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Who Is Afraid of Commuter Ride-Hailing Apps? Tech Meets Matatu, and Why Nairobi Does Not Need State-Run Public Transport

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DAVID NDII explores the disruptive power of ride-hailing apps on public transportation in Nairobi and why both the government and the matatu industry should be embracing the commuter ride-hailing apps instead of fighting them.

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Who Is Afraid of Commuter Ride-Hailing Apps? Tech Meets Matatu, and Why Nairobi Does Not Need State-Run Public Transport
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Technology platforms have become disruptors in unexpected places. They have over the years disrupted the music distribution business, the book trade, and even the hospitality industry, but none has been as turbulent as Uber’s disruption of public transportation.

A couple of days ago, the commuter ride-hailing app services Little Shuttle and SWVL announced that they were suspending their operations. Little Shuttle and Little Cab ride-hailing apps are products of technology company Craft Silicon. SWVL is an Egyptian start-up that has invested in the country to do this specific business. Launched seven months ago, SWVL is reported to have 150 buses serving 100 routes, and has raised Sh1.5 billion from investors to expand its operations.

The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) subsequently issued a statement giving its reasons for the suspensions. The agency explained that the two companies had obtained the “wrong” licence—known as a Tour Service Licence (TSL)—which it deemed to be a violation of Passenger Service Vehicle (PSV) regulations. NTSA also accused the operators of failing to register their vehicles with the authority as required by Section 26 of the Transport and Safety Act No. 33 of 2012. “The two companies have never contacted the Authority to show any intention to operate as commuter service providers”, the NTSA avers.

Technology platforms have become disruptors in unexpected places. They have over the years disrupted the music distribution business, the book trade, and even the hospitality industry, but none has been as turbulent as Uber’s disruption of public transportation.

Section 26 of the Transport and Safety Act, the provision that NTSA claims has been violated, states that “[a] person shall not operate a motor vehicle whose tare weight exceeds three thousand and forty-eight kilogrammes for the carriage of goods or passengers for hire or reward unless the vehicle is licensed by the Authority in accordance with this Part and in such manner as the Cabinet Secretary may prescribe. Violating the provisions, i.e., operating a commercial vehicle without a prescribed licence is a criminal offence that can attract a fine of Ksh. 300,000 or imprisonment for a term of five years.”

The other ground for suspension is that the two operators have violated PSV regulations. To be licensed under these regulations, the operator is required to be a corporate body which may be a company, a cooperative society (SACCO) or other collective registered under the Societies Act, and have a minimum of 30 vehicles owned by the operator or under a franchise arrangement with the owners.

Regulation 7 (f) requires passengers to be “issued with receipts for fares paid, and as from 1st July 2014, operate a cashless fare system.” Another regulation requires “a transport safety management system based on ISO3900.” Obviously, these regulations are not enforced—and therein lies the paradox. The shuttle services that the NTSA has suspended were the closest thing to compliance with the spirit of these regulations that we have seen since the collapse of the Kenya Bus Service (KBS) franchise several years ago. It is in fact not apparent from my reading of these regulations that Little Shuttle and SWVL have violated these regulations in any substantive way.

The NTSA is disingenuous. Investors do not determine for themselves what licences they need. They go to the government and say, look, I want to run a business of the following nature, what do I need? The government then makes the determination and advises the investor accordingly. In the statement announcing the suspension of operations, Little Shuttle’s Chief Executive Officer disclosed that they were operating on the basis of a national Transport Licensing Board (TLB) licence—also issued by the NTSA—which does not restrict them to specific routes. Someone at the NTSA must have determined that a national TLB licence is what they required. Moreover, if it was deemed that there was no suitable licence, the Transport and Safety Act gives the Cabinet Secretary the power to “exempt any person or class of persons or any motor vehicle or class of motor vehicles from all or any of the provisions of this Act.” The NTSA could have advised the investors to apply for exemption.

In his statement, the Little Shuttle CEO alludes to cartels: “I am not sure if the decision to stop us was from the authorities or they were under pressure from the public transport cartels.” There is a whole range of actors that this could apply to, either working independently or in concert. There are the investors, that is, the vehicle owners, the crew who operate the vehicles and control the revenue, route cartels who control access to particular routes and the police extortion racket. The industry has also been associated with money-laundering syndicates. As one of the biggest cash businesses around, it is as close to the ideal laundromat as you can get.

A key challenge that bona fide investors in the matatu industry face is that they are hostage to crew and route cartels. Precisely because PSVs do not issue receipts as required by law, the owners have no way of keeping tabs on revenue. Moreover, even if they could do so, they would still be compelled to give the crew leeway to pay bribes. Students of economics may recognise this as a principal-agent problem. 

The principal-agent problem arises in contractual relationships where the principal (the vehicle owner) cannot observe whether poor performance by the agent (the crew) is because of external factors (e.g. poor market conditions) or lack of effort or dishonesty on the part of the agent. We say that the interests of the principal (maximum effort by the agent) and the incentives of the agent (maximum income for least effort) are not compatible.

To mitigate this problem the industry has come up with a fixed daily revenue target, which in essence changes the contract between the owner and crew from a wage to a vehicle lease. In economic theory, we call this the incentive-compatible contract. An incentive-compatible contract seeks to motivate the parties to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. This particular incentive-compatible contract has an extremely high social cost. 

Because the crew gets to keep the revenue above the daily target, they are motivated to maximise the number of passengers, and this they do at the expense of road and passenger safety. The cashless system the government sought to enforce would have gone some way towards resolving this problem, which is probably partly why it was resisted—not to mention the resistance by those others with vested interests in a cash business, notably the money-laundering syndicates and the police extortion cartel.

The ride-hailing apps portend a more robust solution to this problem; because of the ubiquity of mobile payments, they can easily combine revenue tracking and cashless payments. And since the revenue is tracked electronically, this makes it possible to enter into a wage contract between the owner and the crew. Crew on a wage contract have no incentive to compromise safety in order to maximise revenue.

That said, it is not evident that the commuter ride-hailing services are an immediate threat to the matatu industry. The two suspended services appear to be more of an alternative to personal cars than direct competitors for matatus. This can only be a good thing in terms of reducing congestion on the roads. Still, the development has caused sufficient concern somewhere, perhaps because the reputation of the disruption caused to the conventional taxi industry precedes Little Shuttle and SWVL. But it is also the case that sometimes these regulatory hurdles are extortion rackets that are intended to extract bribes or a share of the business.

The principal-agent problem arises in contractual relationships where the principal (the vehicle owner) cannot observe whether poor performance by the agent (the crew) is because of external factors (e.g. poor market conditions) or lack of effort or dishonesty on the part of the agent.

There is another vested-interest candidate—the government itself. It is now one and a half years since the government hastily painted some red lines on some of Nairobi’s thoroughfares and declared the lanes thus demarcated dedicated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes. The red paint has since faded. It is said that the buses are being assembled in South Africa, after local samples failed to make the grade. But other than the now faded lines, there is no evidence of actual BRT infrastructure being built. A BRT system is a metro light rail on the cheap but it also costs. The first phase of the Dar es Salaam system covering 21 kilometres took three years to build at a cost of $140 million (Sh14 billion) while the second phase covering another 19 kilometres will cost $160 million (Sh16 billion).

Nairobi is one of several African cities that do not have municipal public transport. For all their notoriety, matatus, dala dala and tro tros manage to move the cities quite efficiently. They are accessible, responsive, affordable, flexible as well as colourful and entertaining. A number of surveys conducted in Nairobi over the last decade or so indicate that public transport—predominantly matatus—accounts for between 50 and 55 per cent of commutes in the city; 40 per cent of commuters walk, while between 8 and 12 per cent use private cars.

By way of comparison, London’s elaborate public transport system comprising of buses covers 35 per cent of the commutes. The iconic underground moves 10 per cent. For all the congestion hullabaloo, a recent paper titled Commuting in Urban Kenya: Unpacking Travel Demands in Large and Small Kenyan Cities, published in the academic journal Sustainability, observes that average commuting journeys in Nairobi are comparable to those of major cities in the United States such as New York and Los Angeles.

This data is telling us that Nairobi is none the worse for lack of a municipal public transport system. Municipal systems are hugely expensive to build and to run, requiring operational subsidies. At £17.6 billion (Sh2.3 trillion) and counting, CrossRail—London’s new train system which has been under construction since 2009—is billed as the most expensive public infrastructure project in Europe. As observed, the Dar es Salaam BRT has already cost $300 million (Sh30 billion) and is nowhere near solving the city’s congestion problem.

There is, in fact, a parallel between what the commuter ride-hailing apps are trying to do and the story of mobile telephony in Africa. The phenomenal growth of mobile telephony in Africa is, to a large extent, a leapfrogging of the largely non-existent landline telephony. The same applies to the innovations around mobile telephony, notably mobile money, reflecting the poor reach of financial services referred to nowadays as financial exclusion. Mobile telephony systems and services are estimated to account for close to 9 per cent of Africa’s GDP, only marginally below manufacturing at 10 per cent, which is remarkable for a sector that is only two decades old.

To mitigate this problem the industry has come up with a fixed daily revenue target, which in essence changes the contract between the owner and crew from a wage to a vehicle lease. In economic theory, we call this the incentive-compatible contract

Like landline telephony, public urban transport systems are characterised by rigidity. Customers must go to the bus or train and follow fixed routes and timetables, just as in the old days when we used to have to go—sometimes for miles—to reach a telephone. To send money urgently, you went to the Post Office to send a telegraphic money order which was physically delivered to the recipient who in turn physically went to cash it at the Post Office.

The disruptive power of ride-hailing apps is what the Little Shuttle CEO refers to in his memo as “supply and demand software technology.” In plain English, this is about using customer ride request data—how many customers want to travel, when and where—to provide services that are responsive to demand in terms of capacity, routes, scheduling and pricing. But this is not entirely new; one of the reasons why matatus eclipsed scheduled bus services is precisely because they were more responsive.

As observed, between 8 and 12 per cent of Nairobi’s estimated three million commuters use private vehicles This works out to something in the order of 300,000 commuters and, assuming two people per car, 150,000 vehicles that spend eight hours or more hogging parking spaces—Sh150 billion worth of idle capital, over and above fuel, pollution and congestion costs.

Nairobi’s public transport imperative is to put more of these people on matatus and this seems to be precisely what the suspended ride-hailing services had set out to do. A smart government would be doing its best to make commuting by private vehicles costly. How so? For starters, the Nairobi County government needs to go back to a time tariff for street parking. Leaving a private car in a street parking all day should be extremely punitive. I would propose a rate of Sh100 per hour. We may also want to think about applying congestion charges on the city’s main arteries: Mombasa Road, Waiyaki Way, Thika Road, Jogoo Road, Ngong Road and Langata Road.

Assuming that each of the minibuses serves 40 commuters who would otherwise travel in private cars, we are talking of each bus displacing 20 private vehicles on the road. If only 20 per cent of driving commuters take to these services, we are talking of replacing 30,000 cars with only 1,500 minibuses. This would certainly have a discernible impact on de-congesting the roads. And the less congested the roads become, the faster the trips, the more attractive using public transportation becomes, and the more profitable the entire industry becomes. Far from fighting them, both the government and the matatu industry should be embracing the commuter ride-hailing apps.

David Ndii
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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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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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