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That Sinking Feeling 2.0: Who Is to Blame for Tanzanian’s Ferry Disasters?

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Systematic overloading of poorly maintained state-owned vessels, compounded by human error, explains why Tanzanian marine transport is so dangerous, but who is answerable for mass deaths on Tanzania’s lakes? nobody, it would appear writes BRIAN COOKSEY

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THAT SINKING FEELING: Who is to blame for the MV Nyerere ferry disaster?
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On the 20th of September 2018, the ferry MV Nyerere capsized in shallow water at the tiny port of Ukara Island on Lake Victoria. Nearly 230 men, women and children drowned, most of them trapped inside the upturned hull. About 40 people were rescued by small boats. The vessel had a capacity of 100 passengers. Many of the dead were buried on the lakeshore, identities unknown, victims of Tanzania’s shoddy, state-run ferry services. President John Pombe Magufuli immediately declared four days of national mourning and flags flew at half-mast on public buildings. “Negligence has cost us so many lives . . . children, mothers, students, old people”, he lamented, ordering the arrest of “all those involved in the ferry.” Three days later, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa set up a seven-person Commission of Enquiry led by the former Chief of the Defence Forces, General George Waitara, to establish the cause of the accident and bring those responsible to book. The commission was given a month to report. That was the last the public heard of it, for the commission has shown no signs of life in the twelve months since the accident, during which period the political opposition, media and civil society organisations have kept quiet on the issue of state accountability for the accident. For who else can be held accountable when a state-owned and state-managed boat capsizes? There was no stormy weather to blame. A few commentators, including the state-owned Daily News and commentator Nkwezi Mhango, went so far as to blame the victims for knowingly, recklessly, boarding an overloaded craft. Writing in The Nation, Professor Austin Bukenya recommended “discipline” among passengers who should know better than to clamber onto overcrowded ferries. Presumably, they should wait for the next (uncrowded?) one. . .

Systematic overloading of poorly maintained state-owned vessels, compounded by human error, explains why Tanzanian marine transport is so dangerous. Unknown numbers die when small private vessels—mitumbwi (dug-out canoes) and ngalawa (canoes with sails and outriggers)—capsize. But the large steel boats run by the state are supposed to be orders of magnitude safer than the traditional modes of water transport.

Since the MV Bukoba capsized and sank in 1996, with the loss of an estimated 1,000 lives, Tanzanians have continued to die in large numbers in further ferry disasters, including two in Zanzibar waters within less than a year of each other claiming more than 1,800 lives. To date, no government official or private operator (the Zanzibar ferries were privately owned) has been held responsible for any of these disasters.

Accidents Waiting to Happen

Overcrowding ferries is systematic and intentional. A 200-passenger ferry is allowed to carry, for example, 400 passengers. The 200 “official” passengers are recorded on the vessel’s manifest, the 200 “unofficial” ones are not recorded and their fare is pocketed by the officials responsible for the management and the safety of the ship. Income that should be used for maintenance and repairs is similarly pocketed, leading to regular breakdowns and the suspension of services, thus increasing the overcrowding problem. Those anonymous corpses buried on the beach at Ukara are the “collateral damage” caused by rent-seeking government officials. A ferry service that is privately-owned and managed would deprive these officials of their rents; that is why ferry services remain a state monopoly.

Large-scale accidents on Lake Victoria are therefore arguably the result of a state monopoly of formal ferry services which dates back to the colonial period when the East African Harbours Corporation provided ferry services for the three East African countries. President Magufuli is committed to the improvement of lake transport, but it is taken for granted that the state will run the show. Magufuli has commissioned four new ferries and ordered the rehabilitation of old ones.

Marine Services Company Ltd (MSCL) and Tanzania Electrical, Mechanical and Electronics Services Agency (TEMESA) are the two official agencies responsible for running cargo ship and ferry services on Tanzanian waters. Prior to its incorporation in 1997, MSCL was the marine division of Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC). The rationale for restructuring MSCL was to make it and other parts of TRC semi-independent “business units” to increase efficiency and profitability. According to its website, MSCL “operates ferries, cargo ships and tankers on Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyasa. It provides services to neighbouring Burundi, DR Congo, Zambia and Malawi.” Over the years, these services have steadily dwindled. While MSCL used to run nine sizeable passenger and cargo vessels, breakdowns and lack of maintenance have left the company with only two. Laid up since 2014, the MV Victoria and MV Butiama are finally being rehabilitated at a cost of Sh26 billion, or $11.4 million, but will not be operational before March 2020 according to MSCL project manager Abel Gwanafyo, quoted by the Citizen newspaper on 8 August. Since the “rehabilitation” is only partially complete (22.5 per cent in the case of MV Butiama) further delays may be expected. The rehabilitation is part of a Sh152 billion ($67 million) shipbuilding and infrastructure development project launched by the President in August last year. At the launching ceremony, Magufuli revealed that he once considered disbanding MSCL but changed his mind because of the “exemplary performance” of the company’s new CEO, Eric Hamissi, in beginning to turn the company around.

While MSCL runs larger ships over longer routes, TEMESA—which is an executive agency under the Ministry of Works—serves short river crossings as part of the road network. Established in 2005, TEMESA operates double- and single-ended Roll on-Roll Off (‘ro-ro’) car ferries, mainly in remote locations where traffic volumes do not justify the construction of bridges. TEMESA’s “mission” involves “running safe and reliable ferry services”, including the ill-fated MV Nyerere. As a result of last September’s disaster, the President summarily suspended TEMESA’s Director General Dr Musa Mgwatu and its advisory board.

Finally, after the MV Nyerere disaster Magufuli took to task the country’s transport regulator, the Surface and Marine Transport Regulatory Authority (SUMATRA), summarily suspending its board of directors. In November 2017, the president signed the Tanzania Shipping Agencies Act which established the Tanzania Shipping Agencies Corporation (TSAC) to take over SUMATRA’s responsibility for marine transport regulation. According to lawyers Clyde and Company, TSAC was to become operational in February 2018. With a narrower scope than SUMATRA, it was hoped that the new agency would operate with greater efficiency and bring increased transparency to Tanzania mainland’s marine transport sector. The appointment of board members from the private sector as well as from government should, according to Clyde and Company, allow TSAC “to operate with an effective commercial approach.” It is unclear why SUMATRA rather than TSAC, was taken to task over the MV Nyerere accident.

The ferries the government commissions for service on Tanzanian lakes are mostly built by Songoro Marine Transport Ltd, owned by Mr Saleh Songoro and Sons of Mwanza. Mr Songoro bought the company—which was set up with aid from the Netherlands—when it was privatised in 1998. Songoro has a good working relationship with Dutch firm Damen Shipyards, one of the world’s largest builders of small ships. But a private shipbuilding monopoly serving monopoly state agencies is not going to solve the problem of inadequate and accident-prone transport services on Lake Victoria. The chronic shortage of lake transport is the maritime equivalent of poor urban public transport, which Dar es Salaam suffered during the days of the Usafiri Dar es Salaam (UDA) public transport monopoly. Private minibuses (daladala) were permitted in 1985, much to the relief of Dar es Salaam’s long-suffering citizens. The inhabitants of Lake Victoria’s shores are still waiting for their maritime daladala to come on stream.

Would Private Ferry Services Reduce the Death Toll?

Would privately owned, privately run ferry services be safer and more efficient than what we have now? It is possible that private services would be equally prone to rent-seeking and inefficiency in the absence of transparent and accountable contracting and regulation. On the other hand, private operators are more likely to maintain their vessels in order to maximise profit than state-run services, where all income flows are potentially vulnerable to self-destructive rent-seeking. They are also more likely to take safety issues more seriously than a state-run service, since private operators are more likely than civil servants to be held accountable in the event of a major accident. Since the ruling elite includes those who have little belief in or respect for the private sector, we could expect a more determined search for culprits and sanctions, especially if the boat-owners were Asians, Arabs or Caucasians.

President Magufuli has been widely praised for instilling discipline in government offices, hospitals and schools and sacking top officials deemed not to be performing and promoting those who are. But accountability is personal, not institutional, and the president clearly does not want to challenge all agencies equally. Since there is no public debate over privatising lake transport, we can expect Lake Victoria ferry passengers to continue being the potential victims of overcrowded and dangerous ferry services.

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Nigeria’s Strategy and Boko Haram: Any End in Sight?

The Nigerian government must achieve an understanding of the conflict and of Boko Haram to avoid eventual state collapse, with catastrophic implications for West Africa and the continent.

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Nigeria’s Strategy and Boko Haram: Any End in Sight?
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On the 29th of November 2020, 43 rice farmers had their throats slit by Boko Haram terrorists at Zabamari in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state. Following this attack, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity blamed the deceased for not having received clearance from the military to harvest their crops. The military stated that though they had defeated Boko Haram, terrorists remained embedded in local communities and there was little they could do when civilians refused to provide intelligence. President Buhari issued his usual response, the operative phrase being that he “condemned the killing of our hardworking farmers”.

2020 was not done with showing just how precarious Nigerian state stability is. On the 11th of December last year, More than 300 students were kidnapped from their government school at Kankara, a two-hour drive from President Buhari’s hometown where he was vacationing at the time. Boko Haram claimed responsibility; the government denied this. Eventually, the students were released in a still obscure deal involving the Fulani ethnic Miyetti Allah group which has been accused of fomenting the Boko Haram-unrelated farmer-herdsmen crisis in central Nigeria. The Nigerian government then engaged in a shameful and ridiculous attempt to spin this fiasco.

In response, activists have trended the hashtags #ZabamariMassacre #FreeKankaraBoys #SackBuhari and #SecureNorth. Viewed through any one of several internal security lenses, the brutal, clear-eyed reality is that Nigeria is a scene of carnage and chaos related—directly or not—to the challenge posed by Boko Haram.

Successive governments have been hobbled by this Islamist sect which started a campaign of terror in 2009. Well over 37,000 people have been killed, with millions displaced to Internally Displaced Persons’ and refugee camps. The conflict is internationalised, localised as it is around Lake Chad which Nigeria shares with three French-speaking countries—Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The threat profile of Boko Haram that is unfolding in these hyper-connected times is far more scalable than any 20th century conflict. Ending the Boko Haram conflict is crucial to shoring up state stability in Nigeria and West Africa. Yet, Nigeria’s strategic engagement with this existential problem leaves much to be desired and is a cause for concern.

At the centre of all conflict resolution approaches is identifying the conflict and, in the case of Boko Haram, this remains blurry. What is clear is that the conflict was kick-started by the murder of the leader of the Boko Haram sect, Muhammad Yusuf, by officers of the Nigerian state. A charismatic preacher and adherent of Salafi revanchist ideology, Yusuf had taken over leadership of the group in 2002 and quickly gathered an immense local following. He then lent his popularity to local politicians uncertain of their legitimacy, until he fell out with them, leading to his death in 2009. The sect then came to be led by the choleric and belligerent Abubakar Shekau, who would go on to plug his group into the international jihadi mainstream with a 2015 pledge to al-Baghdadi’s then territorial Islamic State (IS). It now comprises an indeterminate number of factions sharing a narrative that the secular Nigerian state ought to be replaced with an Islamist one, and a willingness to exact an appalling human cost on soft targets and security forces alike. In these axioms, Boko Haram has been single-minded.

Georgetown University professor Jacob Zenn provides compelling research on Boko Haram in his 2020 book Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria. Zenn’s thesis sets out and explores Islamist jihadism as an international network of ideas within which Boko Haram has positioned itself, even if its initial concerns were far more localised. At the centre of this network of ideas is Saudi Arabia’s decades-long project to balance out Iranian influence by indoctrinating moderate Muslim clerics and making generous petrodollar grants to spread the Kingdom’s ultraconservative Wahhabi Islam. While Mohamed bin Salman continues to try to scale down his country’s polarisation of the Middle East through rapprochement with Israel, for example, nothing is likely to be done by the Kingdom to scale back the effect of decades of state support for fundamentalist Islam and virulent extremism in Africa.

This fundamentalism underscored al-Qaeda, which exerted extremist influence on regions farther away, changing Islam forever in societies like the heterogeneous and heterodox ones of Nigeria, which found themselves faced with a new crisis of identity, of political economy, and of state stability. That there will be no help from the Saud who opened the basket of vipers is a given. That defeating Boko Haram requires a holistic, all-of-government strategic engagement by the government of Nigeria is obvious. That Nigeria’s state apparatus is currently engaged in chasing after indicators while disregarding the larger syndrome, is a reality rooted in an absence of a common understanding of the Boko Haram problem.

The importance of Dr Jacob Zenn’s Unmasking Boko Haram lies in its methodology for clarifying the Boko Haram reality. Zenn comes to his analysis from a position of expertise in jihadism and Boko Haram, facility with Hausa and Arabic languages and familiarity with the interconnections between points in the African web of armed non-state actors ranging from AQIM to al-Shabaab. To this he adds copious amounts of research stretching back fifty years, organising this in demonstrably objective ways. His expertise, rigour and creativity weave a narrative of Boko Haram’s early influence by bin Laden’s deputies in Sudan and the general context, tracing a line of international influences—including by the Shia—that created its peculiar syncretism. Unmasking then sets out the conflict between Boko Haram and mainstream Salafi scholarship, and the fracturing of the group into several factions, giving detailed descriptions of ideological differences. I do not expect that the government of Nigeria will adopt Zenn’s conclusions but there can be no doubt that a common understanding of the Boko Haram group is needed and that, eleven years on, it remains lacking.

The first thing to be exploded is the idea that Boko Haram’s actions, reprehensible as they are, are senseless. Boko Haram’s foundational dissent against mainstream Western ideas—such as Darwinism, allegiance to a secular state, mixed-gender education, for example—in favour of Sharia and the supremacy of the Quran are not particularly special. Revivalist movements within religions, especially Islam, Christianity and Judaism, are commonplace. The group should thus be approached as a sociological attempt to recalibrate society, no different from any of the other -isms academics, intellectuals and ideologues foment, even if misguided. This done, the underlying logic—one which devalues human life and disregards social cooperation and diversity—can be contradicted by floating counter-ideologies or changing society to accommodate or undercut the raison d’être of groups like Boko Haram.

Thought to have been founded in 1995, Boko Haram is rooted in a Borno-based jihadist community whose leaders had spent time abroad—particularly in the Sudan and Saudi Arabia—from the 90s right up to 9/11 and believed that postcolonial states were illegitimate. It merged with Saudi-backed Salafi groups which seek to emulate Arab Muslims of the 7th century, are strictly literalist in terms of Islamic tenets—thus rejecting all “innovation”—and believe that there exists a universal Islamic brotherhood of faith to which all else is in opposition. The synthesis of these two strands of ideology led to the defining character of Boko Haram—the certainty that they can declare other Muslims as apostates and wage violence against them and against non-Muslims who are, of course, infidels, precisely because they are either secular or simply non-Muslim.

Abubakar Shekau’s leadership of the sect would go on to fully test this minting of new apostates while designating infidels very broadly. He soon turned on the Salafi groups when it was clear they had no stomach for actual violence and had opted for state capture—by participating in politics—instead. The Salafi groups retaliated by mobilising what state resources they had under their influence against Boko Haram, which responded in kind. This, of course, was happening against the backdrop of Saudi backpedaling of Salafi association with jihadists following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Saudis had greatly incentivised local Salafis following the Gulf War in 1990-1991—a period proximate to the coming to the fore of foreign-exposed or foreign-influenced local jihadists, such as the founders of Boko Haram. This is the loop within which the insurgency exists.

An examination of the Nigerian government’s strategic response to Boko Haram starts from it failing at its primary role as a state, which is providing people-centred development through managing identity and guaranteeing the security of its citizens. Today, the northeast has a 76 per cent poverty rate, with its quality of life and internally generated revenue profiles placing it amongst the poorest regions in the world. All this was achieved over decades of neglect and public sector corruption, precisely the sort of boko behavior Boko Haram uses to argue for a return to simpler times from fourteen centuries ago.

Nigeria’s initial reaction to Boko Haram absolutely ignored the interrelated local socioeconomic factors and the international environment that shaped the sect. Hence the assumption that the extrajudicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf would put paid to the sect, which turned out to be grossly incorrect. The initial response also seemed ignorant of the prior twenty years of evolution of armed non-state actors such as al-Qaeda employing a diffused command and control structure which has been described as “cell-like” and more sophisticated than hierarchical state structures. The Nigerian Police, widely known for human rights abuses and thought of as both incompetent and corrupt, quickly proved inadequate in addressing the insurgency and the military was drafted in for what was essentially an internal security issue.

The earliest military response included blanket arrests and disappearances which alienated local communities in the northeast and guaranteed little cooperation. These actions in fact gained sympathy for the insurgents, who soon began to seize territory. Determined military pushback has now seen the insurgency evolve into a low-intensity conflict with control of some territory routinely changing hands at the cost of military and civilian lives. Attacks have been frequent, especially by the ISWA (Islamic State of West Africa) faction of Boko Haram. A 2019 shift in military strategy saw the creation of “super-camps” and garrison towns which had the effect of leaving the countryside to the insurgents. In these territories, Boko Haram factions have proceeded to levy taxes and duties on economic activity, such as farming and harvesting. It is instructive that Abubakar Shekau, in claiming responsibility for the killing of the rice farmers in Zabamari, said it was done in revenge against the farmers for having arrested an insurgent and cooperated with the military.

It is quite clear that the Nigerian government’s response has not been proactive and preemptive, and has failed to emphasise building intelligence networks with local community buy-in that can disrupt Boko Haram. Nor has it denied Boko Haram factions the ability to recruit and replenish their ranks. The terror unleashed by Boko Haram results from these failures and the insurgents’ demonstrated ability to finance themselves.

It is over a decade since the Boko Haram insurgency started and the lack of strategic coherence on the part of the government of Nigeria is of great concern. Beyond documents and statements, proof of strategy is action and results.

It is important to go back to the drawing board and this starts with the government of Nigeria achieving a common understanding of the conflict and the opposing party—Boko Haram. This is a blind spot that researchers such as the American Dr Jacob Zenn amply illuminate, alongside the thinking of Nigerian academics and researchers who have done rigorous work on Boko Haram. The danger with not doing this is that the conflict will continue, with the usual victims of terror suffering in horrific ways, and after a decade or two, the state will collapse not because it could not save itself and regenerate its vitality, and definitely not because of a superior enemy, but simply out of sheer inertia. This would have catastrophic implications for West Africa and the continent at large.

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Why Kenya’s Constitutional Duels Are All About Power Struggles Among the Elite

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Why Kenya’s Constitutional Duels Are All About Power Struggles Among the Elite
Photo. Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images
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Kenya is in the throes of another agonised constitutional debate. Proponents of the new push for amendments argue that the time is right to cure deficiencies in the 2010 constitution. Yet that document is only a little over 10 years old, and followed a referendum that ushered in the most comprehensive constitutional reforms since independence in 1963.

A look back in history helps us understand Kenya’s perennial quest for constitutional change.

In the colonial era, constitutional demands were led by white settlers who ruled over the African population. Africans had no rights to land or civil amenities. In 1907, Britain conceded to white settler demands and created the Legislative Council. It began as a nominated, exclusively European institution with no provision for natives. Eventually, it became an elected body and a white missionary was nominated as the first official member to represent the interests of the African community. African elites challenged the privilege of white missionaries speaking for Africans.

Policy changes followed. The government appointed Eliud Mathu the first “native” to the Legislative Council in 1944. His appointment gave birth to Kenya African Union, the predecessor of the independence ruling party, Kenya African National Union. In the 1950s, demands by African led to the Mau Mau War. The armed movement sprang up in protest over colonial land alienation, economic inequalities and political oppression under British rule. The organisation’s mobilisation forced further governance policy adjustments.

In 1960, 1962 and 1963 Britain organised three Lancaster House Constitutional Conferences to decide Kenya’s future. On 12 December 1963 Kenya finally became an independent state.

From then on in constitutional power play became a domestic affair as local power brokers competed against one another. This resulted in power-hungry politicians faulting existing structures and demanding changes to the constitution. This was the case at the outset of colonialism and is still the case in 21st Century post-colonial Kenya.

The current push for constitutional change is reminiscent of these earlier trends – it is all about competition for power among the country’s elite.

Moments of crisis

There have been three major phases to constitutional reform in post-colonial Kenya.

The first followed the death of Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president. The second revolved around the consolidation of power, and the survival, of the country’s second president Daniel arap Moi. The latest is to push to amend the 2010 constitution.

When Kenyatta began ailing, rival politicians engaged in constant mischief as they schemed to identify a suitable successor. Constitutional Affairs Minister Tom Mboya, who belonged to the ruling Kenya African National Union, ensured that the 1963 constitution sidelined his party-mate, Kenya’s first Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in the succession line up.

Ruling party honchos then turned to infighting as the then Vice-President Daniel Moi, formerly the chairman of the opposition’s Kenya African Democratic Union, looked on. Moi began to see how he could use the wrangling to ascend to the presidency. His first opportunity came in 1968 when successful constitutional amendments ruled Mboya out of the succession picture.

The law stipulated that in the event the president died, the vice-president would take office for 90 days and then call an election. In addition, the president was granted powers of detention without trial, meaning that he could detain his opponents as he saw fit.

Moi’s second opportunity came in the 1970s when he himself was the target of proposed constitutional amendments. His proponents wanted to return to the previous formula. Moi outwitted them by forming alliances with influential players across the country.

When he ascended to the presidency in August 1978, part of his control strategy was to constantly remind the public about how he foiled the amendments. That narrative ignored the successful constitutional change in 1968, of which he was the main beneficiary.

Moi’s survival amendments

Moi held the presidency for 24 years. Crafty in exploiting perceived weaknesses, his main constitutional concern was to consolidate his grip on power.

To secure his position, he engineered a constitutional amendment in June 1982 to make Kenya a one-party state. KANU was the “party”. This was the “Section 2A” amendment to the constitution the purpose of which was to stop the former vice-president Oginga Odinga from starting another political party.

A number of additional amendments were added, also designed to give Moi more power. These included the removal of tenure for constitutional office holders and an egregious amendment that replaced secret ballot at elections with voters lining up behind their candidate or agent at the 1988 elections.

These amendments backfired on the president, produced new national heroes, and eventually forced the repeal of Section 2A in December 1991 to pave way for the 1992 multiparty elections.

Following the repeal, the debate centred around Moi’s survival. In 1992, when he was still in control of Parliament, he took three far reaching steps. First, he introduced an amendment that required winning candidates to obtain 25% of votes cast in five of Kenya’s eight provinces. This made it difficult for any opposing candidate to win outright.

Second, he imposed a two-term limit for future presidents, just in case he lost. And third, he appointed retired judge and ally Zacchaeus Chesoni chairman of the electoral commission. Chesoni declared Moi the winner in the contested 1992 elections, despite the president garnering just 36% of the vote, and swore him in immediately probably to avoid court challenges.

After he won the 1992 election, Moi became preoccupied with repealing the two-term limit he had previously imposed. The period between 1993 and 1997 became charged with the constitution debate. This led to the formation of the Inter-Parliamentary Party Group, which committed to a review of the constitution after the 1997 election.

Two other groups had also emerged: the Ufungamano House group comprising religious leaders and civil society activists, and the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, which was convened by Moi and opposition ally Raila Odinga, son of former vice-president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

Moi and Raila recruited lawyer Yash Pal Ghai who unified the review commission and Ufungamano initiatives, and together the two groups prepared a draft constitution. That draft became the basis of constitutional debate between 2003 and 2005. The debate culminated in the 2005 constitutional referendum. The draft was voted against, setting the stage for the chaotic 2007 elections.

Beyond 2007

The third post-colonial phase of constitution-making came about as a direct result of the 2007 election chaos.

What finally emerged was a grand coalition government between Raila Odinga and the incumbent Mwai Kibaki. The two finally agreed to a co-presidency with Kibaki as the president and Odinga in the new position of prime minister.

The co-presidency shepherded in the 2010 constitution because they were required to pass the new law as part of the national accord agreement that set up the grand coalition government.

But the document had many flaws which meant that its promulgation created new constitutional conflicts.

Ten years on and gyrations around Kenya’s constitution continue. The current drive for change is happening under the guise of the Building Bridges Initiative. This suggests that, once again, constitutional reform is being driven by political power agendas.

The changes that are likely to be effected will, therefore, not be the last because there always will be groups or individuals who will question the existing power structure. They are interested in grabbing power, not the effective functioning of constitutional structures in a state.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Thomas Sankara: A United Front Against Debt

In 1987, Thomas Sankara called for a united front against debt. His struggle remains as urgent today as it was then.

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Mister President, Heads of Delegations,

At this moment I would like for us to speak about another pressing issue: the issue of debt, the question of the economic situation in Africa. It is an important condition of our survival, as much as peace. And this is why I have deemed it necessary to put several supplementary points on the table for us to discuss.

Burkina Faso would like to first of all talk about our fear. Our fear is that there are ongoing United Nations meetings, similar meetings, but less and less interest in what we are doing.

Mister President, how many African heads of state are present here when they have been duly called to come speak about Africa in Africa?

Mister President, how many heads of state are ready to head off to Paris, London, or Washington when they are called to a meeting there, but cannot come to a meeting here in Addis-Ababa, in Africa?

I know some of them have valid reasons for not coming. This is why I would suggest, Mister President, that we establish a scale of sanctions or penalties for the heads of state who do not presently respond to the call. Let’s make it so that through a set of points for good behavior, those who come regularly – like us, for example – can be supported in some of their efforts. For example: the projects that we submit to the African Development Bank should be multiplied by a coefficient of Africanness. The least African should be penalized. With this, everyone will come to the meetings.

I would like to say to you, Mister President, that the debt issue is a question we cannot hide. You yourself know about something in your country where you have to make courageous decisions, reckless even – decisions that do not seem to be related to your age or gray hair. His Excellency, the President Habib Bourguiba, who could not come but had us deliver an important message given this other example in Africa, when in Tunisia, for political, social, and economic reasons, has also had to make courageous decisions.

But Mister President, are we going to continue to let the heads of state individually seek solutions to the debt issue at the risk of creating social conflicts at home that could put their stability in jeopardy and even the construction of African unity? The examples I have mentioned – and there are others – warrant that the UN summits provide a reassuring response to each of us in regards to the debt issue.

We think that debt has to be seen from the perspective of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who colonized us. They are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies. These are the colonizers who indebted Africa through their brothers and cousins, who were the lenders. We had no connections with this debt. Therefore we cannot pay for it.

Debt is neo-colonialism, in which colonizers have transformed themselves into “technical assistants.” We should rather say “technical assassins.” They present us with financing, with financial backers. As if someone’s backing could create development. We have been advised to go to these lenders. We have been offered nice financial arrangements. We have been indebted for 50, 60 years and even longer. That means we have been forced to compromise our people for over 50 years.

Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skillfully managed reconquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave, of those who had been treacherous enough to put money in our countries with obligations for us to repay. We are told to repay, but it is not a moral issue. It is not about this so-called honor of repaying or not.

Mister President, we have been listening and applauding Norway’s prime minister [Gro Harlem Brundtland] when she spoke right here. She is European but she said that the whole debt cannot be repaid. Debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure. Those who led us to indebtedness gambled as if in a casino. As long as they had gains, there was no debate. But now that they suffer losses, they demand repayment. And we talk about crisis. No, Mister President, they played, they lost, that’s the rule of the game, and life goes on.

We cannot repay because we don’t have any means to do so.

We cannot pay because we are not responsible for this debt.

We cannot repay but the others owe us what the greatest wealth could never repay, that is blood debt. Our blood had flowed. We hear about the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe’s economy. But we never hear about the African plan which allowed Europe to face Hitlerian hordes when their economies and their stability were at stake. Who saved Europe? Africa. It is rarely mentioned, to such a point that we cannot be the accomplices of that thankless silence. If others cannot sing our praises, at least we must say that our fathers had been courageous and that our troops had saved Europe and set the world free from Nazism.

Debt is also the result of confrontation. When we are told about economic crisis, nobody says that this crisis has come about suddenly. The crisis had always been there but it got worse each time that popular masses become more and more conscious of their rights against exploiters. We are in a crisis today because the masses refuse that wealth be concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. We are in crisis because some people are saving enormous sums of money in foreign bank accounts that would be enough to develop Africa. We are in a crisis because we are facing this private wealth that we cannot name. The popular masses don’t want to live in ghettos and slums. We are in a crisis because everywhere people are refusing to repeat the problems of Soweto and Johannesburg. There is a struggle, and its intensification is worrying to those with financial power. Now we are asked to be accomplices in a balancing – a balancing favoring those with the financial power; a balancing against the popular masses. No! We cannot be accomplices. No! We cannot go with those who suck our people’s blood and live on our people’s sweat. We cannot follow them in their murderous ways.

Mister President, we hear about clubs – the Rome Club, Paris Club, club whatever. We hear about Group of Five, Group of Seven, Group of Ten, and maybe Group of One Hundred. And what else? It is normal that we too have our own club and our own group. Let’s have Addis-Ababa become now the center from which will a new beginning will emerge. An Addis-Ababa Club. It is our duty to create an Addis-Ababa united front against debt. That is the only way to assert that the refusal to repay is not an aggressive move on our part, but a fraternal move to speak the truth. Furthermore, the popular masses of Europe are not opposed to the popular masses of Africa. Those who want to exploit Africa are those who exploit Europe, too. We have a common enemy. So our Addis-Ababa Club will have to explain to each and all that debt shall not be repaid. And by saying that, we are not against morals, dignity and keeping one’s word. We think we don’t have the same morality as others. The rich and the poor do not have the same morality. The Bible, the Koran cannot serve those who exploit the people and those who are exploited in the same way. It could be used in favor of both sides, there should be two different editions of the Bible and two different editions of the Koran. We cannot accept to be told about dignity. We cannot accept to be told about the merit of those who repay and the mistrust toward those who do not. On the contrary, we must recognize today that it is normal for the wealthiest to be the greatest thieves. When a poor man steals it is merely a theft, a petty crime — it is solely about survival and necessity. The rich are the ones who steal from the treasury, customs duties, and who exploit the people.

Mister President, my proposal does not aim to simply provoke or create a spectacle. I would just like to say what each one of us thinks and wishes. Who here doesn’t wish for the debt to be canceled outright? Whoever doesn’t, can leave, get into his plane and go straight to the World Bank to pay! All of us wish for this…my proposal is nothing more. I would not want people to think that Burkina Faso’s proposal is coming on behalf of youth without maturity or experience. I would not want people to think either that only revolutionaries speak in this way. I would want one to admit it is merely objectivity and obligation. And I can give examples of others who have advised not to repay the debt – revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries, young and old. I would mention Fidel Castro, for example, who said not to repay; he is not my age, even though he is a revolutionary. I would also mention François Mitterand, who said that African countries, poor countries, could not repay. I would mention Madam Prime Minister [Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland] – I don’t know her age and I would begrudge myself to ask her – but it’s an example. I would also mention President Félix Houphouët-Boigny; he is not my age but he officially, publicly, declared that, at least as far as his own country is concerned, Ivory Coast cannot repay. Now, Ivory Coast is among the wealthiest countries in Africa, at least Francophone Africa; that is also why it naturally has to pay a larger share here. Mister President, this is definitely not a provocation. I would like you to offer us some very intelligent solutions. I would want our conference to take on the urgent need to plainly say that we cannot repay the debt. Not in a warlike or bellicose spirit – but to prevent us from being individually assassinated. If Burkina Faso stands alone in refusing to pay, I will not be here for the next conference! But, with everyone’s support, which I need, with the support of everyone we would not have to pay. In doing so, we would devote our meager resources to our own development.

And I would like to conclude by saying that each time an African country buys a weapon, it is against an African country. It is not against a European country, it is not against an Asian country. It is against an African country. Consequently, we should take advantage of the debt issue to solve the weapons problem. I am a soldier and I carry a gun. But Mister President, I would want us to disarm. Because I carry the only gun I have and others have concealed guns or weapons that they have. So my dear brothers, with everyone’s support, we will make peace at home. We will also make use of our immense potentialities to develop Africa, because our soil and subsoil are rich. We have enough bodies and and a vast market – from North to South, East to West. We have enough intellectual capacity to create or at the very least use technology and science from wherever we find it.

Mister President, let us form this Addis-Ababa united front against debt. Let’s make the commitment to limiting armaments amongst weak and poor countries. The clubs and knives we buy are useless. Let’s also make the African market be the market for Africans: produce in Africa, transform in Africa, consume in Africa. Let’s produce what we need and let’s consume what we produce instead of importing. Burkina Faso came here showing the cotton fabric produced in Burkina Faso, weaved in Burkina Faso, sown in Burkina Faso, to dress citizens of Burkina Faso. Our delegation and I are dressed by our weavers, our peasants. There is not a single thread coming from Europe or America. I would not do a fashion show, but I would simply say that we must accept to live as African – that is the only way to live free and dignified.

I thank you, Mister President.

Patrie or death, we will overcome!

Editors Note: At the 1987 summit of the Organization of African Unity, Thomas Sankara warned that he would not live to attend another meeting if Burkina Faso were alone in resisting its debt obligations. A few months later, he was murdered in a coup backed by France for calling out the neocolonialist and imperial character of the debt imposed on African countries and calling for African unity and freedom.

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