Sometime in the late 80s, at the tail end of the era of the state commanding the heights of the economy, the Moi government had an idea—to establish a national shipping line. The business case seemed straightforward enough. The country was leaking a substantial amount of its meagre foreign exchange earnings to foreign shipping lines that were ferrying our imports and exports. The total value of shipping services in 1986 was in the order of $230 million (Sh3.7 billion) equivalent to 10 per cent of the country’s $2.2 billion (Sh43 billion) foreign exchange earnings (the exchange rate was Sh16 to the US$). Saving some of this money looked like a splendid idea. As always, the devil is in the detail.
The country was not in a position to buy vessels. The plan was to establish what is referred to in the industry as a Non-Vessel Owning Common Carrier (NVOCC) that would lease space on third-party vessels, essentially a glorified freight forwarding company. The Kenya National Shipping Line (KNSL) was incorporated in 1987 as a joint venture, with Kenya Ports Authority and UNIMAR, a German investor, owning 70 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively (UNIMAR later sold half its stake to DEG, a development finance institution of the German government). KNSL began operations in 1988 by establishing a partnership with Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) to charter space on MSC ships plying the Mombasa-Europe route, calling in at Lisbon, Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Felixstowe among other ports in that general geographic region.
Business did not go as planned. Chartering slots on ships and hiring containers was easy, getting customers, not so. KNSL quickly racked up debt with the shipping lines and with container leasing companies for slots and containers that it was leasing and not using. But even had business gone according to plan, it is doubtful that it would have saved the country much foreign exchange. At the time, the Mombasa terminal was handling 120,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of containerised freight annually. The total cost of shipping a container to or from Europe would have been in the order of $900, a total of $108 million annually. Even had KNSL been able to secure a monopoly and get a 10 per cent trade margin, which is doubtful, it would have earned the country just over $10 million, about 0.5 per cent of the foreign exchange earnings.
In 1996, Heywood Shipping, an entity linked to MSC, acquired a stake in KNSL. The exact circumstances and nature of the transaction are hazy but it appears that this was part of a restructuring that may have involved converting debt to equity and bringing in MSC as a strategic partner. Heywood Shipping does not appear to be an operating business. An internet search brings up the name in the company registry of the Isle of Man, a British offshore tax haven, which may or may not be of the same company.
Nothing was heard of KNSL for two decades, although to be sure, it had not been making headlines even before. Then, out of the blue, in August 2018, it was reported that the Government had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with MSC to revive KNSL. The reports indicated that the government was eyeing a slice of the Sh300 million ($3 billion) that it claimed the country was paying foreign companies for shipping. As usual, the Jubilee numbers are exaggerated. The $3 billion is about right for the total imports of services, of which shipping represents less than a third ($830 million in 2017 according to WTO data). I have two observations. First, this is the same reasoning that had motivated KNSL’s establishment three decades earlier. What has changed? Second, MSC was already a shareholder and strategic partner of KNSL. Why then was the Government signing an MOU with MSC on the same? The plot would soon unfold.
In March 2019 the government introduced an amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act to give the Transport Cabinet Secretary power to exempt government entities from some provisions of the statute. The particular provision that needed to be circumvented prohibits a shipping line from operating port facilities. In competition law and policy, this clause is used to prevent vertical integration, the control of many stages in a business chain by one firm to undermine competition. If for example, a manufacturer also controls distribution and retail, it can use its market power to choke competitors by restricting supply and/or overpricing its goods. A shipping line that also operates port facilities can frustrate competitor shipping lines similarly by making it advantageous to use its seamless services while providing competitors with shoddy services. Yet this is precisely what this amendment was about: to pave way for KNSL to be awarded a concession to operate the second container terminal at the Port of Mombasa, referred to in the industry as CT2.
The CT2 facility has been built by the Government with debt financing from Japan. The first phase was completed in 2016. Under the financing agreement, CT2 would be leased out to an independent operator selected through a competitive process. In 2014, the Government invited port operators to make their bids. Several international port operators applied, but the process was cancelled before completion—but not before eliciting uncharacteristically pointed objections from the usually reticent Japan. Long after the bids had closed, the government sought to introduce new conditions that would have opened up financing of the second phase even though the government had already signed a financing agreement with Japan. In a letter to the Treasury, the resident representative of the Japanese aid agency, JICA, talked of their “obligation to assure accountability and transparency in the process”, and warned that mishandling of the process would jeopardise future assistance to Kenya.
In early 2017, it emerged that the government had entered into a bilateral agreement with the United Arab Emirates in which the UAE was to extend a loan of $275 million (Sh28 billion) for improvements to the port at Mombasa, including “enhancing operational and business efficiencies within the Second Container Terminal.” In return, the state-owned port operator, Dubai World, would get the concession for the second container terminal. Dubai World was one of the bidders in the cancelled tender, and according to media reports, it had emerged second. This particular deal seemed to have been designed to circumvent competitive bidding through a ‘government-to-government’ transaction. For whatever reason, it also floundered.
This brings us to the KNSL transaction. Like the UAE agreement, the revived KNSL is devised to circumvent competitive bidding under the guise that KNSL is a state entity. KNSL shareholding stands at 53 per cent Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) and 43 per cent Heywood Shipping. Heywood Shipping has two directors on the board of KNSL: a Mr Peter Reschke and a Captain G. Cuomo. The MoU between the Government and MSC was signed by a Captain Giovanni Cuomo, designated as Vice President. It seems reasonable to assume that Captain G. Cuomo and Captain Giovanni Cuomo are one and the same person.
Financial capacity is one of the standard requirements for concessionaires in public-private partnerships (PPP). According to the 2017 audit, KNSL made a loss of Sh44.7 million, up from Sh37 million the previous year. It had revenues of Sh723,000 against expenses of Sh45 million. On the balance sheet, it has accumulated a deficit of Sh376 million. In short, KNSL is insolvent. The audit is qualified, and the Auditor General’s basis for adverse opinion runs to a couple of pages. KNSL is a shell, and to all intents and purposes, a Trojan horse for MSC.
It has been reported that the business case for single-sourcing MSC is to leverage on the concession to create seafaring jobs for Kenyans on MSC’s ships. Media reports say that MSC has committed to employing several Kenyans on its cruise liners, and to docking them in Mombasa thereby creating more jobs. These may be good intentions, but single-sourcing an operator and stifling competition is not the way to go about it. MSC will be in a position to leverage its position to undermine competitors. The competitors will lose market share in Mombasa but they are unlikely to take it lying down. For transit freight in particular, the competitors are likely to respond by undercutting MSC in competing ports, notably Dar es Salaam, and even Djibouti. Far from enhancing Mombasa as the pre-eminent port in the region, vertical integration will undermine it.
It is worth noting that even as the Government railroads this transaction, it is woefully short of investors for the Lamu port project. So far, the government has completed one of the three berths that it is building—out of a total of 32 in the plan. It is shopping for private investors to build and operate the other 29. The government is also shopping for an operator for the berths that it will have built. According to its website, MSC has a subsidiary—Terminal Investments Limited—that invests in, and manages container terminals. Given that MSC has been a joint venture partner in the KNSL all these years, it is intriguing that the Government has failed to persuade them to take up the Lamu opportunity as either operator, or investor or both.
It is worth noting that even as the Government railroads this transaction, it is woefully short of investors for the Lamu port project. So far, the government has completed one of the three berths that it is building—out of a total of 32 in the plan
We are compelled to infer that someone is out to reap where they have not sown. The initial meddling with the first tender sought to not only influence the award of the operating concession, but to also prevent the Japanese Government from financing the second phase. We infer from this that there was another financier lined up who was amenable to paying the hefty kickbacks that are standard operating procedure for Jubilee mega-infrastructure projects. The deal with the UAE and Dubai Ports had embedded private interests written all over it. The KNSL Trojan horse is the third bite at the cherry.
There is only one office with the power to subvert the competitive bidding process consistently and incessantly, and there are no prizes for guessing which one it is. This is Uhuru Kenyatta’s racket. From the now ill-fated dairy industry regulations to the floundering Huduma Namba, we have learned that wherever you see presidential political capital being expended, family business is involved. Indeed an MP friend remarked the other day that the only business that Parliament is transacting these days is Kenyatta family business.
What we need to know is the what and the how. First, we should demand full disclosure of the ownership and beneficial interests of Heywood Shipping. The two Heywood directors on the KNSL board need to swear affidavits that they have not entered into any agreement to transfer such interest to anyone else in the future. Kenyatta should be asked to declare that he and his family have no current or future beneficial interest in Heywood and MSC.
From the now ill-fated dairy industry regulations to the floundering Huduma Namba, we have learned that wherever you see presidential political capital being expended, family business is involved
A direct beneficial interest in Heywood is by no means the only route that Kenyatta can use to profit from the infrastructure. We know that the terminal integrates with the SGR railway. The railway terminates in Naivasha where the Kenyatta family has extensive landholdings positioned to benefit from the anticipated dry port business. We have seen Uhuru Kenyatta personally offering land for freight stations to Uganda and South Sudan leaders; whether this is public or private land, we do not know, but it does beg the question why Uganda would build a facility in Naivasha if, as we are told, the railway is to be integrated with the revamped meter-gauge rail all the way to the Uganda border.
Even without a pecuniary interest in the KNSL transaction, a seamless operation that transfers all the freight logistics to Naivasha is sufficient motivation for Kenyatta to pursue the capture of the terminal as aggressively as he is doing. We may also have our answer as to why the Government is not enticing MSC to Lamu. Kenyatta does not own land there.
Africa’s Pandemic Response Calls for Reclaiming Economic and Monetary Sovereignty
More than 600 economists and academics from around the world call for Africa to acquire monetary sovereignty in order to revive its development after Covid-19.
While Africa has, so far, been spared from the worst public health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent economic shutdown has brought Africa’s economic deficiencies and structural vulnerabilities into sharp focus.
As a resource-rich continent, Africa has the capacity to provide a decent quality of life for all of its inhabitants. Africa is capable of offering universal public services, such as healthcare and education, and guaranteeing employment for people who want to work, while ensuring a decent income support system for those who cannot work. However, decades of colonial and postcolonial socio-economic dislocation exacerbated by market liberalization have forced African countries into a vicious cycle involving several structural deficiencies, characterized by:
- A lack of food sovereignty;
- A lack of energy sovereignty;
- Low value-added manufacturing and extractive industries.
This unholy trinity produces a very painful downward pressure on African exchange rates, which means higher prices for imports of vital necessities such as food, fuel, and life-saving medical products. In order to protect people from this type of imported inflation, African governments borrow foreign currencies in order to artificially keep African currencies “strong” relative to the US dollar and the euro.
This artificial “band-aid” solution forces African economies into a frantic mode of economic activity focused exclusively on earning dollars or euros to service this external debt. As a result, Africa’s economies have been trapped into an austerity model, often enforced via conditions set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as the constant pressure from other creditors to protect their political and economic interests, which further encroaches on the economic, monetary, and political sovereignty of African countries. Conditions imposed by the IMF and international creditors usually focus on five problematic and unfruitful policy strategies:
- Export-oriented growth;
- Liberalisation of foreign direct investment (FDI);
- Over-promotion of tourism;
- Privatisation of state-owned enterprises (SOEs);
- Liberalisation of financial markets.
Each one of these strategies is a trap disguised as an economic solution. Export-led growth increases imports of energy, high value-added capital equipment and industrial components, and encourages the grabbing of land and resources, but only increases the exports of low value-added products. And, of course, not all developing countries can simultaneously follow such a model. If some countries want to achieve a trade surplus, there must be others willing to run a trade deficit. FDI-led growth increases energy imports, and forces African countries into an endless race to the bottom in order to attract investors via tax breaks, subsidies, and weaker labor and environmental regulations. It also leads to financial volatility and significant net resource transfers to rich countries, with some taking the form of illicit financial flows. Tourism increases both energy and food imports, while adding substantial environmental costs in terms of its carbon footprint and water use.
Most SOEs were privatised in the 1990s (e.g. telecoms, electric companies, airlines, airports, etc.). Further privatisation will devastate whatever little social safety nets remain under public control. Financial market liberalisation typically requires deregulating finance, lowering capital gains taxes, removing capital controls, and artificially raising interest rates and exchange rates – all of which guarantee an attractive environment for the largest financial speculators in the world. They will flock in with a rush of “hot money”, only to “buy low and sell high,” then flee, leaving behind a depressed economy.
Finally, all free trade and investment agreements aim at accelerating and deepening these five strategies, pushing African economies deeper into this quagmire. This flawed economic development model further exacerbates Africa’s “brain drain”, which tragically, in some cases, takes the form of death boats and death roads for economic, health, and climate migrants.
These five band-aid policy solutions tend to be attractive because they provide temporary relief in the form of job creation, and give the illusion of modernisation and industrialisation. However, in reality, these jobs are increasingly more precarious and susceptible to external shocks to the global supply chain, global demand, and global commodity prices. In other words, Africa’s economic destiny continues to be steered from abroad.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the roots of Africa’s economic problems. Therefore, the post-pandemic recovery will not be sustainable unless it addresses pre-existing structural deficiencies. To that end, given the impending climate crisis and the need for socio-ecological adaptation, economic policy must be based on alternative principles and proposals.
We call on all African states to develop a strategic plan focused on reclaiming their monetary and economic sovereignty, which must include food sovereignty, (renewable) energy sovereignty, and an industrial policy centered on higher value-added content of manufacturing. Africa must put an end to its race-to-the-bottom approach to economic development in the name of competition and efficiency. Regional trade partnerships within the continent must be based on coordinated investments aimed at forming horizontal industrial linkages in strategic areas such as public health, transportation, telecommunications, research and development, and education.
We also call on Africa’s trading partners to acknowledge the failure of the extractive economic model and to embrace a new cooperation model that includes the transfer of technology, real partnerships in research and development, and sovereign insolvency structures — including sovereign debt cancellation — that preserve output and employment.
African states must develop a clear and independent long-term vision to build resilience to external shocks. Economic and monetary sovereignty do not require isolation, but they do require a commitment to economic, social, and ecological priorities, which means mobilizing domestic and regional resources to improve the quality of life on the continent.
This means becoming more selective when it comes to FDI, and export-oriented, extractive industries. It also means prioritising eco-tourism, cultural heritage, and indigenous industries.
Mobilising Africa’s resources begins with a commitment to full-employment policies (a Job Guarantee program), public health infrastructure, public education, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, sustainable stewardship of natural resources, and an uncompromising dedication to empowering youth and women via participatory democracy, transparency, and accountability. It’s time for Africa to forge ahead and aspire to a better future in which all of its people can thrive and realize their full potential. This future is within reach, and it starts with Africa reclaiming its economic and monetary sovereignty.
Fadhel Kaboub, Denison University, Ohio, USA
Ndongo Samba Sylla, Dakar, Senegal
Kai Koddenbrock, Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt
Ines Mahmoud, Tunis, Tunisia
Maha Ben Gadha, Tunis, Tunisia
The Fate of the Human Experiment Depends on the Outcome of This Struggle
Noam Chomsky’s keynote speech at the Progressive International’s inaugural summit.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future. The Progressive International has a crucial role to play in determining which course history will follow.
We are meeting at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake. The issues are coming to a head in the next few weeks in the two great imperial powers of the modern era.
Fading Britain, having publicly declared that it rejects international law, is on the verge of a sharp break from Europe, on the path to becoming even more of a US satellite that it already is. But of course what is of the greatest significance for the future is what happens in the global hegemon, diminished by Trump’s wrecking ball, but still with overwhelming power and incomparable advantages. Its fate, and with it the fate of the world, may well be determined in November.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the world is concerned, if not appalled. It would be difficult to find a more sober and respected commentator than Martin Wolf of the London Financial Times. He writes that the West is facing a serious crisis, and if Trump is re-elected, “this will be terminal.” Strong words, and he is not even referring to the major crises humanity faces.
Wolf is referring to the global order, a critical matter though not on the scale of the crises that threaten vastly more serious consequences, the crises that are driving the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock towards midnight – towards termination.
Wolf’s concept “terminal” is not a new entry into public discourse. We have been living under its shadow for 75 years, ever since we learned, on an unforgettable August day, that human intelligence had devised the means that would soon yield the capacity for terminal destruction. That was shattering enough, but there was more. It was not then understood that humanity was entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are despoiling the environment in a manner that is now also approaching terminal destruction.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved. Every year that Trump has been in office, the hands have been moved closer to midnight. Two years ago they reached the closest they had ever been. Last January, the analysts abandoned minutes, turning to seconds: 100 seconds to midnight. They cited the same crises as before: the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy.
The last might at first seem out of place, but it is not. Declining democracy is a fitting member of the grim trio. The only hope of escaping the two threats of termination is vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully engaged in deliberation, policy formation, and direct action.
That was last January. Since then, President Trump has amplified all three threats, not a mean accomplishment. He has continued his demolition of the arms control regime that has offered some protection against the threat of nuclear war, while also pursuing development of new and even more dangerous weapons, much to the delight of military industry. In his dedicated commitment to destroy the environment that sustains life, Trump has opened up vast new areas for drilling, including the last great nature reserve. Meanwhile, his minions are systematically dismantling the regulatory system that somewhat mitigates the destructive impact of fossil fuel use, and that protects the population from toxic chemicals and from pollution, a curse that is now doubly murderous in the course of a severe respiratory epidemic.
Trump has also carried forward his campaign to undermine democracy. By law, presidential appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. Trump avoids this inconvenience by leaving the positions open and filling the offices with “temporary appointments” who answer to his will – and if they do not do so with sufficient fealty to the lord, are fired. He has purged the executive of any independent voice. Only sycophants remain. Congress had long ago established Inspectors General to monitor the performance of the executive branch. They began to look into the swamp of corruption that Trump has created in Washington. He took care of that quickly by firing them. There was scarcely a peep from the Republican Senate, firmly in Trump’s pocket, with hardly a flicker of integrity remaining, terrified by the popular base Trump has mobilized.
This onslaught against democracy is only the bare beginning. Trump’s latest step is to warn that he may not leave office if he is not satisfied with the outcome of the November election. The threat is taken very seriously in high places. To mention just a few examples, two highly respected retired senior military commanders released an open letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, reviewing his constitutional responsibility to send the army to remove by force a “lawless president” who refuses to leave office after electoral defeat, summoning in his defense the kinds of paramilitary units he dispatched to Portland Oregon to terrorize the population over the strong objection of elected officials.
Many establishment figures regard the warning as realistic, among them the high-level Transition Integrity Project, which has just reported the results of the “war gaming” it has been conducting on possible outcomes of the November election. The project members are “some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around,” the Project co-director explains, including prominent figures in both Parties. Under any plausible scenario apart from a clear Trump victory, the games led to something like civil war, with Trump choosing to end “the American experiment.”
Again, strong words, never before heard from sober mainstream voices. The very fact that such thoughts arise is ominous enough. They are not alone. And given incomparable US power, far more than the “American experiment” is at risk.
Nothing like this has happened in the often troubled history of parliamentary democracy. Keeping to recent years, Richard Nixon – not the most delightful person in presidential history – had good reason to believe that he had lost the 1960 election only because of criminal manipulation by Democratic operatives. He did not contest the results, putting the welfare of the country ahead of personal ambition. Albert Gore did the same in 2000. Not today.
Forging new paths in contempt for the welfare of the country does not suffice for the megalomaniac who dominates the world. Trump has also announced once again that he may disregard the Constitution and “negotiate” for a third term if he decides he is entitled to it.
Some choose to laugh all this off as the playfulness of a buffoon. To their peril, as history shows.
The survival of liberty is not guaranteed by “parchment barriers,” James Madison warned. Words on paper are not enough. It is founded on the expectation of good faith and common decency. That has been torn to shreds by Trump along with his co-conspirator Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has turned the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” as it calls itself, into a pathetic joke. McConnell’s Senate refuses even to consider legislative proposals. Its concern is largesse to the rich and stacking the judiciary, top to bottom with far right young lawyers who should be able to safeguard the reactionary Trump-McConnell agenda for a generation, whatever the public wants, whatever the world needs for survival.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved
The abject service to the rich of the Trump-McConnell Republican party is quite remarkable, even by the neoliberal standards of exaltation of greed. One illustration is provided by the leading specialists on tax policy, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. They show that in 2018, following the tax scam that was the one legislative Trump-McConnell achievement, “for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires have paid less [in taxes] than steel workers, school teachers, and retirees,” erasing “a century of fiscal history.” “In 2018, for the first time in the modern history of the United States, capital has been taxed less than labor” – a truly impressive victory of class war, called “liberty” in hegemonic doctrine.
The Doomsday Clock was set last January before the scale of the pandemic was understood. Humanity will sooner or later recover from the pandemic, at terrible cost. It is needless cost. We see that clearly from the experience of countries that took decisive action when China provided the world with the relevant information about the virus on January 10. Primary among them were East-Southeast Asia and Oceania, with others trailing along, and bringing up the rear a few utter disasters, notably the US, followed by Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Modi’s India.
Despite the malfeasance or indifference of some political leaders, there will ultimately be some kind of recovery from the pandemic. We will not, however, recover from the melting of the polar icecaps, or the exploding rate of arctic fires that are releasing enormous amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere, or other steps on our march to catastrophe.
When the most prominent climate scientists warn us to “Panic Now,” they are not being alarmist. There is no time to waste. Few are doing enough, and even worse, the world is cursed by leaders who are not only refusing to take sufficient action but are deliberately accelerating the race to disaster. The malignancy in the White House is far in the lead in this monstrous criminality.
It is not only governments. The same is true of fossil fuel industries, the big banks that finance them, and other industries that profit from actions that put the “survival of humanity” at serious risk, in the words of a leaked internal memo of America’s largest bank.
Humanity will not long survive this institutional malignancy. The means to manage the crisis are available. But not for long. One primary task of the Progressive International is to ensure that we all panic now – and act accordingly.
The crises we face in this unique moment of human history are of course international. Environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, and the pandemic have no borders. And in a less transparent way, the same is true of the third of the demons that stalk the earth and drive the second hand of the Doomsday clock towards midnight: the deterioration of democracy. The international character of this plague becomes evident when we examine its origins.
Circumstances vary, but there are some common roots. Much of the malignancy traces back to the neoliberal assault on the world’s population launched in force 40 years ago.
The basic character of the assault was captured in the opening pronouncements of its most prominent figures. Ronald Reagan declared in his inaugural address that government is the problem, not the solution – meaning that decisions should be removed from governments, which are at least partially under public control, to private power, which is completely unaccountable to the public, and whose sole responsibility is self-enrichment, as chief economist Milton Friedman proclaimed. The other was Margaret Thatcher, who instructed us that there is no society, only a market in which people are cast to survive as best they can, with no organizations that enable them to defend themselves against its ravages.
Unwittingly no doubt, Thatcher was paraphrasing Marx, who condemned the autocratic rulers of his day for turning the population into a “sack of potatoes,” defenseless against concentrated power.
With admirable consistency, the Reagan and Thatcher administrations moved at once to destroy the labour movement, the primary impediment to harsh class rule by the masters of the economy. In doing so, they were adopting the leading principles of neoliberalism from its early days in interwar Vienna, where the founder and patron saint of the movement, Ludwig von Mises, could scarcely control his joy when the proto-fascist government violently destroyed Austria’s vibrant social democracy and the despicable trade unions that were interfering with sound economics by defending the rights of working people. As von Mises explained in his 1927 neoliberal classic Liberalism, five years after Mussolini initiated his brutal rule, “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history” – though it will be only temporary, he assured us. The Blackshirts will go home after having accomplished their good work.
The same principles inspired enthusiastic neoliberal support for the hideous Pinochet dictatorship. A few years later, they were put into operation in a different form in the global arena under the leadership of the US and UK.
The consequences were predictable. One was sharp concentration of wealth alongside of stagnation for much of the population, reflected in the political realm by undermining of democracy. The impact in the United States brings out very clearly what one would expect when business rule is virtually uncontested. After 40 years, 0.1% of the population have 20% of the wealth, twice what they had when Reagan was elected. CEO remuneration has skyrocketed, drawing general management wealth along with it. Real wages for non-supervisory male workers have declined. A majority of the population survives from paycheck to paycheck, with almost no reserves. Financial institutions, largely predatory, have exploded in scale. There have been repeated crashes, increasing in severity, the perpetrators bailed out by the friendly taxpayer, though that is the least of the implicit state subsidy they receive. “Free markets” led to monopolization, with reduced competition and innovation, as the strong swallowed the weak. Neoliberal globalization has deindustrialized the country within the framework of the investor rights agreements mislabeled as “free trade pacts. ”Adopting the neoliberal doctrine that “taxation is robbery,” Reagan opened the door to tax havens and shell companies – previously banned and barred by effective enforcement. That led at once to a huge tax evasion industry to expedite massive robbery of the general population by the very rich and the corporate sector. No small change. The scale is estimated in tens of trillions of dollars.
And so it continues as neoliberal doctrine took hold.
As the assault was just beginning to take shape, in 1978, the president of the United Auto Workers, Doug Fraser, resigned from a labor-management committee that was set up by the Carter Administration, expressing his shock that business leaders had “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country – a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and had “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress” – during the period of class collaboration under regimented capitalism.
His recognition of how the world works was somewhat belated, in fact too late to fend off the bitter class war launched by business leaders who were soon granted free rein by compliant governments. The consequences over much of the world come as little surprise: widespread anger, resentment, contempt for political institutions while the primary economic ones are hidden from view by effective propaganda. All of this provides fertile territory for demagogues who can pretend to be your savior while stabbing you in the back, meanwhile deflecting the blame for your conditions to scapegoats: immigrants, blacks, China, whoever fits long-standing prejudices.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
In the Western Hemisphere, the International includes Bolsonaro’s Brazil and a few others. In the Middle East, prime members are the family dictatorships of the Gulf; al-Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship, perhaps the harshest in Egypt’s bitter history; and Israel, which long ago discarded its social democratic origins and shifted far to the right, the predicted effect of the prolonged and brutal occupation. The current agreements between Israel and Arab dictatorships, formalising long-standing tacit relations, are a significant step towards solidifying the Middle East base of the Reactionary International. The Palestinians are kicked in the face, the proper fate of those who lack power and do not grovel properly at the feet of the natural masters.
To the East, a natural candidate is India, where Prime Minister Modi is destroying India’s secular democracy and turning the country into a racist Hindu nationalist state, while crushing Kashmir. The European contingent includes Orban’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and similar elements elsewhere. The International also has powerful backing in the dominant global economic institutions.
The two internationals comprise a good part of the world, one at the level of states, the other popular movements. Each is a prominent representative of much broader social forces, which have sharply contending images of the world that should emerge from the current pandemic. One force is working relentlessly to construct a harsher version of the neoliberal global system from which they have greatly benefited, with more intensive surveillance and control. The other looks forward to a world of justice and peace, with energies and resources directed to serving human needs rather than the demands of a tiny minority. It is a kind of class struggle on a global scale, with many complex facets and interactions.
It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the human experiment depends on the outcome of this struggle.
The Violence in Ethiopia
The imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
The deadly violence that rocked Ethiopia this summer following the death of artist Hachalu Hundessa has been a subject of much speculation and contention. The facts as we know them are that immediately following the assassination close to 250 people died and thousands were jailed, mostly in the regional state of Oromia and Addis Ababa.
What is contested, and less clear, is the nature of the violence, its perpetrators, and victims. Two prominent narratives have emerged following the crisis to explain what unfolded. One holds that the violence was a brutal government crackdown on Oromo protesters grieving Hundessa’s death. The other describes the events as targeted attacks by armed Oromo youth against ethnic and religious minorities. While both narratives contain elements of truth, ignoring one or the other is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.
A recent Africa Is a Country article highlighting the poor coverage by Western media of the situation in Ethiopia, for example, makes no mention of ethnic and religious violence, aside from denouncing media outlets that reported it. Rather, the author’s objective is to “set the record straight” by showing that the underlying cause of violence and instability in Ethiopia is the consequence of a political struggle between an oppressive government and Oromos who have been and continue to be marginalised.
Such a viewpoint is erroneous and polarising in the current political climate. To advance a narrow agenda, it glosses over human rights violations and the brutal killing of innocent bystanders by non-state actors.
To provide more context, the agenda I speak of is tied to the Oromo struggle for greater autonomy and recognition. That struggle, which paved the way for Abiy Ahmed to assume power as the first Oromo Prime Minister two years earlier, now seeks his departure. At the heart of this reversal is the Prime Minister’s consolidation (rather than actual dismantling) of the ruling ethnic-based EPRDF coalition into the Prosperity Party, which has, nonetheless, left intact Ethiopia’s unique system of federalism based on ethnic majoritarianism.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause.
Leaving that aside, the EPRDF had always been a highly centralized institution in practice, and the mere symbolism of this move, in addition to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about unity, have left some Oromos feeling betrayed. Furthermore, fractionalisation among Oromo elites, including within the former Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) faction of the EPRDF (now Prosperity Party), which recently ousted key leader and Defense Minister, Lemma Megersa, has divided and weakened the movement.
Within this broad movement, one vocal part led by diaspora-based Oromo elites and recent returnees has galvanised the energy and anger of many Oromo youth behind a perspective of anti-Ethiopiawinet (anti-Ethiopian-ness). The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”). Though prominent Oromo activists stand behind their use of these terms, those who are familiar with the context know that these labels are loaded with ethnic connotations.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause. Accusations that “they killed him” were recklessly thrown around and left open for interpretation. Within hours of the assassination, allegedly at the behest of Oromo leaders like Bekele Gerba, targeted attacks against non-Oromos unfolded.
In towns like Shashamene and Dera in the Oromia region, several accounts of killings and looting targeting Amharas and other minorities by Oromo youth have been independently verified, in addition to accounts of police and federal forces injuring and killing civilians. Witnesses describe how perpetrators relied on lists detailing the residences and properties of non-Oromos and circulated flyers warning bystanders to not help those being targeted (or risk reprisal), indicating a significant level of organization.
Minority Rights Group International, accordingly, sounded the alarm, warning that these actions bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. Despite this and concerns from Ethiopians throughout the world, Oromo activists and other prominent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have remained largely silent about these attacks while condemning the government’s violent response to Oromo protestors.
Government figures provide an ethnic breakdown of the July causalities with the majority of those killed being Oromos within the Oromia region, followed by Amharas and other smaller ethnic groups. Yet, rather than disproving, as some claim, that targeted attacks by Oromo mobs occurred, this highlights what scholar Terje Ostebo describes as the complexity and inherent interconnectedness between ethnicity and religion within Ethiopia.
According to Ostebo, “the term Amhara, which is inherently elastic, has over the last few years gradually moved from being a designation for Ethiopianess to gaining a more explicit ethnic connotation. It has, however, always had a distinct religious dimension, representing a Christian.” Hence, in parts of Oromia some Orthodox Oromos were referred to and referred to themselves as Amhara. For example, one Oromo farmer interviewed by local journalists reportedly said, “we thought Hachalu was Oromo” after watching the singer’s televised funeral rites that followed the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church.
The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”).
According to investigations undertaken by the church, a large number of its parishioners (at least 67 confirmed cases) were among the July causalities—a troubling trend, which also includes a spate of church burnings and attacks on Christians that brought large numbers of Orthodox followers out into the streets in protests last year.
To be clear, the violence that occurred was not only ethnic and religious violence. Growing state violence in Oromia and SNNPR has been and continues to be of great concern. As Oromo activists have made clear, it is necessary to end the abuse of force and ensure accountability for these crimes. Yet, when concerns and demands for accountability for non-state violence are raised, these same advocates deny, ignore or dismiss them as part of a propaganda campaign to discredit the Oromo movement. In effect, this dishonesty, itself, has discredited the movement and lost it support by many Ethiopians—both non-Oromo and Oromo.
The recent political turmoil lays bare that the future of an Ethiopian state is hanging by a delicate thread. The polarization that exists today goes beyond disagreements on institutions and policies to the very question of whether we can continue to co-exist as a multi-ethnic nation. Regional elections in Tigray, slated for this week despite the disapproval of the national House of Federation (HoF), and its aftermath may bring these tensions to a boil, again.
As unrest, violence and grievances continue to mount, it is clear that Ethiopia is far from consolidating its transition to a stable democracy. The government continues to curb freedom of speech, jail political opponents and is responsible for violence against civilians. But, if history teaches us anything, it is this: the imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
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