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Kenya’s 2019/2020 Budget: A Predatory Scheme Designed for the Hustlers in Government

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RASNA WARAH argues that the 2019/2020 and other budgets prepared by the Jubilee government are essentially predatory and borrow heavily from the British colonialists’ playbook, which sought to enslave the indigenous population by taxing it. The tax regime is in essence in the service of foreign (previously Western, but now increasingly Chinese) capital and local elites.

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Memo to Uhuru Kenyatta: Finish up and Go
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“Rotich catches up with the real ‘hustlers’ in new tax measures,” screamed the front-page headline in the Standard the day after Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich, read what many view as an illegal Sh3 trillion ($30 billion) budget given that it had not been debated by the National Assembly and considering that a bill that would decide how national revenue would be divided had not yet been passed.

The “real hustlers” that the newspaper was referring to were not people like the Deputy President, William Ruto, who has in the past self-identified himself as a hustler, but people at the bottom of the economic pyramid, including security guards, cleaners, drivers, caterers and boda-boda operators, whose employers will now be forced to deduct 5 per cent withholding tax from their salaries. (Dictionary definition of a hustler: Someone who makes money using dishonest means.)

This means that a security guard in Nairobi who earns Sh15,000 a month will now have to forego Sh750 of his salary – probably the equivalent of half his monthly rent in one of the many sprawling slums in the city. The people Rotich wants to net in the tax bracket are those who make a living carrying out low-paying menial or laborious tasks and who can barely make ends meet. For them every shilling earned counts, and every shilling lost means less food on the table, and more sacrifices.

The newspaper made no mention of the actual hustlers and thieves in government who regularly siphon millions of taxpayers’ shillings by raiding the national treasury or the growing number of politically-connected “tenderpreneurs” who sell fictitious goods to government departments – and get away with it. (To date not a single high or low profile suspect involved in Kenya’s many mega corruption scandals has been convicted.) To describe cleaners and security guards as hustlers is the height of irresponsibility on the part of the Standard’s editors.

The “real hustlers” that the newspaper was referring to were not people like the Deputy President, William Ruto, who has in the past self-identified himself as a hustler, but people at the bottom of the economic pyramid, including security guards, cleaners, drivers, caterers and boda-boda operators, whose employers will now be forced to deduct 5 per cent withholding tax from their salaries.

Nor did this or any other newspaper provide sufficient analysis of what the new tax measures would mean for the economy, apart from that they would generate an additional tax revenue of Sh37 billion (an amount that is less than one-tenth of the total amount of money lost in the Goldenberg, Anglo Leasing and other corruption scandals, including those that have taken place under the watch of the current government). How many mamas selling githeri by the roadside will be affected? How many people doing casual or temporary work or who work in the informal economy will sink further into poverty?

It is not as if Kenyans are not paying enough taxes. The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) is expected to raise about Sh2 trillion ($20 billion) this year through direct and indirect taxes, such as income tax and VAT, customs duty, and other levies that Kenyans pay when buying unga, cooking oil, batteries, books (which were tax-exempt until Jubilee came into power), cars, petrol and other commodities.

In fact, most Kenyans are already suffering under a tax regime that can only be described as punitive. Extraordinarily high levies and taxes on electricity (which many believe are illegal) have financially crippled many households already struggling under the weight of the high cost of living. Every Kenyan, whether he or she likes it or not, is a taxpayer because the taxes on every product are inevitably passed on to consumers. And those who are employed in the formal sector cannot avoid being taxed because they end up paying taxes through their employers, who have to submit PAYE taxes to KRA on behalf of their employees.

It is not as if Kenyans are not paying enough taxes. The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) is expected to raise about Sh2 trillion ($20 billion) this year through direct and indirect taxes, such as income tax and VAT, customs duty, and other levies that Kenyans pay when buying unga, cooking oil, batteries, books (which were tax-exempt until Jubilee came into power), cars, petrol and other commodities.

The problem of misinterpreting or distorting the 2019/2020 budget and its implications was not just confined to the Standard. While admitting that Rotich (who has allegedly been associated with a conflict of interest issue revolving the Arror and Kimwarer dams project saga) had prepared a budget that “raids the poor”, the Daily Nation erroneously described the budget as “capitalist” – as if to imply that Kenya is not a capitalist country, and that somehow the budget had betrayed the country’s communist inclinations. (Dictionary definition of capitalism: An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. Dictionary definition of communism [the antithesis of capitalism]: a theory or system of social organisation in which all property is vested in the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. Note: This form of communism morphed into “state capitalism” in the Soviet Union and China, where all property was not vested in the community, but in the state, which then determined what “the community” was entitled to.) Moreover, the newspaper’s editors failed to appreciate that even the most advanced capitalist societies have safety nets for the poor and state-funded social programmes that are focused on the most vulnerable in society.

The budget is also heavily skewed towards the security sector. For instance, while Sh473 billion is allocated to education (which traditionally has always been allocated the bulk of the national budget in Kenya) a whopping Sh325 billion is allocated to security. When a government starts spending a disproportionate amount of money on security, be sure that there will be a lot of kickbacks involved as most security contracts are highly secretive.

As for the Big Four Agenda plans of President Uhuru Kenyatta to improve food security, to increase access to affordable housing, to make health care universal and to boost local manufacturing (which were allocated Sh450 billion), we are still to see their benefits. One thing I am sure of, however, is that the affordable housing part of the agenda will most likely not impact those most in need of affordable housing, which will remain unaffordable for the majority of urban residents. (For more on this, read my article Faulty Towers published in the eReview.)

Home guards and hut tax

The 2019/2020 and other budgets prepared by the Jubilee government and its mandarins are neither capitalist nor a means to rein in those who break the law or who engage in criminal activities; rather these budgets are essentially predatory and borrow heavily from the British colonialists’ playbook, which sought to enslave the indigenous population by taxing it. The tax regime is in essence in the service of foreign (previously Western, but now increasingly Chinese) capital and local elites.

The budget is also heavily skewed towards the security sector. For instance, while Sh473 billion is allocated to education (which traditionally has always been allocated the bulk of the national budget in Kenya) a whopping Sh325 billion is allocated to security.

For those who have studied Kenyan history (and I believe there are fewer of us left as history has now become an optional subject in Kenyan schools), the process of British colonisation in Kenya was consolidated through what is known as the “hut tax”, which was imposed on indigenous people living in the territory now known as Kenya, and particularly those in the so-called White Highlands of Central Kenya. As a form of “indirect rule” the colonialists co-opted local chiefs whose primary responsibility was to recruit labour and to collect taxes. The “home guards” – as the loyalist chiefs and specially-appointed agents who were in the service of the British were known – were rewarded with plots of land (from which the indigenous people were evicted, thereby becoming squatters on their own land), trade licences and tax exemptions.

In her book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, Caroline Elkins, an American historian, describes how the process of colonisation and land alienation was achieved by white settlers and the colonial administration through a system of taxes:

“Labor was the one factor in the economic equation that the settlers and the colonial government could jointly manipulate, and they did so ruthlessly. Rather than offering wage incentives, the European employers relied upon coercion by the colonial government to recruit African labor, which was, more often than not, drawn from the Kikuyu population then living on the edge of the White Highlands. The government’s guarantee of cheap and bountiful Kikuyu labor was based on a complex set of laws aimed at controlling nearly every aspect of Kikuyu life. Over time, four regulations, together, pushed the Kikuyu off their remaining land and into the exploitative wage economy.”

One of these regulations was the displacement of indigenous populations through the establishment of so-called “African reserves” where each ethnic group was expected to live and eke out a living separately. By confining the “natives” to reserves (which were much like the tribal “homelands” in South Africa and the Native American reservations in the United States) the colonisers forced the local population into a wage economy, as the reserves (usually situated on the least fertile parts of the land) could not sustain them. Furthermore, Africans were forbidden from growing cash crops. Those who grew maize and other staple foods were forced to sell them to marketing boards at a set price. (These boards remain in existence to this day, and have continued to exploit and rob farmers, as has been witnessed in various maize scandals.)

After alienating the locals from their land, the colonialists then imposed a hut and poll tax, which, according to Elkins, amounted to nearly twenty-five shillings, or the equivalent of almost two months of African wages at the going local rate. This forced thousands of Kikuyus to migrate in search of paid work. Many women in Central Kenya, who could not afford to pay the hut tax, were forced to migrate to Nairobi, where they made a living through commercial sex work or informal trade. To add insult to injury, these migrants were then forced to carry a kipande (pass) which was used to monitor their movements and keep track of their employment histories.

In her book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, Caroline Elkins, an American historian, describes how the process of colonisation and land alienation was achieved by white settlers and the colonial administration through a system of taxes

When Kenya gained independence, the former home guards became the biggest beneficiaries of land left behind by the departing British. Funded resettlement schemes were manipulated in their favour, and many dispossessed Kenyans found that independence did not result in freedom from want. The new elite class of post-colonial rulers who had benefitted from the colonial system decided to continue with the plunder and exploitation of their own people. The Mau Mau movement, which had struggled to regain land from the colonialists, was outlawed and its members found themselves either landless or forced to eke out a dehumanising existence in slums. In essence, the departing British colonisers never left – they left their agents behind who could be relied on not to disrupt Britain’s hold on its former colony.

Debt and plunder

The plunder of not just Kenya but the whole of Africa has continued unabated since then. According to “Honest Accounts 2017: How the World Profits from Africa’s Wealth”, a report by a consortium of civil society organisations, including Global Justice Now and the Jubilee Debt Campaign, African countries are collectively net creditors to the rest of the world, to the tune of $41.3 billion in 2015. African countries received $161.1 billion in the form of loans, personal remittances and grants in 2015, but $203 billion was taken from the continent; of this, $48 billion was money taken out through “trade mis-invoicing” (a form of tax evasion) by multinational companies. While African countries receive $31 billion in personal remittances from overseas annually, multinational companies operating on the continent repatriate $32 billion in profits to their home countries every year. African governments received $32.8 billion in loans in 2015 but paid $18 billion in debt interest and principal payments.

With rising debt owed to the emerging neocolonial masters in Kenya (such as the Chinese Communist Party), it is likely that this exploitation in the service of foreigner interests will continue. Public debt in Kenya stands at Sh5.4 trillion ($54 billion). Beginning in July this year, Kenya will spend Sh800 billion ($8 billion, or nearly a quarter of the current budget) annually to service maturing loans owed mostly to foreign (read Chinese and European) lenders.

It is possible that given Kenya’s ballooning debt, the Jubilee government felt that the only way to prevent the Chinese government from taking over our ports, airports and other infrastructure in case of non-repayment (as it has done in other countries, such as Sri Lanka) was to tax everyone, including those least able to afford it. But the question remains: In whose name did the Jubilee government accept to sign a highly irresponsible and secretive loan agreement (whose contents remain unknown to the public to date) with the Chinese? Were wananchi or the country’s legislators consulted on whether to go ahead with the standard gauge railway (SGR) and other expensive Chinese-funded projects (which appear to heavily favour the Chinese, as recent reports have indicated)? And now that it finds itself unable to service these loans (partly because the SGR has not yielded expected revenue for the Kenyan government), what moral or legal authority does the government have to tax its citizens to service them?

Moreover, given the corruption scandals in the country – which have reached unprecedented levels under Jubilee – what incentive does an ordinary Kenyan have to further fund a government whose leaders (including at the county level) have become adept at stealing taxpayers’ money? Not to mention that every year the Auditor General reports that more than a third of the national budget is unaccounted for or lost to fraud. (That could mean Sh1 trillion or $10 billion lost to corruption or fraud this financial year.) And while an increasing numbers of Kenyans are being forced to go without essential items and services, no austerity measures have been imposed on our legislators – Kenya’s pampered and shameless lawmakers continue to earn salaries and allowances that rival those of lawmakers in rich industrialised countries.

Kenya is neither a capitalist country nor a developmental state. Nor is it a command-and-control economy along the lines of China. It is a predatory state that benefits only a few chosen elite, and has remained so since the days of colonialism. What’s worse, most trade unions, consumer watchdog associations, and state environmental agencies exist in name only, which means that the majority of Kenyans are left to their own devices to defend their interests.

A boycott or protest of some sort might be required to stop the bleeding. But even the Kenyan government knows that a people whose lives are dominated by survival issues and worries about paying bills and taxes will not have the energy to revolt. Like the dispossessed Kikuyus in Central Kenya, we will work even harder as we watch our resources being forcefully taken away from us by the very people who demand taxes from us so that they can continue with the plunder. (We Kenyans are submissive law-abiding citizens, after all, even if the law has the potential to strangle and kill us. We are deeply religious too.)

But then, that is what Omar al-Bashir believed until the Sudanese people decided that enough is enough.

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Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the country is economically healthy but the reality is that the IMF has come in precisely because Kenya is in a financial crisis.

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan
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Never did I imagine that opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Kenya would be viewed by the Kenyan authorities as a criminal act. But that is exactly what transpired last week when activist Mutemi Kiama was arrested and charged with “abuse of digital gadgets”, “hurting the presidency”, “creating public disorder” and other vaguely-worded offences. Mutemi’s arrest was prompted by his Twitter post of an image of President Uhuru Kenyatta with the following caption: “This is to notify the world . . . that the person whose photograph and names appear above is not authorised to act or transact on behalf of the citizens of the Republic of Kenya and that the nation and future generations shall not be held liable for any penalties of bad loans negotiated and/or borrowed by him.” He was released on a cash bail of KSh.500,000 with an order prohibiting him from using his social media accounts or speaking about COVID-19-related loans.

Mutemi is one among more than 200,000 Kenyans who have signed a petition to the IMF to halt a KSh257 billion (US$2.3 billion) loan to Kenya, which was ostensibly obtained to cushion the country against the negative economic impact of COVID-19.  Kenya is not the only country whose citizens have opposed an IMF loan. Protests against IMF loans have been taking place in many countries, including Argentina, where people took to the streets in 2018 when the country took a US$50 billion loan from the IMF. In 2016, Eqyptian authorities were forced to lower fuel prices following demonstrations against an IMF-backed decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Similar protests have also taken place in Jordan, Lebanon and Ecuador in recent years.

Why would a country’s citizens be against a loan given by an international financial institution such as the IMF? Well, for those Kenyans who survived (or barely survived) the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 90s, the answer is obvious. SAPs came with stringent conditions attached, which led to many layoffs in the civil service and removal of subsidies for essential services, such as health and education, which led to increasing levels of hardship and precarity, especially among middle- and low-income groups. African countries undergoing SAPs experienced what is often referred to as “a lost development decade” as belt-tightening measures stalled development programmes and stunted economic opportunities.

In addition, borrowing African countries lost their independence in matters related to economic policy. Since lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF, decide national economic policy – for instance, by determining things like budget management, exchange rates and public sector involvement in the economy – they became the de facto policy and decision-making authorities in the countries that took their loans. This is why, in much of the 1980s and 1990s, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation to Nairobi often got Kenyans very worried.

In those days (in the aftermath of a hike in oil prices in 1979 that saw most African countries experience a rise in import bills and a decline in export earnings), leaders of these international financial institutions were feared as much as the authoritarian Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, because with the stroke of a pen they could devalue the Kenyan currency overnight and get large chunks of the civil service fired. As Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out recently at a press conference organised by the Linda Katiba campaign, when the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”. It can no longer claim to determine its own economic policies. Countries essentially lose their sovereignty, a fact that seems to have eluded the technocrats who rushed to get this particular loan.

When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China. Kibaki’s “Look East” economic policy alarmed the Bretton Woods institutions and Western donors who had until then had a huge say in the country’s development trajectory, but it instilled a sense of pride and autonomy in Kenyans, which sadly, has been eroded by Uhuru and his inept cronies who have gone on loan fishing expeditions, including massive Eurobonds worth Sh692 billion (nearly $7 billion), which means that every Kenyan today has a debt of Sh137,000, more than three times what it was eight years ago when the Jubilee government came to power. By the end of last year, Kenya’s debt stood at nearly 70 per cent of GDP, up from 50 per cent at the end of 2015. This high level of debt can prove deadly for a country like Kenya that borrows in foreign currencies.

When the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”.

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the fact that the IMF agreed to this loan is a sign that the country is economically healthy, but as Ndii noted, quite often the opposite is true: the IMF comes in precisely because a country is in a financial crisis. In Kenya’s case, this crisis has been precipitated by reckless borrowing by the Jubilee administration that has seen Kenya’s debt rise from KSh630 billion (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) when Kibaki took office in 2002, to a staggering KSh7.2 trillion (about US$70 billion) today, with not much to show for it, except a standard gauge railway (SGR) funded by Chinese loans that appears unable to pay for itself. As an article in a local daily pointed out, this is enough money to build 17 SGRs from Mombasa to Nairobi or 154 superhighways like the one from Nairobi to Thika. The tragedy is that many of these loans are unaccounted for; in fact, many Kenyans believe they are taken to line individual pockets. Uhuru Kenyatta has himself admitted that Kenya loses KSh2 billion a day to corruption in government. Some of these lost billions could actually be loans.

IMF loans with stringent conditions attached have often been presented as being the solution to a country’s economic woes – a belt-tightening measure that will instil fiscal discipline in a country’s economy by increasing revenue and decreasing expenditure. However, the real purpose of these loans, some argue, is to bring about major and fundamental policy changes at the national level – changes that reflect the neoliberal ethos of our time, complete with privatisation, free markets and deregulation.

The first ominous sign that the Kenyan government was about to embark on a perilous economic path was when the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, made an official visit to Kenya shortly after President Uhuru was elected in 2013. At that time, I remember tweeting that this was not a good omen; it indicated that the IMF was preparing to bring Kenya back into the IMF fold.

Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF, in particular, to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from natural or man-made disasters or high levels of external debt. This has led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation, massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to increasing poverty and inequality. Klein is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that she claims justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and neoliberalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF “medicine” has been administered, inequality levels have escalated and poverty has become systemic.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as “conditionalities”) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.

IMF and World Bank loans for infrastructure projects also benefit Western corporations. Private companies hire experts to ensure that these companies secure government contracts for big infrastructure projects funded by these international financial institutions. Companies in rich countries like the United States often hire people who will do the bidding on their behalf. In his international “word-of-mouth bestseller”, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins explains how in the 1970s when he worked for an international consulting firm, he was told that his job was to “funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s resources”.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan.

The tools to carry out this goal, his employer admitted unashamedly, could include “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder”. Perkins showed how in the 1970s, he became instrumental in brokering deals with countries ranging from Panama to Saudi Arabia where he convinced leaders to accept projects that were detrimental to their own people but which enormously benefitted US corporate interests.

“In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy,” a colleague told him when he asked why his job was so important.

Kenyans, who are already suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw nearly 2 million jobs in the formal sector disappear last year, will now be confronted with austerity measures at precisely the time when they need government subsidies and social safety nets. Season Two of SAPs is likely to make life for Kenyans even more miserable in the short and medium term.

We will have to wait and see whether overall dissatisfaction with the government will influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. However, whoever wins that election will still have to contend with rising debt and unsustainable repayments that have become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most enduring legacy.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

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

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