU multi-billion euro spending on border militarization.
In February 2021, a group of European journalists published the “Frontex Files,” a list of meetings between Frontex and various lobbyists, among them Israeli security companies such as the above-mentioned Elbit, as well as Shilat Optronics and Seraphim Optronics, which specialize in facial recognition technologies. Another company involved in Frontex operations is Israeli Shipyards, which produces naval vessels.
Another development that international researchers and activists have been observing is the increase in the usage of surveillance technologies to track movement and personal data via smartphones. Immigration agencies across Europe are showing new enthusiasm for laws and software that enable phone data to be used in deportation cases. In this context too, Israel’s cyber technologies are in high demand, with the infamous spyware provider, NSO Group, having long been used by European intelligence agencies.
Cellebrite, another especially problematic Israeli company, is reportedly involved in numerous human rights violations worldwide and already has 7,000 contracts with government and private groups — including the national police of 25 EU member states. Privacy International reported that the Israeli company is advertising its technologies used to extract data from mobile devices toward a new target: authorities interrogating people seeking asylum. In 2017 Cellebrite’s technology was operated in a test-phase by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. In 2018, it was reported that the British Police are using Cellebrite’s mobile forensic technologies to access the search history of suspects and that the UK’s Immigration Enforcement Authority made a £45,000 deal with the firm in the same year. Between 2014 and 2016, Cellebrite also participated in EVIDENCE (European Informatics Data Exchange Framework for Courts and Evidence), a lucrative research and development program from the EU.
The other side of the coin
The other side of the coin is the usage of these technologies and arms here in Palestine-Israel. Israel uses military and security technologies to maintain its system of settler-colonialism, apartheid and occupation. Israel’s violations of international law and perpetration of war crimes during its incessant attacks on Palestinians in Gaza in May 2021 are well documented and research by antimilitarist activists about which arms were used in the attacks on Gaza is in progress in order to track new developments in the Israeli military industrial complex.
Israeli security and military companies work in direct connection with the Israeli military, providing equipment and weapons for its operations. This relationship means that military operations in Gaza and the West Bank are used as a laboratory for Israeli arms companies, where they can develop, test and then market their weapons as “combat proven.” It will not be long before Israeli companies will promote their new equipment again as “battle tested,” after the latest attacks on Gaza — an assault in which at least 129 Palestinian civilians were killed, 65 of them children, over 1,000 homes were destroyed and over 1,000 more severely damaged, leaving over 8,000 people without a home.
For an arms industry that has relied for years on marketing “combat proven” products, the next battle cannot come soon enough. EU funding for these companies inherently fuels Israel’s capacity to sustain its war crimes and violations of human rights and International Law, making the EU complicit in those violations, as well.
This takes us back to the Heron drone, which Frontex is now operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Heron drones have a dark history of use against Palestinians. Already after “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, an investigation by Human Rights Watch concluded that dozens of civilians were killed with missiles launched from Israeli drones. The Heron was also widely used in the last major outbreak of attacks in May 2021.
On June 1, less than two weeks after the ceasefire, Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) published a press release detailing a $2 billion sale of Heron drones. The press release read: “Drones from the Heron family are the most prominent of the IAI drones and played an important and crucial role in collecting intelligence in operation ‘Guardian of the Walls.’” CEO of IAI, Boaz Levy, continued: “The deal is a testament to our customers’ strong satisfaction with the Heron UAVs, including their operational and technical performance.”
Israel’s technologies, which are taking part in a system of apartheid, settler-colonialism and occupation, being tested on Palestinians and are sold to dictators around the world, are now also being used to prevent migrants from entering Europe. Among these thousands of people are of course Palestinian refugees that have been immobilized on Greek islands or pushed back to Turkey in their attempt to find some relative freedom and safety away from Israeli apartheid.
Towards a joint antimilitarist struggle
Sustaining a tradition of international cooperation among political movements is crucial in these times of economic and militaristic globalization. Solidarity actions and nonviolent interventions — both of which are acts performed by “outsiders” of a conflict in cooperation with parties in the conflict — are important, but even more significant is the formation of a joint struggle against militarism.
In the last few years, we have seen some formations of this joint struggle, one of which is the international campaign Abolish Frontex. In June 2021, actions in seven countries, including Belgium, Germany and Morocco, targeted the agency. The actions marked the launch of the international campaign, which calls to defund and dismantle Frontex and Europe’s deadly border regime. The network sees in modern borders colonial and racist constructs, institutionalized by the EU’s border policies.
The Abolish Frontex campaign calls for a halt to the militarization of borders and for freedom of movement, residence and livelihood for all. Crucially, the campaign also addresses the EU’s contributions to reasons that force people to move in the first place and the repression against solidarity activists in Europe. The campaign’s network is decentralized and autonomous and is composed of groups, organizations and individuals from inside and outside the EU, ranging from Senegal and Niger to Greece and Italy.
Veterans of the international joint struggle against militarism, War Resisters International Network has been active now for 100 years, with over 90 affiliated groups in 40 countries. International movements such as the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Black Lives Matter and Jewish Voice for Peace are some key examples of antimilitaristic movements that continue to build forms of internationalism that cut through separations between struggles.
On the local and somewhat less visible level, joint antimilitarist struggle must involve the identification of common cause between groups and opportunities to build coalitions. In the Israeli antimilitarist struggle for example, a variety of different political and activist groups collaborate with each other. Here, anti-occupation groups cooperate with religious Jewish groups in the fight against Israeli arms exports to countries that violate human rights. Antimilitarist groups collaborate with climate-change groups in a joint struggle that sees the connection between Israeli settler colonialism, the occupation of Palestine and the destruction of the environment in the region.
One such group, the Israeli feminist and antimilitarist New Profile, sees parallels between the local struggle for the demilitarization of Israeli society and the importance of an international joint struggle against militarism, placing an intersectional feminist angle on the political agenda. Aside from local activism, education work and support of military-service objectors, New Profile is a part of WRI, Abolish Frontex and other international coalitions and groups.
The struggle to end militarism is necessarily global
Militarism is characterized by hierarchy, discipline, obedience, order, aggression and hypermasculinity and is defined by the norms and values of traditional state military structures. It is not limited to the armed forces, as other institutions take up its values and practices — whether police or security agencies, such as Frontex.
Militarism around the world will continue to sustain the racist, violent structures and borders that look to uphold a colonial and oppressive status quo. It is not just an “issue” for peace organizations and movements, as it is tied to much of the oppression and violence experienced today worldwide. We need to demilitarize the institutions and structures that sustain this status quo. This must take place as part of a radical international joint struggle where activists collaborate and learn from one another.
The struggle to demilitarize European borders, for instance, needs to be part of a global antimilitarist struggle that resists agencies like Frontex but also takes on the military industrial complex, as exemplified by the Israel-EU nexus. It needs to look at global and local structures and processes of militarism and conflicts that not only produce the technology to create borders, but also are at the root of why people need to flee in the first place.
Such a struggle involves not being stuck in only “solidarity” work: movements against militarism need to promote a fundamentally different social, economic and political order. That is, they need to put capitalism, racism and patriarchy on the political agenda — issues that are often avoided by political organizations and movements in the Global North because they require acknowledgement of our own contradictions and privileges, a questioning of our way of life and a commitment to concrete changes.
If we aspire to building a sustainable alternative to a world of profit-driven militarism and violence, we need to see it as part of the deeper challenge of overcoming global capitalism and racist colonial power relations. Therefore, the antimilitarist struggle must accentuate the relation between international feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, queer, anti-capitalist and anti-fascist struggles on one side and target the allied opponents of progressive values and basic human rights on the other.
This piece was previously published by Progressive International.
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