The much-anticipated release of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report two weeks ago was to be the crescendo of the detente—popularly known as the Handshake—between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta after the failed 2017 presidential election. It underwhelmed.
Soon after its release, the rumor mill put its cost at the very unlikely figure of Sh10 billion, which the pundits calculated to be a whopping Sh64 million for each of the 156 pages of the badly drafted, poorly edited rehash of existing documents. In a satirical column, literary scholar Evan Mwangi calls it a reflection of the “low intellectual capacity of the clowns in charge of our country’s affairs,” while Wandia Njoya, another literary scholar, calls it a declaration of war by the political elite on the people. Both Mwangi’s and Njoya’s reading of the political psychology of the report leads them to a similar conclusion—it is a cynical political fraud.
Mwangi: “The report’s aim is to discourage us from seeking fundamental political or social change by pretending to offer avenues for transformation. It suggests that we should continue assuaging demagogues among our political class, so unlike in 2007 they don’t burn us alive in churches, stoke ethnic violence in political rallies in the run-up to the polls, or organise retaliatory attacks by youths who would then be all snuffed out to cover up crimes against humanity.”
Njoya: “Statements from the government and those pundits that slavishly support it often trace the source of any disaster to the public—especially the victims—and to democracy. Government insiders and supporters portray the state as blameless, and fault Kenyans for wanting to participate democratically in the making of decisions that affect them, because by doing so, Kenyans put delays on the good work of the government. If every social challenge we face is caused by us, the people, then the response to the challenge must be to fix the behaviour, the values and the soul of the people. This “fix the people” approach to social problems is the very essence of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) document released by the government this week.”
A Swahili tabloid summarised BBI thus: “Ni msitu mpya, nyani ni wale wale.” (same monkeys, different forest). From the ivory tower to street level, the verdict is the same.
How did we get here?
In January 2018, three months into the 2017 presidential election standoff, it was rumored that the formation of a government was being delayed by behind-the-scenes power-sharing negotiations. The National Super Alliance (NASA) issued a statement and held a press conference to refute the suggestion, during which this columnist stated that:
“NASA is not interested in boardroom deals which have not delivered for Kenyans like the 2007 power sharing agreement. We don’t recognise this illegitimate government and we will not give it legitimacy . . . Our nation is deeply divided between two irreconcilable political values namely authoritarian rule and democracy. They (Jubilee) have in fact stated that a benevolent dictatorship is better than a democracy. The way out for the country is to embark on an urgent, honest and far reaching conversation sooner rather than later.”
The key words here are “boardroom deals.” Indeed, I recall belabouring the pledge by analogy, stating that NASA would not go into a “come-we-stay” marriage with Jubilee. Internally, we were developing a more elaborate negotiating strategy. Our preferred road map to a political settlement was a transitional government with a limited mandate, to be established by a constitutional instrument along the lines of the National Accord that established the Government of National Unity (GNU) after the 2007/8 failed election.
The transitional government would have spearheaded the process of building a national consensus on political reforms that would have culminated in what we hoped would be an uncontested constitutional amendment referendum, if one were required, followed by a free and fair election. We had also suggested that Uhuru and Raila commit publicly to retiring, so as to strengthen their hand as honest brokers and the midwives of a new political dispensation, and by so doing, insulate the process from succession politics. This was a reasonable proposition since Uhuru would be retiring anyway, and Raila had signed a one-term deal with the NASA co-principals.
Our preferred road map to a political settlement was a transitional government with a limited mandate, to be established by a constitutional instrument
It therefore came as a bit of shock that Raila had gone ahead and cut a backroom deal with Uhuru, the very thing we had pledged not to do. But in the rough and tumble of politics, you learn to roll with the punches. We saw that the letter of the deal was in the spirit of the road map we envisaged, the main difference being that in place of the Jubilee-NASA institutional engagement we had prepared for, the handshake was a commitment by Raila and Uhuru in their personal capacities. In what was to be our last press release as the People’s Assembly Committee, we applauded this commitment but also pointed out the dangers:
“The memorandum is an initiative of the two leaders in their individual capacities. In the memorandum, they describe themselves not as presidents or leaders of political formations which they are, but as friends and compatriots. The two leaders have acknowledged the historical origins of our current crisis, and the many opportunities over the years that leaders have missed to right the ship. They recognise that they too have a historic opportunity to set the country on the right course, and they do not want to be remembered as another generation of leaders that did not rise to the occasion…We must commend and congratulate the two leaders for this meeting of minds. Acknowledging a problem is the first step towards solving it. The two leaders have asked us to give them an opportunity to spearhead this process. We have been assured that this initiative will be about the people, will involve the people, and will be validated and owned by the people. But we are alive to the painful history of political betrayal. We know that once [crises] subside, leaders can get comfortable and allow the issues of the people to fade into the background. That is how we have ended up where we are.”
This was the spirit as we set about implementing the handshake. But as days went by, it became evident that what was said was not what was intended. The discordance was brought into sharp relief by disagreements on whether or not to gazette the BBI Task Force. The handshake MOU was explicit that the initiative was a personal political undertaking. Gazetting the task force would make it a state project that would be bureaucratised and watered down. And as one colleague opined, it would amount to “kicking the ball into the long grass.” Those pushing for gazettement could not argue a cogent case, but in one conversation, one colleague, in a fit of exasperation, blurted out: “But there is money!”. The cat was out of the bag.
In the corridors, the conversation was dominated by talk of an impending cabinet reshuffle. Indeed, within no time at all, Raila Odinga’s Capitol Hill office had become a beehive of activity with, so I gathered, people bringing their CVs, others seeking help with tenders, pending bills and corruption cases. By end April, the frenzy had reached fever pitch. Week after week, confident predictions were made that the reshuffle would be announced on Thursday, then Monday, then Thursday again. My vehement protestations about these under-the-table dealings elicited a quiet word of advice that I should tone down as my name was on the appointments list.
We had also suggested that Uhuru and Raila commit publicly to retiring, so as to strengthen their hand as honest brokers and the midwives of a new political dispensation
There were two other issues that I found troublesome. The first was the anti-corruption crusade that was mounted immediately after the handshake. My concern was that corruption cartels were the last adversary that the BBI needed, especially as it appeared to be a one-sided assault on Deputy President Ruto’s patronage network. Secondly, I was persuaded that the country was headed into an economic crisis (that is now unfolding). By embracing Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga was in essence sanitising Jubilee’s economic delinquency, and jumping into a sinking ship. In fact, I postulated that by the time of his departure from office, Uhuru Kenyatta would be more unpopular than Moi was in 2002.
Raila dismissed both concerns. I was particularly bemused by his prognosis that an economic crisis would not hurt because Zimbabwe’s Mugabe seemed to have survived a much more severe one (Mugabe was still in office then). It was not long before it became apparent that an economic storm was brewing and an urgent discussion was convened. At the end of my presentation, Raila came back with what to me was a bolt from the blue: he wanted to know how the president could be helped and went as far as to request that I write a paper that he would discuss with Kenyatta. That is the moment it dawned on me that, in his mind, Raila was already in government, or, as we say in Swahili, tumewachwa kwa mataa (we had been abandoned at the traffic lights). I did not respond and needless to say, no such paper was forthcoming. Looking back, Kenyatta had all along been banking on a personal deal with Raila. Two anecdotes will suffice to illustrate the point—they are by no means the only ones.
On the eve of the declaration of the official results of the August 8 presidential election, the NASA presidential campaign team was holding a quiet vigil of sorts when a muted drama, that went unnoticed by most of the people in the room, played out. A wheeler-dealer known to have business links with the Kenyatta family walked up to Raila and said that “mama is waiting.” Although spoken in low tones, colleagues within earshot became curious and sought to know who “mama” was. The awkward silence that ensued gave the game away. A statement unequivocally rejecting the election results was quickly drafted for Raila to issue; it had not been on the evening’s agenda. It is unlikely that we will ever know whether Raila was in on the plan to meet “mama” and what the rendezvous would have engendered. History oftentimes turns on chance.
The second one was in late November, shortly after we launched the protest movements that included a consumer boycott of Brookside Dairy products, among others. I received a call from a colleague alerting me that he had directed to me a “foreign journalist” who was frantically looking for Ida Odinga (she was out of the country at the time). The name of the “foreign journalist” was Christina Pratt (née Kenyatta). It would seem Ms. Pratt had presumed name recognition as she did not see fit to introduce herself or give her reason for calling and so, not recognising the name, my colleague had brushed her off for a couple of days; he responded once I told him who the caller was. Such was the urgency that Ms. Pratt even sought to know whether she could travel to where Ida Odinga then was, which proposal was declined. I gather that contact was eventually made and a home visit, of the kind we call itega in Gikuyu (gift giving), was arranged.
As observed, the point of these anecdotes is that Kenyatta had been banking on resolving the election impasse privately with Odinga, kinyumbani (domestically) as we say in Swahili; the handshake was the actualisation of Kenyatta’s desire. But by having chosen to personalise a political crisis, Uhuru and Raila would seem to have overestimated their personal power and underestimated their adversaries.
Uhuru and Raila seemed not to realise that refusing to categorically rule themselves out of the 2022 contest was guaranteed to frame the BBI initiative as succession politics. It did not help that the anti-graft war was increasingly being perceived as a political takedown of William Ruto. Economic hardship also began to bite, making the ground less than enthusiastic, particularly in Kenyatta’s central Kenya political base. Raila’s contention, as cocky as it was self-serving, that Kenyatta’s political clout would shrug off the economic distress has not aged well. Week after week, no sooner would the joint nationwide meet-the-people engagements they had promised be announced but they would fizzle out.
The BBI Report is the product of these missteps. What many Kenyans will not know is that the BBI task force was not constituted to produce a technical report. Rather, it was initially envisaged as a team of political advisors to the two principals, in line with the principals’ commitment that they would be personally leading the engagements with the people. It would seem that once the ground became hostile, the task force was repurposed to collect views and write a report—a task that it was clearly neither suited for nor prepared for. Suffice it to say that, given the depth and wealth of talent and experience in governance reform that we have gained in our two-decade constitutional reform struggle, the BBI task force is not in the country’s first or even second eleven.
Uhuru and Raila seemed not to realise that refusing to categorically rule themselves out of the 2022 contest was guaranteed to frame the BBI initiative as succession politics
In the midst of the debate about the flaws of the report, we risk losing sight of the fact that the handshake was a product of a failed presidential election. The real problem is one of incumbents who, sensing defeat, monkey-wrench the election to the point where it is impossible to get an outcome. Without a clear outcome, a power-sharing settlement is negotiated and the incumbent gets to stay in power. This model of retaining power was invented by the Mwai Kibaki administration in 2007 and has quickly gained currency, being copied in Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Togo to name a few countries.
How does the BBI report propose to end this? It makes no mention of the problem, let alone offering proposals; there is, in fact, no mention of free and fair elections in the entire report. There is perhaps no greater indictment of the handshake than the fact that we are now hurtling towards another toxic, high-octane, do-or-die election. Had Uhuru and Raila stuck to the path of honest brokers committed to midwifing the new political dispensation that they had promised instead of the political intrigues and self-aggrandisement that we are now witnessing, things on the ground could have been very different.
A while back, this columnist enumerated four critical historical junctures at which nation-building opportunities were squandered through a failure of leadership. Make that five.
Africa’s Pandemic Response Calls for Reclaiming Economic and Monetary Sovereignty
More than 600 economists and academics from around the world call for Africa to acquire monetary sovereignty in order to revive its development after Covid-19.
While Africa has, so far, been spared from the worst public health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent economic shutdown has brought Africa’s economic deficiencies and structural vulnerabilities into sharp focus.
As a resource-rich continent, Africa has the capacity to provide a decent quality of life for all of its inhabitants. Africa is capable of offering universal public services, such as healthcare and education, and guaranteeing employment for people who want to work, while ensuring a decent income support system for those who cannot work. However, decades of colonial and postcolonial socio-economic dislocation exacerbated by market liberalization have forced African countries into a vicious cycle involving several structural deficiencies, characterized by:
- A lack of food sovereignty;
- A lack of energy sovereignty;
- Low value-added manufacturing and extractive industries.
This unholy trinity produces a very painful downward pressure on African exchange rates, which means higher prices for imports of vital necessities such as food, fuel, and life-saving medical products. In order to protect people from this type of imported inflation, African governments borrow foreign currencies in order to artificially keep African currencies “strong” relative to the US dollar and the euro.
This artificial “band-aid” solution forces African economies into a frantic mode of economic activity focused exclusively on earning dollars or euros to service this external debt. As a result, Africa’s economies have been trapped into an austerity model, often enforced via conditions set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as the constant pressure from other creditors to protect their political and economic interests, which further encroaches on the economic, monetary, and political sovereignty of African countries. Conditions imposed by the IMF and international creditors usually focus on five problematic and unfruitful policy strategies:
- Export-oriented growth;
- Liberalisation of foreign direct investment (FDI);
- Over-promotion of tourism;
- Privatisation of state-owned enterprises (SOEs);
- Liberalisation of financial markets.
Each one of these strategies is a trap disguised as an economic solution. Export-led growth increases imports of energy, high value-added capital equipment and industrial components, and encourages the grabbing of land and resources, but only increases the exports of low value-added products. And, of course, not all developing countries can simultaneously follow such a model. If some countries want to achieve a trade surplus, there must be others willing to run a trade deficit. FDI-led growth increases energy imports, and forces African countries into an endless race to the bottom in order to attract investors via tax breaks, subsidies, and weaker labor and environmental regulations. It also leads to financial volatility and significant net resource transfers to rich countries, with some taking the form of illicit financial flows. Tourism increases both energy and food imports, while adding substantial environmental costs in terms of its carbon footprint and water use.
Most SOEs were privatised in the 1990s (e.g. telecoms, electric companies, airlines, airports, etc.). Further privatisation will devastate whatever little social safety nets remain under public control. Financial market liberalisation typically requires deregulating finance, lowering capital gains taxes, removing capital controls, and artificially raising interest rates and exchange rates – all of which guarantee an attractive environment for the largest financial speculators in the world. They will flock in with a rush of “hot money”, only to “buy low and sell high,” then flee, leaving behind a depressed economy.
Finally, all free trade and investment agreements aim at accelerating and deepening these five strategies, pushing African economies deeper into this quagmire. This flawed economic development model further exacerbates Africa’s “brain drain”, which tragically, in some cases, takes the form of death boats and death roads for economic, health, and climate migrants.
These five band-aid policy solutions tend to be attractive because they provide temporary relief in the form of job creation, and give the illusion of modernisation and industrialisation. However, in reality, these jobs are increasingly more precarious and susceptible to external shocks to the global supply chain, global demand, and global commodity prices. In other words, Africa’s economic destiny continues to be steered from abroad.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the roots of Africa’s economic problems. Therefore, the post-pandemic recovery will not be sustainable unless it addresses pre-existing structural deficiencies. To that end, given the impending climate crisis and the need for socio-ecological adaptation, economic policy must be based on alternative principles and proposals.
We call on all African states to develop a strategic plan focused on reclaiming their monetary and economic sovereignty, which must include food sovereignty, (renewable) energy sovereignty, and an industrial policy centered on higher value-added content of manufacturing. Africa must put an end to its race-to-the-bottom approach to economic development in the name of competition and efficiency. Regional trade partnerships within the continent must be based on coordinated investments aimed at forming horizontal industrial linkages in strategic areas such as public health, transportation, telecommunications, research and development, and education.
We also call on Africa’s trading partners to acknowledge the failure of the extractive economic model and to embrace a new cooperation model that includes the transfer of technology, real partnerships in research and development, and sovereign insolvency structures — including sovereign debt cancellation — that preserve output and employment.
African states must develop a clear and independent long-term vision to build resilience to external shocks. Economic and monetary sovereignty do not require isolation, but they do require a commitment to economic, social, and ecological priorities, which means mobilizing domestic and regional resources to improve the quality of life on the continent.
This means becoming more selective when it comes to FDI, and export-oriented, extractive industries. It also means prioritising eco-tourism, cultural heritage, and indigenous industries.
Mobilising Africa’s resources begins with a commitment to full-employment policies (a Job Guarantee program), public health infrastructure, public education, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, sustainable stewardship of natural resources, and an uncompromising dedication to empowering youth and women via participatory democracy, transparency, and accountability. It’s time for Africa to forge ahead and aspire to a better future in which all of its people can thrive and realize their full potential. This future is within reach, and it starts with Africa reclaiming its economic and monetary sovereignty.
Fadhel Kaboub, Denison University, Ohio, USA
Ndongo Samba Sylla, Dakar, Senegal
Kai Koddenbrock, Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt
Ines Mahmoud, Tunis, Tunisia
Maha Ben Gadha, Tunis, Tunisia
The Fate of the Human Experiment Depends on the Outcome of This Struggle
Noam Chomsky’s keynote speech at the Progressive International’s inaugural summit.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future. The Progressive International has a crucial role to play in determining which course history will follow.
We are meeting at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake. The issues are coming to a head in the next few weeks in the two great imperial powers of the modern era.
Fading Britain, having publicly declared that it rejects international law, is on the verge of a sharp break from Europe, on the path to becoming even more of a US satellite that it already is. But of course what is of the greatest significance for the future is what happens in the global hegemon, diminished by Trump’s wrecking ball, but still with overwhelming power and incomparable advantages. Its fate, and with it the fate of the world, may well be determined in November.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the world is concerned, if not appalled. It would be difficult to find a more sober and respected commentator than Martin Wolf of the London Financial Times. He writes that the West is facing a serious crisis, and if Trump is re-elected, “this will be terminal.” Strong words, and he is not even referring to the major crises humanity faces.
Wolf is referring to the global order, a critical matter though not on the scale of the crises that threaten vastly more serious consequences, the crises that are driving the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock towards midnight – towards termination.
Wolf’s concept “terminal” is not a new entry into public discourse. We have been living under its shadow for 75 years, ever since we learned, on an unforgettable August day, that human intelligence had devised the means that would soon yield the capacity for terminal destruction. That was shattering enough, but there was more. It was not then understood that humanity was entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are despoiling the environment in a manner that is now also approaching terminal destruction.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved. Every year that Trump has been in office, the hands have been moved closer to midnight. Two years ago they reached the closest they had ever been. Last January, the analysts abandoned minutes, turning to seconds: 100 seconds to midnight. They cited the same crises as before: the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy.
The last might at first seem out of place, but it is not. Declining democracy is a fitting member of the grim trio. The only hope of escaping the two threats of termination is vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully engaged in deliberation, policy formation, and direct action.
That was last January. Since then, President Trump has amplified all three threats, not a mean accomplishment. He has continued his demolition of the arms control regime that has offered some protection against the threat of nuclear war, while also pursuing development of new and even more dangerous weapons, much to the delight of military industry. In his dedicated commitment to destroy the environment that sustains life, Trump has opened up vast new areas for drilling, including the last great nature reserve. Meanwhile, his minions are systematically dismantling the regulatory system that somewhat mitigates the destructive impact of fossil fuel use, and that protects the population from toxic chemicals and from pollution, a curse that is now doubly murderous in the course of a severe respiratory epidemic.
Trump has also carried forward his campaign to undermine democracy. By law, presidential appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. Trump avoids this inconvenience by leaving the positions open and filling the offices with “temporary appointments” who answer to his will – and if they do not do so with sufficient fealty to the lord, are fired. He has purged the executive of any independent voice. Only sycophants remain. Congress had long ago established Inspectors General to monitor the performance of the executive branch. They began to look into the swamp of corruption that Trump has created in Washington. He took care of that quickly by firing them. There was scarcely a peep from the Republican Senate, firmly in Trump’s pocket, with hardly a flicker of integrity remaining, terrified by the popular base Trump has mobilized.
This onslaught against democracy is only the bare beginning. Trump’s latest step is to warn that he may not leave office if he is not satisfied with the outcome of the November election. The threat is taken very seriously in high places. To mention just a few examples, two highly respected retired senior military commanders released an open letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, reviewing his constitutional responsibility to send the army to remove by force a “lawless president” who refuses to leave office after electoral defeat, summoning in his defense the kinds of paramilitary units he dispatched to Portland Oregon to terrorize the population over the strong objection of elected officials.
Many establishment figures regard the warning as realistic, among them the high-level Transition Integrity Project, which has just reported the results of the “war gaming” it has been conducting on possible outcomes of the November election. The project members are “some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around,” the Project co-director explains, including prominent figures in both Parties. Under any plausible scenario apart from a clear Trump victory, the games led to something like civil war, with Trump choosing to end “the American experiment.”
Again, strong words, never before heard from sober mainstream voices. The very fact that such thoughts arise is ominous enough. They are not alone. And given incomparable US power, far more than the “American experiment” is at risk.
Nothing like this has happened in the often troubled history of parliamentary democracy. Keeping to recent years, Richard Nixon – not the most delightful person in presidential history – had good reason to believe that he had lost the 1960 election only because of criminal manipulation by Democratic operatives. He did not contest the results, putting the welfare of the country ahead of personal ambition. Albert Gore did the same in 2000. Not today.
Forging new paths in contempt for the welfare of the country does not suffice for the megalomaniac who dominates the world. Trump has also announced once again that he may disregard the Constitution and “negotiate” for a third term if he decides he is entitled to it.
Some choose to laugh all this off as the playfulness of a buffoon. To their peril, as history shows.
The survival of liberty is not guaranteed by “parchment barriers,” James Madison warned. Words on paper are not enough. It is founded on the expectation of good faith and common decency. That has been torn to shreds by Trump along with his co-conspirator Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has turned the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” as it calls itself, into a pathetic joke. McConnell’s Senate refuses even to consider legislative proposals. Its concern is largesse to the rich and stacking the judiciary, top to bottom with far right young lawyers who should be able to safeguard the reactionary Trump-McConnell agenda for a generation, whatever the public wants, whatever the world needs for survival.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved
The abject service to the rich of the Trump-McConnell Republican party is quite remarkable, even by the neoliberal standards of exaltation of greed. One illustration is provided by the leading specialists on tax policy, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. They show that in 2018, following the tax scam that was the one legislative Trump-McConnell achievement, “for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires have paid less [in taxes] than steel workers, school teachers, and retirees,” erasing “a century of fiscal history.” “In 2018, for the first time in the modern history of the United States, capital has been taxed less than labor” – a truly impressive victory of class war, called “liberty” in hegemonic doctrine.
The Doomsday Clock was set last January before the scale of the pandemic was understood. Humanity will sooner or later recover from the pandemic, at terrible cost. It is needless cost. We see that clearly from the experience of countries that took decisive action when China provided the world with the relevant information about the virus on January 10. Primary among them were East-Southeast Asia and Oceania, with others trailing along, and bringing up the rear a few utter disasters, notably the US, followed by Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Modi’s India.
Despite the malfeasance or indifference of some political leaders, there will ultimately be some kind of recovery from the pandemic. We will not, however, recover from the melting of the polar icecaps, or the exploding rate of arctic fires that are releasing enormous amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere, or other steps on our march to catastrophe.
When the most prominent climate scientists warn us to “Panic Now,” they are not being alarmist. There is no time to waste. Few are doing enough, and even worse, the world is cursed by leaders who are not only refusing to take sufficient action but are deliberately accelerating the race to disaster. The malignancy in the White House is far in the lead in this monstrous criminality.
It is not only governments. The same is true of fossil fuel industries, the big banks that finance them, and other industries that profit from actions that put the “survival of humanity” at serious risk, in the words of a leaked internal memo of America’s largest bank.
Humanity will not long survive this institutional malignancy. The means to manage the crisis are available. But not for long. One primary task of the Progressive International is to ensure that we all panic now – and act accordingly.
The crises we face in this unique moment of human history are of course international. Environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, and the pandemic have no borders. And in a less transparent way, the same is true of the third of the demons that stalk the earth and drive the second hand of the Doomsday clock towards midnight: the deterioration of democracy. The international character of this plague becomes evident when we examine its origins.
Circumstances vary, but there are some common roots. Much of the malignancy traces back to the neoliberal assault on the world’s population launched in force 40 years ago.
The basic character of the assault was captured in the opening pronouncements of its most prominent figures. Ronald Reagan declared in his inaugural address that government is the problem, not the solution – meaning that decisions should be removed from governments, which are at least partially under public control, to private power, which is completely unaccountable to the public, and whose sole responsibility is self-enrichment, as chief economist Milton Friedman proclaimed. The other was Margaret Thatcher, who instructed us that there is no society, only a market in which people are cast to survive as best they can, with no organizations that enable them to defend themselves against its ravages.
Unwittingly no doubt, Thatcher was paraphrasing Marx, who condemned the autocratic rulers of his day for turning the population into a “sack of potatoes,” defenseless against concentrated power.
With admirable consistency, the Reagan and Thatcher administrations moved at once to destroy the labour movement, the primary impediment to harsh class rule by the masters of the economy. In doing so, they were adopting the leading principles of neoliberalism from its early days in interwar Vienna, where the founder and patron saint of the movement, Ludwig von Mises, could scarcely control his joy when the proto-fascist government violently destroyed Austria’s vibrant social democracy and the despicable trade unions that were interfering with sound economics by defending the rights of working people. As von Mises explained in his 1927 neoliberal classic Liberalism, five years after Mussolini initiated his brutal rule, “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history” – though it will be only temporary, he assured us. The Blackshirts will go home after having accomplished their good work.
The same principles inspired enthusiastic neoliberal support for the hideous Pinochet dictatorship. A few years later, they were put into operation in a different form in the global arena under the leadership of the US and UK.
The consequences were predictable. One was sharp concentration of wealth alongside of stagnation for much of the population, reflected in the political realm by undermining of democracy. The impact in the United States brings out very clearly what one would expect when business rule is virtually uncontested. After 40 years, 0.1% of the population have 20% of the wealth, twice what they had when Reagan was elected. CEO remuneration has skyrocketed, drawing general management wealth along with it. Real wages for non-supervisory male workers have declined. A majority of the population survives from paycheck to paycheck, with almost no reserves. Financial institutions, largely predatory, have exploded in scale. There have been repeated crashes, increasing in severity, the perpetrators bailed out by the friendly taxpayer, though that is the least of the implicit state subsidy they receive. “Free markets” led to monopolization, with reduced competition and innovation, as the strong swallowed the weak. Neoliberal globalization has deindustrialized the country within the framework of the investor rights agreements mislabeled as “free trade pacts. ”Adopting the neoliberal doctrine that “taxation is robbery,” Reagan opened the door to tax havens and shell companies – previously banned and barred by effective enforcement. That led at once to a huge tax evasion industry to expedite massive robbery of the general population by the very rich and the corporate sector. No small change. The scale is estimated in tens of trillions of dollars.
And so it continues as neoliberal doctrine took hold.
As the assault was just beginning to take shape, in 1978, the president of the United Auto Workers, Doug Fraser, resigned from a labor-management committee that was set up by the Carter Administration, expressing his shock that business leaders had “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country – a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and had “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress” – during the period of class collaboration under regimented capitalism.
His recognition of how the world works was somewhat belated, in fact too late to fend off the bitter class war launched by business leaders who were soon granted free rein by compliant governments. The consequences over much of the world come as little surprise: widespread anger, resentment, contempt for political institutions while the primary economic ones are hidden from view by effective propaganda. All of this provides fertile territory for demagogues who can pretend to be your savior while stabbing you in the back, meanwhile deflecting the blame for your conditions to scapegoats: immigrants, blacks, China, whoever fits long-standing prejudices.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
In the Western Hemisphere, the International includes Bolsonaro’s Brazil and a few others. In the Middle East, prime members are the family dictatorships of the Gulf; al-Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship, perhaps the harshest in Egypt’s bitter history; and Israel, which long ago discarded its social democratic origins and shifted far to the right, the predicted effect of the prolonged and brutal occupation. The current agreements between Israel and Arab dictatorships, formalising long-standing tacit relations, are a significant step towards solidifying the Middle East base of the Reactionary International. The Palestinians are kicked in the face, the proper fate of those who lack power and do not grovel properly at the feet of the natural masters.
To the East, a natural candidate is India, where Prime Minister Modi is destroying India’s secular democracy and turning the country into a racist Hindu nationalist state, while crushing Kashmir. The European contingent includes Orban’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and similar elements elsewhere. The International also has powerful backing in the dominant global economic institutions.
The two internationals comprise a good part of the world, one at the level of states, the other popular movements. Each is a prominent representative of much broader social forces, which have sharply contending images of the world that should emerge from the current pandemic. One force is working relentlessly to construct a harsher version of the neoliberal global system from which they have greatly benefited, with more intensive surveillance and control. The other looks forward to a world of justice and peace, with energies and resources directed to serving human needs rather than the demands of a tiny minority. It is a kind of class struggle on a global scale, with many complex facets and interactions.
It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the human experiment depends on the outcome of this struggle.
The Violence in Ethiopia
The imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
The deadly violence that rocked Ethiopia this summer following the death of artist Hachalu Hundessa has been a subject of much speculation and contention. The facts as we know them are that immediately following the assassination close to 250 people died and thousands were jailed, mostly in the regional state of Oromia and Addis Ababa.
What is contested, and less clear, is the nature of the violence, its perpetrators, and victims. Two prominent narratives have emerged following the crisis to explain what unfolded. One holds that the violence was a brutal government crackdown on Oromo protesters grieving Hundessa’s death. The other describes the events as targeted attacks by armed Oromo youth against ethnic and religious minorities. While both narratives contain elements of truth, ignoring one or the other is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.
A recent Africa Is a Country article highlighting the poor coverage by Western media of the situation in Ethiopia, for example, makes no mention of ethnic and religious violence, aside from denouncing media outlets that reported it. Rather, the author’s objective is to “set the record straight” by showing that the underlying cause of violence and instability in Ethiopia is the consequence of a political struggle between an oppressive government and Oromos who have been and continue to be marginalised.
Such a viewpoint is erroneous and polarising in the current political climate. To advance a narrow agenda, it glosses over human rights violations and the brutal killing of innocent bystanders by non-state actors.
To provide more context, the agenda I speak of is tied to the Oromo struggle for greater autonomy and recognition. That struggle, which paved the way for Abiy Ahmed to assume power as the first Oromo Prime Minister two years earlier, now seeks his departure. At the heart of this reversal is the Prime Minister’s consolidation (rather than actual dismantling) of the ruling ethnic-based EPRDF coalition into the Prosperity Party, which has, nonetheless, left intact Ethiopia’s unique system of federalism based on ethnic majoritarianism.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause.
Leaving that aside, the EPRDF had always been a highly centralized institution in practice, and the mere symbolism of this move, in addition to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about unity, have left some Oromos feeling betrayed. Furthermore, fractionalisation among Oromo elites, including within the former Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) faction of the EPRDF (now Prosperity Party), which recently ousted key leader and Defense Minister, Lemma Megersa, has divided and weakened the movement.
Within this broad movement, one vocal part led by diaspora-based Oromo elites and recent returnees has galvanised the energy and anger of many Oromo youth behind a perspective of anti-Ethiopiawinet (anti-Ethiopian-ness). The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”). Though prominent Oromo activists stand behind their use of these terms, those who are familiar with the context know that these labels are loaded with ethnic connotations.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause. Accusations that “they killed him” were recklessly thrown around and left open for interpretation. Within hours of the assassination, allegedly at the behest of Oromo leaders like Bekele Gerba, targeted attacks against non-Oromos unfolded.
In towns like Shashamene and Dera in the Oromia region, several accounts of killings and looting targeting Amharas and other minorities by Oromo youth have been independently verified, in addition to accounts of police and federal forces injuring and killing civilians. Witnesses describe how perpetrators relied on lists detailing the residences and properties of non-Oromos and circulated flyers warning bystanders to not help those being targeted (or risk reprisal), indicating a significant level of organization.
Minority Rights Group International, accordingly, sounded the alarm, warning that these actions bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. Despite this and concerns from Ethiopians throughout the world, Oromo activists and other prominent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have remained largely silent about these attacks while condemning the government’s violent response to Oromo protestors.
Government figures provide an ethnic breakdown of the July causalities with the majority of those killed being Oromos within the Oromia region, followed by Amharas and other smaller ethnic groups. Yet, rather than disproving, as some claim, that targeted attacks by Oromo mobs occurred, this highlights what scholar Terje Ostebo describes as the complexity and inherent interconnectedness between ethnicity and religion within Ethiopia.
According to Ostebo, “the term Amhara, which is inherently elastic, has over the last few years gradually moved from being a designation for Ethiopianess to gaining a more explicit ethnic connotation. It has, however, always had a distinct religious dimension, representing a Christian.” Hence, in parts of Oromia some Orthodox Oromos were referred to and referred to themselves as Amhara. For example, one Oromo farmer interviewed by local journalists reportedly said, “we thought Hachalu was Oromo” after watching the singer’s televised funeral rites that followed the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church.
The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”).
According to investigations undertaken by the church, a large number of its parishioners (at least 67 confirmed cases) were among the July causalities—a troubling trend, which also includes a spate of church burnings and attacks on Christians that brought large numbers of Orthodox followers out into the streets in protests last year.
To be clear, the violence that occurred was not only ethnic and religious violence. Growing state violence in Oromia and SNNPR has been and continues to be of great concern. As Oromo activists have made clear, it is necessary to end the abuse of force and ensure accountability for these crimes. Yet, when concerns and demands for accountability for non-state violence are raised, these same advocates deny, ignore or dismiss them as part of a propaganda campaign to discredit the Oromo movement. In effect, this dishonesty, itself, has discredited the movement and lost it support by many Ethiopians—both non-Oromo and Oromo.
The recent political turmoil lays bare that the future of an Ethiopian state is hanging by a delicate thread. The polarization that exists today goes beyond disagreements on institutions and policies to the very question of whether we can continue to co-exist as a multi-ethnic nation. Regional elections in Tigray, slated for this week despite the disapproval of the national House of Federation (HoF), and its aftermath may bring these tensions to a boil, again.
As unrest, violence and grievances continue to mount, it is clear that Ethiopia is far from consolidating its transition to a stable democracy. The government continues to curb freedom of speech, jail political opponents and is responsible for violence against civilians. But, if history teaches us anything, it is this: the imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
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