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Should Africa’s Tallest Skyscraper Be Built in a Kenyan Village?

10 min read.

The proposed construction of a 61-storey building in Watamu has generated both hopes and fears among local residents, who view the project as either a white elephant with serious environmental consequences or a godsend that will bring much-needed jobs and prosperity to the coastal area. RASNA WARAH examines the pros and cons of this multi-million-dollar project.

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Should Africa’s Tallest Skyscraper Be Built in a Kenyan Village?
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If all goes according to plan, construction work on a 61-storey skyscraper – which is being mooted as the tallest structure in the whole of Africa – will soon start in Watamu, a sleepy fishing village and tourist resort about 20 kilometres south of Malindi along Kenya’s coastline.

But lack of clarity on how the developer managed to get approval for the Sh28 billion ($280 million) project is raising concerns about whether this is another white elephant or phantom project. Questions are also being raised about whether the building is economically feasible and environmentally sustainable.

On its website, Palm Exotjca is marketed as an exclusive development with “chic residential suites, premium commercial space, eclectic restaurants and a vibrant casino”. Three Italians are said to be managing the project: The chairman Giuseppe Moscarino is a veterinarian and neurosurgeon from Rome whose passions are “art, architecture and Africa’s extraordinary beauty”; the managing director is Oliver Nepomuceno, who is described as the manager of several commercial and investment companies and joint ventures; and Lorenzo Pagnini is listed as the lead architect.

The main investors in the project are said to be the Italian billionaire Franco Rosso, along with investors from Switzerland, Dubai and South Africa. According to the developers, an engineering firm in India will handle the structural design aspects of the building while a Chinese company will undertake the construction work. Local engineering and architectural firms will also contribute to various aspects of the construction phase.

When completed, the 370-metre-high building, whose shiny artistic exterior will resemble the trunk of a palm tree, will comprise 270 hotel rooms, 189 luxury suites and apartments and social amenities, such as a shopping mall, a business centre, a theatre, a cinema, a nightclub, a fitness centre, a wellness spa, a children’s play area and four swimming pools – all of which invoke images of Dubai or Las Vegas.

The problem is that Watamu is not Dubai or Las Vegas. This fishing village and beach resort with a population of 14,000 barely has the infrastructure to service a level 4 hospital, let alone a skyscraper of this size. MAWASCO, the water utility company, already has problems meeting the water demand in Watamu and there are no signs that it intends to increase supply during the construction phase of the project or when it is completed. The Kenya Power and Lighting Company has promised to upgrade the Kakuyuni sub-station with a 23 MVA transformer and 25 kilometres of an overhead line, but only on the condition that the developer pays for the upgrade, which will cost Sh161 million.

Moreover, Watamu is hardly a vibrant tourist destination and commercial hub along the lines of Rio de Janeiro or Miami. What were the developers thinking when they came up with the idea and how do they expect to fill up all these hotel rooms and apartments?

Other such projects, such as Flavio Briatore’s Billionaire Club in Malindi – which was marketed as “a club for the world’s richest” – also had ambitions to attract the wealthy from around the world, but Malindians have yet to see Bill Gates or the Saudi Prince Mohamed bin Salman check in. On the contrary, Briatore has threatened to sell his other hotel, Lion in the Sun, in Malindi because he says that the unattractive business environment and poor infrastructure in the town are keeping foreign tourists and investors away.

In an article published in Coastal Guide, Issue 20, July 2019, Damian Davies, the general manager of the Turtle Bay hotel in Watamu, questioned the viability of the Palm Exojca project and whether the investors will get a profitable return on their investment. “There are lots of properties for sale in Watamu that aren’t selling; who will buy an apartment in a tower some distance from the beach when no one is buying beautiful beach properties?” he asked. “We don’t want a start-up that for economic reasons isn’t finished: a partially completed skyscraper.”

Red flags

Malindi and Watamu are currently experiencing a slump in tourism. Hotels are either shutting down or scaling down.

Many Italian residents are selling their villas to go back to Europe or to move elsewhere. But there is simply no market for these properties. Those that do manage to sell their houses often do so at below-market rates, mainly to Kenyans from Nairobi looking for a holiday home.

Italian and other tourists are flocking to other destinations in East Africa, such as Zanzibar, which have not been tainted by the threat of terrorism, and which have more superior amenities and infrastructure. The idea that this luxury development will be the magnet that will pull in tourists and foreign investors could simply be wishful thinking.

At a public participation meeting organised by NEMA at the site of the building on 3 October, Mr Moscarino, the chairman of Palm Exojca, explained that this exclusive development will bring another type of high-end visitor to the area and is not competing with the hotels in the vicinity. He added that he was very proud to be associated with the tallest building in Africa.

However, let us say that the project is viable and there is a market for it, this question still remains: Why build such a tall structure in a village that is not a commercial hub and where most buildings are just one-storey tall? Wouldn’t it be incongruous with its surroundings? Wouldn’t it be like building a skyscraper in the middle of a desert? If you have to build the structure, why not build a scaled-down version?

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that skyscrapers are more about ego and prestige than about economics. Very tall structures, such as the Petronas Towers in in Kuala Lumpur and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, are a kind of phallic symbol representing strength and virility. The skyscraper is to the modern world what the obelisk was to the ancient Egyptians – a monument that projects mystical power and status. But is this what Watamu needs?

Kilifi County has given the go-ahead to the project perhaps in the belief that it will generate jobs and stimulate the local economy, but Najib Balala, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, is not convinced that this is the kind of project that Watamu requires. He feels that a more suitable location for the project might have been Mombasa or Nairobi. He has also advised the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) not to approve the project. “That 61-storey skyscraper on a small plot in Watamu must not be built,” he is reported to have said.

What raises a red flag is the fact that the Palm Exotjca website lists its address as One World Trade Centre, Suite 8500, New York, but that address seems to be a virtual one intended to impress high-end clients. The other address is a plot number and P.O. Box number in Mombasa, but there is no email or phone number provided. The phone number listed on the website is a Washington DC number that goes unanswered. One concerned resident who has been following up on the matter said: “When we call the phone number listed on the website, no one answers it and has not for over a year. So why is it so difficult to find the real phone number if Palm Exotjca really wants to sell high-end apartments?”

According to residents’ associations and other concerned groups in and around Watamu who have raised their objections regarding the project with NEMA, Vitamefin Limited, the company that is listed as the owner of one of Palm Exojca’s plots in Watamu, was previously registered in the US Virgin Islands. However, the Virgin Islands Official Gazette, Volume XLIX, Number 78, shows that this company was struck off the register of companies on 1 May 2015 for non-payment of annual fees.

NEMA says that it has conducted an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) that shows no adverse environmental or social impacts related to the project. But Augustine K. Masinde, the National Director of Physical Planning in the Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning, disagrees. In a letter to the Director-General of NEMA dated 12 July 2019, he raised concerns about the conformity of the proposed development with physical planning laws and zoning regulations. He also said that certain issues, such as the environmental suitability of the parcel of land for the proposed development and availability and adequacy of requisite infrastructure and services, needed to be clarified. “In view of the foregoing, we advise that you suspend the approval of the proposed development to allow proper review and audit to establish its sustainability,” stated the letter.

A memo to NEMA – submitted on 21 July this year on behalf of the Watamu Association, the Kilifi Residents Association, the Kilifi County Alliance, Watamu Hoteliers, Local Ocean Trust, Watamu Marine Association, A Rocha Kenya, Watamu Against Crime, Watamu Property Managers and the Jiwe Leupe Community Association – lists several problems with the project, including:

  • The project is disproportionate in scope and scale, both technically and financially. The substrata along the Kenyan coast is highly unsuitable for very tall buildings.
  • There has been lack of meaningful public participation by the developers and the ESIA team.
  • Watamu lacks the skilled labour force to put up such a structure. The immigration of a large, well-paid skilled workers into Watamu has the potential for significant social, cultural, economic and moral hazards.
  • The area lacks the required infrastructure, including water and electricity supply, for such a large-scale project.

Lack of sufficient and meaningful public participation is of particular concern to the residents, as it was with the proposed coal-fired plant in Lamu. In the case of Lamu, lack of public participation was a key consideration in the National Environment Tribunal (NET)’s ruling. In its 26 June 2019 jugement, NET ordered Amu Power, the key player in the proposed Lamu coal project, to halt construction of the plant and to undertake a fresh ESIA for the project. It noted that the ESIA carried out for Amu Power was flawed in one key aspect: it did not involve public participation, which is a constitutional requirement. It noted that lack of public participation was “contemptuous of the people of Lamu”.

Mike Norton-Griffiths, the chairman of the Watamu Association, says that the major flaw in the project is in the planning. He says that nine completely independent projects are buried in the ESIA, each requiring an ESIA and planning permission, and each needing to be completed before the main project. Yet this has not been done.

There are also serious environmental concerns. Watamu is home to the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, the famous Gede ruins and a marine park that is the breeding ground for turtles and other marine life. There are concerns that improper handling of wastewater and sewage from the project – both during the construction phase and when it is completed – could negatively impact the biodiversity in the region.

Simmering tensions

The above concerns were partially addressed on 3 October at the public participation meeting organised by NEMA, which I attended. A Kenyan engineer recruited by Palm Exojca made a detailed slide presentation explaining how the development will deal issues such as wastewater and even birds who could die accidentally by crashing into the tall shiny structure. (Much of this presentation was lost on the local communities attending the meeting, but that did not deter him from going on with the hour-long presentation.)

The meeting, which was attended by NEMA, county government officials, some representatives of residents associations, and a large group of people from the community, at times appeared stage-managed and intended to allay any fears that the project was unviable or environmentally unsustainable.

But what also came out loud and clear at the meeting was that the local residents view the project as a contest between the national government and the county government of Kilifi and between the (mostly British) expatriate community and the Italian investors. Speakers at the meeting emphasised that this was a project supported by the county government and that the national government should not interfere with it. “Those opposed to this project are enemies of devolution and enemies of the people,” said one very vocal community leader, whose statement was met with roaring applause from the audience.

Supporters of the project, including the governor of Kilifi County, Amoson Kingi, believe that the project will bring in much-needed jobs to the area and will boost tourism. Community members at the meeting repeatedly cited employment as the main benefit of the project. (The majority of the local residents will neither be able to afford the amenities offered at Palm Exojca, but they do hope to find low-paid and semi-skilled jobs in the luxury development.)

It is hard to argue with the sentiments of the majority of the local people, who have been marginalised for decades and who suffer from high levels of poverty and underdevelopment. (Kilfi County is among the six poorest counties in the country.) A project like this could change their fortunes in significant ways by generating hundreds of jobs both directly and indirectly. When you have not seen any real development in your area for years, despite the presence of a large numbers of beach hotels, a project like is hard to resist, even amid environmental concerns. As one speaker at the meeting pointed out, “Nobody talked about how the beach hotels in Watamu would affect turtles. So why should this development, which is not even on the beach (it is 366 metres from the ocean) be of concern?”

The project has also unveiled simmering tensions between the indigenous local residents and the largely British expatriate residents. Kilifi North MP Owen Baya, a vocal supporter of the project, claims that the British people living in Watamu are opposed to the project because it will “block their view of the ocean”. But he does not say how the influx of wealthy foreigners into Watamu when the building is completed will affect the local population. Will it give rise to other types of tensions?

There is also the issue of double standards. Someone I spoke with who did not want to be named told me that the Europeans living in Watamu live there only half the year; they spend the rest of the year in Europe. “These people can enjoy First World amenities, like theatres and nice roads and pavements, whenever they want to. But they want Watamu to remain a backwater whose unspoilt natural environment they can enjoy whenever it is convenient for them. But what about the locals who have never been to a cinema or even travelled outside their county? Don’t they deserve a taste of modernity?”

The locals clearly view the Italian investors as a godsend that will bring much-needed employment and development to the area. One MCA even referred to Mr. Moscarino as “our small God”.

“Even London began as a small village,” said another speaker. “We want Watamu to become a city like Dubai.”

Owen Baya, the Kilifi North MP, told the audience that until a hundred years ago even Nairobi was just a swamp, and wondered why there was so much resistance to this particular project.

At the meeting, Mr. Moscarino gained additional points with the locals when he sold the development as a social responsibility project. He told the cheering crowds that the developers will build a hospitality school and a secondary school in Watamu and that up to 2,000 local people will be hired as drivers, carpenters, construction workers and the like during the construction phase. It was obvious that he was exploiting the fact the majority of residents are too poor and illiterate to refuse such a generous offer. His statement was met with loud cheers.

As I left the NEMA meeting, I did wonder whether if, for any reason, the project is not completed – and the promised jobs and schools never materialise – what effect this will have on the local people. Will dashed hopes lead to even more resentment?

We can only wait and see if indeed the local people’s dreams will be realised in five years when the construction of Palm Exojca is expected to be completed. Palm Exojca could either be the catalyst that spurs development in Watamu or the Trojan horse that introduces vices that threaten to destroy a way of life. It could also be a case study in how economic opportunities often trump environmental concerns when it comes to “development”, especially in areas that are poor and marginalised.

Rasna Warah
By

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

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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.

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The Fate of the Human Experiment Depends on the Outcome of This Struggle
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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.

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The Violence in Ethiopia

The imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.

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The Violence in Ethiopia
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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.

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.

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

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Let It Never Be Said That Kenyans Went to War Over Mammary Glands

The Kenyan government’s aggressive response to Oscar Sudi’s comments, and the open defiance of Sudi’s supporters, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.

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Let It Never Be Said That Kenyans Went to War Over Mammary Glands
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The furore over Kapsaret MP Oscar Sudi’s recent comments regarding the first family has left many Kenyan women baffled, not least because Kenyan men are not known to be great defenders of women or their body parts. It has been alleged – and the media has erroneously reported – that, in alluding to her breasts, Mr Sudi insulted Mama Ngina, the former first lady and mother of the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta.

When I first heard about this on social media, I thought it was yet another typically crude example of Kenyan misogyny. There are countless examples of Kenyan men, particularly politicians, insulting and deriding women. Female politicians and activists are a favourite target. Women who dare to defy patriarchal norms do not find a comfortable home here. In fact, they have to fight tooth and nail to be recognised.

The late President Daniel arap Moi, for instance, once referred to Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai as a woman who had “dudus in her head” when she was protesting the building of a tall office block in Uhuru Park. Recently, Mutahi Ngunyi, a State House operative, referred to Martha Karua, a former Minister of Justice and a presidential candidate in the 2013 election, as “a grandmother with average intelligence and a bloated ego” after she gave a TV interview that challenged the president and Raila Odinga to come clean on the motives behind their rapprochement. (Note: Ngunyi’s use of the word “grandmother” was to suggest that Karua had reached her sell-by date and that she should focus on family matters, not politics. In this case, the insulting of grandmothers was not viewed as hate speech by the authorities.)

Those of us who have cared to listen to the speech that caused so much uproar in the country will agree that Sudi did not insult Mama Ngina’s breasts. He merely stated that Uhuru Kenyatta should not believe that the breasts that he suckled are better than the breasts that Sudi suckled.

What Sudi was simply trying to say (and which got lost in the state’s accusations of “hate speech” and “incitement”) was that all Kenyans are equal and that Uhuru and his family should not believe that they are more important than the rest of Kenyans or that the country belongs to them.

In any other period in our political history, these comments might even be considered heroic – an act of rebellion against hegemonic forces. I would go further to say that Sudi has the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by our constitution, so he can say what he wants as long as his utterances are not inflammatory or based on lies. After all, did the young Jomo not say similar things against the British in London’s famous Hyde Park? Is this not what the Mau Mau were saying to the British colonialists when they took up arms against them? Is this not what was conveyed to President Moi during the “Second Liberation” protests? Did Raila Odinga (who was once the leader of the opposition) not challenge election results several times because he wanted Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta to know that Kenya does not belong to just one tribe or to one political party? Fighting for your rights is guaranteed by the 2010 constitution.

But then you have to remember that it was during Jomo Kenyatta’s time that insulting the first family became a criminal offence. Jomo’s Machiavellian Attorney General Charles Njonjo deemed that even imagining the death of the president was punishable. Are we returning to those days of the imperial presidency?

Before I return to the issue of breasts and their significance in the Kenyan imagination, let us recall how we got to this place.

Faustian pact

You may remember that prior to the 2013 elections, Uhuru Kenyatta made a Faustian pact (some call it a marriage of convenience) with William Ruto – his fellow indictee at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The deal – amplified by the likes of Cambridge Analytica, which manipulated a highly gullible electorate – was that the election should be viewed as “a referendum against the ICC”. Part of the pact was that if the duo won the presidency, Uhuru would rule the country for ten years and then hand over to Ruto for the next ten years. In other words, Jubilee – their coalition party – would rule Kenya for the next two decades.

But maybe promising to honour a deal was not part of that deal. That Faustian pact has been broken. Ruto has now been relegated to the sidelines following another Faustian pact called the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that has brought Raila into the Uhuru fold, and which has resulted in an orchestrated assault against Ruto. Some might say that it is Kikuyu privilege and hegemony reasserting itself by coopting dissent. Others says it is a way of healing past wounds and uniting a country fractured by political divisions and disillusionment. Only time will tell which scenario will unfold.

Unfortunately, this pact might lead to more, not less violence. The government’s unreasonably aggressive response to Sudi’s comments, complete with police raids on Sudi’s home, and the open defiance of Sudi’s Kalenjin supporters, who threaten to go to war to defend their leader, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.

The “handshake” between Uhuru and Raila, instead of easing tensions, has created different forms of polarisation. Ruto’s Kalenjin supporters feel betrayed. Opposition and civil society activists who would have come to Sudi’s defence are now taking sides; those who might have defended his right to free speech are now silent because speaking up might be construed as siding with Ruto. These fractures are most evident on social media.

Let us be very clear on one fact, which somehow gets conveniently brushed under the carpet. The 2013 election was premised on fear. Fear that if the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu do not unite, there will be a constant threat of violence and mass displacement of Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. Fear that historical injustices will resurface as a rallying cry during elections – a scenario that neither the Kikuyu nor the Kalenjin elite want because both have blood on their hands.

Although many analysts insist that the UhuRuto victory was simply a mathematical probability, in that it united two of Kenya’s largest ethnic groups into one formidable voting bloc, thereby outnumbering the opposition, some believe that the alliance between the two politicians was based more on primal instincts that had to do with self-preservation vis-à-vis the ICC, and the general fear in the country that the 2013 election would be as bloody, if not more, than the 2007one, as the issues that turned Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group against Ruto’s Kalenjin in 2007/8, and vice versa, had still not been resolved.

“Though tribe was the watchword in this [2013] election, their alliance, and their victory, was nationalistic, not tribal,” wrote James Verini, a Foreign Policy contributor based in Nairobi. “Their unspoken but resounding message was this: Yes, we killed. We killed for you, for Kenya. And we’ll kill again. It’s the most seductive platform in politics.”

At that time, anti-corruption crusader John Githongo said that the wounds of the violence in the Rift Valley – the site of most of the ethnic conflicts that have taken place during every election cycle since the first multiparty elections in 1992 – had still not healed, despite the public hand-holding and hugging among the Jubilee Alliance’s leaders. “Those who doubt his [Ruto’s] grip and the extent of his leverage need only consider the fact that despite the alliance of ‘peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ between the Gikuyu and the Kalenjin that now prevails, Rift Valley IDPs are not racing back to farms from which they were evicted in 2008. All of us know, quietly and without too much fuss, that we aren’t even close. It is such inconveniences that interrupt the ‘move on’ narrative for now,” he wrote in African Arguments on 22 May 2013.

Breasts in the Kenyan imagination

The Faustian pact between Uhuru and Ruto, and now between Uhuru and Raila, has lessons for Kenyans. In the classic German legend from which this pact gets its name, Faust is a highly successful but dissatisfied man who makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. By selling his soul to the devil, Faust is condemned to “The Eternal Empty”. However, female spirits of the earth intervene on his behalf and forgive him for his foolish mistake. Faust suffers some tragedies because of his folly, but in the end he is granted redemption and his soul ascends to heaven in the presence of God and the Virgin Mother. (One moral of the story: female energy is more powerful than the devil.)

We might be tempted to believe that the attacks on Sudi and his ilk are invoking female power. The fact that so many Kenyans (including elderly Kikuyu women who have threatened to strip in front of Sudi) have come out in defence of Mama Ngina’s breasts might suggest that we have reached a Faustian moment. Or perhaps we have evolved into country that actually cares about women and their dignity.

But let us not fool ourselves. For one thing, Mama Ngina, arguably the richest woman in Kenya, is hardly “Wanjiku”. I do not recall her ever defending the rights of poor Kenyan women, or women in general. Two, we are not invoking female energy here to seek redemption. If Kenyan politicians, including Sudi, really cared about women, the two-thirds gender rule would have been enforced in parliament by now.

What we are doing is weaponising the former first lady’s breasts. And sexualizing them, which is very un-African. As Sylvia Tamale writes in African Sexualities, African women’s sexualities were the antithesis of European mores of sex and beauty. Traditional African women had no problems displaying their breasts because breasts in African culture were not objects of sexual desire or titillation; they had one primary purpose – feeding an infant. So talking about breasts was no different from talking about a nose or a leg. If Sudi had “insulted” Mama Ngina’s ear, would we be so upset? The African breast became the object of forbidden fantasy and fetishisation during colonialism when Christian missionaries began their “civilizing mission” in Africa.

In fact, in certain African societies, nakedness was associated with defiance. The Kenyan mothers of political prisoners who “cursed” the Moi government in the early 1990s by stripping at Uhuru Park – because seeing your mother naked is considered a curse in certain Kenyan communities – were not displaying their sexuality; they were displaying their anger. They were defying Moi. Kenyans with a political conscience saw them as heroines. In fact, these mothers will forever remain as symbols of defiance in the annals of Kenyan history.

Maybe now is the Faustian moment when positive female energy can be invoked, not to redeem those who have made selfish pacts, but to take Kenyans down a more enlightened path.

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