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Saving Lamu: How a Campaign for Environmental Justice Was Fought

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The campaign against a coal-fired plant in Lamu is a good example of how a small, voiceless community can be mobilised to fight powerful and influential forces intent on destroying the environment. RASNA WARAH explores key aspects of the campaign and the landmark ruling that has inspired environmentalists and social justice advocates worldwide.

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Saving Lamu: How a Campaign for Environmental Justice Was Fought
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In a country where justice is often denied, delayed or distorted, the landmark ruling of the National Environment Tribunal (NET) to cancel the licence for a proposed electricity-generating coal-fired plant in Lamu has restored many Kenyans’ faith in state institutions. The significance of the ruling, which was a victory for environmental justice advocates at home and abroad, cannot be underestimated (though going by the local media coverage of the judgement, it might appear that nothing remarkable has happened).

For the people of Lamu, who will be the most negatively affected if the plant is built, the decision was nothing short of a miracle, especially given that this is a country where major infrastructure projects are often carried out at the expense of local communities and the environment – and where such projects often involve kickbacks and corruption at the highest levels of government. Ochiel Dudley, a lawyer with Katiba Institute, which litigated the precedent-setting case, said that the ruling was a major victory for the people of Lamu and Kenya. “It has stamped the authority of tribunals in courts to ensure compliance with the rule of law,” he stated shortly after the ruling on 26 June.

In a country where justice is often denied, delayed or distorted, the landmark ruling of the National Environment Tribunal (NET) to cancel the licence for a proposed electricity-generating coal-fired plant in Lamu has restored many Kenyans’ faith in state institutions

NET was established under Section 125 of the Environment Management and Coordination Act (1999). Its mandate is to hear disputes arising from decisions of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) on the issuance, denial or revocation of licences. In its 26 June 2019 judgement, NET ordered Amu Power, the key player in the proposed Lamu project, to halt construction of the plant and to undertake a fresh environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) for the project. It noted that the ESIA carried out for Amu Power by a company called Kurrent Technologies was flawed in one key aspect: it did not involve public participation, a constitutional requirement that NET chairman Mohamed Balala described as “the oxygen that gives life to an ESIA report”. In its ruling, NET stated that the lack of public participation was “contemptuous of the people of Lamu”.

Other important points in the ruling included the project’s lack of a strategic environmental assessment and insufficient and unclear plans for toxic coal ash handling and storage, as well as the project’s failure to take into consideration Kenya’s Climate Change Act.

The wrong choice for Kenya

There were many environmental, social and health concerns raised by those against the construction of the coal-fired plant. Environmentalists pointed out that the burning of coal releases toxic particles into the air that can cause asthma, bronchitis, cardiovascular disease and cancer. These particles can also affect fish, crops and wildlife.

In addition, burning coal requires millions of gallons of water to keep the plant cool. Releasing this water into the ocean around Lamu would increase the temperature of the water and kill the fish and other marine life. It would also impact the livelihoods of fishermen in the area.

There are also cultural concerns. Lamu Town has been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations, which means that the Kenyan government is obligated to protect and preserve it. The proposed plant’s location on 865 acres of land in Kwasasi, just 20 kilometres from this historical town, is especially worrisome. Lamu Town is world-renowned for being one of oldest settlements along the East African coast, and is a much-loved tourist destination. Its pristine beaches have attracted the rich and famous and its Swahili culture has been the subject of countless studies. The toxic particles emitted from the plant could corrode the centuries-old buildings in the town and increase air pollution levels, which will make this unique island town an unhealthy environment for the residents and a less attractive destination for tourists.

The government insists that the economic benefits of the plant outweigh any environmental concerns. It says that the plant will bring much-needed development to the area. Critics argue that if the national and county governments were really keen on improving the living standards of the people of Lamu, they might have built more essential infrastructure, such as sewerage and sanitation systems, which are woefully inadequate, or a first-class hospital, which is much needed in this neglected part of the country.

Proponents of the project say that the plant will significantly reduce the cost of electricity. Those advocating against the plant disagree. They say that the 1,050-megawatt plant will actually cause the price of electricity to increase because the price of electricity will be directly related to the price of coal, which fluctuates. Moreover, the cost of building transmission lines to get the electricity to people in Nairobi and elsewhere and a train to get coal from Kitui will increase the cost of the electricity generated. And if the original intention was to export surplus electricity generated in Kenya to neighbouring countries, that plan is no longer viable: Ethiopia is currently quadrupling its energy-generating capacity and Tanzania is doubling it.

There were many environmental, social and health concerns raised by those against the construction of the coal-fired plant. Environmentalists pointed out that the burning of coal releases toxic particles into the air that can cause asthma, bronchitis, cardiovascular disease and cancer. These particles can also affect fish, crops and wildlife.

David Schlissel from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), in an assessment he conducted on the project, says that the Lamu coal plant is “the wrong choice for Kenya” for several reasons. First, Amu Power, the single-purpose joint venture between Gulf Energy and Centum Investment, calculated the price of electricity on the following erroneous assumptions: i) that coal would cost $50 per metric tonne (in 2017 the price of coal was $85 per tonne); ii) that Kenya’s demand for electricity would go up by 13 per cent annually (demand has actually grown by only 6 per cent a year, partly due to the slowing down of the economy); iii) that the plant would be utilised at 85 per cent capacity (if built, the plant will be grossly underutilised, running at a capacity of between 5 and 34 per cent and producing far less electricity than Amu claims it wil); and iv) that electricity would cost $0.072 per kilowatt hour (IEEFA calculated that electricity from the plant would cost three to ten times as much, from between $0.22 and $0.75 per kilowatt hour).

The most shocking part of the deal is that Kenyans will have to pay about $360 million per year in capacity charges (that’s over $1 million per day!) whether or not the plant generates any electricity and even if it is not operational. This makes one wonder how the government entered into the deal with Amu Power and whether any legal advice was sought before the agreement was signed. It also raises the question of whether people in government knew about the non-viability of the project beforehand but proceeded to go ahead with the project because there was $1 million to be made per day without any sweat or investment.

How this project was allowed in a world where countries including China (the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and whose citizens are paying for this with their health) are weaning themselves away from coal is also disturbing, given that in 2018 President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to move Kenya to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020. But then in Kenya, it is not reason, common sense or environmental and social justice considerations that determine public policy but individual greed, myopic self-interest and lack of a long-term vision for the country and its future.

How it all started

In September 2013, five months after Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in as president, the Kenyan government invited bids for the Lamu coal-fired plant. Twenty-six submissions were received. Gulf Energy was awarded the tender.

Amu Power, which did not even exist as an entity when the invitation for the bids went out, was only established after Gulf Energy, the developer and co-sponsor of the plant, started a joint venture with Centum, a Kenyan-owned investment company whose major shareholder is the Kenyan magnate Chris Kirubi and whose CEO is James Mworia. (Though there is suspicion that Amu Power is a front for powerful or influential people who wish to remain unknown.) The main potential funder of this $2 billion project is the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. The African Development Bank initially showed interest in partially funding the project but pulled out after campaigners opposed the project. The Bank’s president stated that it was the lending institution’s policy not to fund coal projects.

The campaign against the project started in earnest in October 2016 when two civil society organisations – Save Lamu and Natural Justice – lodged an objection with the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to Amu Power’s application for a coal plant in Lamu. This was the beginning of a successful campaign that culminated in the NET ruling last month.

So how did the people and organisations who campaigned against the construction of the coal-fired plant in Lamu succeed in their efforts? Well, two things stand out which other environmental campaigners might want to take note of as they provide a good case study on how to obtain environmental justice in the face of stiff opposition from government and corporate interests.

One, the campaign was fought not just by the affected communities in Lamu but by a coalition of local and foreign environmental and human rights organisations, namely, Save Lamu, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 350 Africa, Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education, Sauti Ya Wanjiku, Muhuri – Muslims for Human Rights, National Resources Alliance of Kenya, American Jewish World Service and the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action. This coalition provided the campaign with the legal and financial resources and the moral strength and support that would not have been available if the campaign had been led only by members of the affected community in Lamu – though it is important to note that the residents of Lamu were both vocal and visible throughout the campaign.

Two, these organisations and their supporters designed a highly successful media campaign under the banner deCOALonize.org, which published regular updates online and on social media and organised street demonstrations both in Lamu and in Nairobi. By the time the case went to NET, opposition was so strong that a ruling in support of the plant in Lamu would have appeared to be totally misguided, or worse, highly compromised. Public pressure was thus key to the success of the campaign.

Organisers of the campaign say that the battle is not yet over. A spokesperson for the campaign said that while last month’s NET ruling will delay the Lamu coal project, there is no guarantee that the project will be halted indefinitely. “Amu Power can conduct a fresh environmental and social impact assessment and apply for a new licence, or can choose to appeal the decision, seeking to overturn the ruling and have the licence restored,” he said.

Amu Power has until 26 July to file a notice of appeal. However, the deCOALonize campaigners believe that Amu is not likely to appeal the ruling because it wouldn’t want to stall the project any longer with a court case it might very well lose. They believe that Amu will most probably go for a fresh ESIA that will deal with the issues raised by the tribunal. If a licence to build the plant is then granted, the struggle to save Lamu will continue.

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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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?

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What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward
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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was not the case in 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are the boss’ options.

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

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