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Turnover Tax: Days of Extortion, Days of Revolt

11 min read.

Informal micro and small businesses are being unfairly targeted by a new tax that is considered by many as extortionist and punitive. How can the government morally justify a tax on a sector it has done little to assist? Will the new tax force these businesses to close down or to revolt?

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Our government has decided to extort money from the smallest businesses and is trying to make a virtue of it. Imposing the 3 per cent turnover tax (TOT) on informal micro and small businesses is monstrous, and an insult to poor Kenyans. Though legal, TOT is IMMORAL. I echo the prophetic declaration: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their right and withhold justice…” (Isaiah 10:1 NIV)

The micro and small-scale businesses, which include kiosks, small grocery stores, hair salons and small market traders (generally those at the bottom tier of the informal sector) now have to pay TOT. TOT is a new tax demanded of any resident person whose turnover from business does not exceed or is not expected to exceed Sh5,000,000 ($50,000) during any year of income. It will be payable from 1st January 2020. This tax rate is on the gross sales/turnover and is a final tax.

Mrs. Elizabeth Meyo, the Commissioner of Domestic Taxes at the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), states that “from January 2020, if one operates a salon, butchery, or grocery store, you will be required to declare your sales online and pay the taxes on the 20th of each month.” And for one to get a business licence from one’s county government, one will have to pay an extra 15 per cent of the permit fees to KRA as presumptive tax. In complying to these new demands, Mrs. Meyo further claims, “the business owners will have fulfilled their patriotic duty for a better Kenya”.

Various economic findings acknowledge the substantial contribution of the informal sector to GDP in most developing countries. The informal sector is one of the biggest employers in Kenya, and accounts for over 80 per cent of employment opportunities. It is a shame that attention is turning to this sector only for their moolah, and to bridge the gap resulting from dwindling revenue from the formal sector. According to a Kenya National Bureau of Statistics survey published in 2016, the monthly expenditure on salaries and wages for unlicenced micro small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) was Sh9 billion, which translates to 25 per cent of total outlays a piece.

The neglected informal sector

The colonial market design continues to define the contours of our economy, which conditions us to think of the informal sector as inferior to the formal sector. We still perceive it as “traditional”, marginal or peripheral, having no links to the formal economy and making no contribution to modern industrial development. We have therefore neglected this sector.

Some economists have argued that the informal sector is a dead-end for a pool of labour comprising workers who could not gain entry into the preferred formal sector. Others, like Jeffery Sachs, have even gone to pronounce the informal sector’s obituary, stating that it would cease to exist once Kenya achieves sufficient levels of economic growth and industrialisation.

The informal sector is one of the biggest employers in Kenya, and accounts for over 80 per cent of employment opportunities. It is a shame that attention is turning to this sector only for their moolah, and to bridge the gap resulting from dwindling revenue from the formal sector.

Others see the potential of the informal sector’s small businesses. In his book, The Mystery of Capital (2001), the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto views these informal businesses as a sign of entrepreneurial dynamism, a real force in the market. They could also be useful in an industrial take-off due to their resilience and ability to withstand market shocks over the long haul, as Shem Watako observed in his doctoral studies of micro and small businesses in Kariobangi.

This hubris in the informal sector has got the taxman’s attention. But the challenge is in how they will implement the TOT. Mrs Meyo identifies this difficulty while responding to why Kenya resorted to TOT for small businesses. She explained that “lack of formal structures and a tax framework that suits the [informal] sector have been major drawbacks in the taxman’s quest to tap revenue from this sector”.

The ethical reasoning of those calling for micro and small-scale businesses to pay taxes as demanded is implausible because it does not raise the second order question. Is it moral to make these demands on the poorest of Kenyan businesses? Is it moral to treat the poor with partiality when the new tax regime would disenfranchise them?

A turnover tax is like a sales tax or a value-added tax (VAT), with the difference being that it taxes intermediate and capital goods. It is on an ad valorem basis (based on the value of the good in question, rather than being flat taxes), applicable to a production process or stage. TOT makes the poor pay another indirect tax, while those whose turnover exceeds Sh5 million pay direct tax, which is a better tax plan for their businesses.

Let us consider a hypothetical case of Nyamulu Beauty  Salon, a business run by Achieng’ in Kariobangi, a low-income area of Nairobi, to illustrate this point. With her revenue turnover of Sh100,000 for January 2020, she would enlist for TOT.

NYAMULU BEAUTY SALON, KARIOBANGI TRADER SCENARIO

ITEM REVENUE/COST GOVT TAXES &LEVIES  
Revenue 100 clients @ 1000                  100,000    
Less cost      
Electricity                    (5,000) VAT +Levies                (901)
Supplies (oils, hair pieces, etc.)                  (30,000) VAT @16%            (4,800)
Rent for stall                  (12,000) Rent Tax @10% Incl            (1,091)
Casual workers 2 @500 a day                  (30,000)    
Mshwari fees[1]                    (5,850)    
County license                    (1,250) county license            (1,250)
Operating Trade Profit                    15,900 Total Taxes & Levies            (8,042)

Assumptions

VAT is standard rated for all goods and services

SCENARIO 1 -TOT
Operating trade profit                    15,900    
Less Turnover Tax                    (3,000) Total Taxes & Levies          (11,042)
Net Profit                    12,900   11.04%

 

SCENARIO 2- Personal Income Tax (PIT)
Trade Profit                    15,900    
PIT -After Relief                          (362) Total Taxes & Levies            (8,404)
Net Profit                    15,538 Effective Tax Rate 8.4%

 

SCENARIO 3 Personal Income Tax and VAT Registered[2] (PIT + VAT registered)
Operating Trade Profit                    15,900    
Add-Input VAT recovered      
Electricity                            664    
Supplies                       4,800    
Net Profit/Taxable Income                    21,364    
PIT – After Relief                    (1,182) Total Taxes & Levies            (3,760)
Net Profit                    20,182 Effective Tax Rate 3.76%

Scenario 3 encourages small traders to register for VAT, which is passed through to consumers; the net effect is increased transparency and increased VAT collection for KRA.

TOT PIT PIT +VAT Reg
Profit                  12,900                  15,538              20,182
Effective Taxes                  11,042                      8,404                  3,760
Effective Taxes% 11.04% 8.4% 3.76%

An alternative tax plan to TOT would give a different result. If the above scenario described her business, then under scenario one, where she paid TOT, her profit would be Sh12,900. Under scenario two, where she pays personal income tax, her profit would be Sh15,538. And if she were registered for VAT and also pays PIT, she would have made profit of Sh20,182.

The individual tax plan would, therefore, be more favourable to the poor income business groups than the TOT. Notice also that her business has contributed indirectly to the government’s revenue by more than Sh8, 042. Then, if subjected to the TOT of Sh3,000, she would have contributed Sh11,042 to the government coffers.

Is it moral for a tax regime to erode the business capital of the poor?

The start-up capital of small businesses usually comes from family resources. This tends to limit the size of the businesses, the number of workers they hire, and the level of profits they generate. So they have a limited amount available to reinvest.

In 2016, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics found that licenced micro establishments reported spending 45.3 per cent of their net income on investments, either as reinvestment or investing in new businesses and investment in agriculture, while expenditure on household and family needs accounted for 44.5 pervcent. In 2016, small and medium establishments spent a significantly large part of their net income on investment, at 63.4 per cent and 69.7 per cent, respectively.

The erosion of capital from small business via the TOT will delay their growth. Rather, by allowing them to grow capital we would help debunk the notion held by some, including the International Labour Organisation (ILO), that these businesses are doomed to remain small. Yet a significant number of entrepreneurs in the informal sector earn more, on average, than low-skilled workers in the formal sector, according to some studies.

It is immoral to deny the poor a fair chance to compete in the market by imposing a tax on their businesses.

Governments have used taxes to shut out a section of the economy. N. Cheeseman and R. Griffiths (2005)[3] point out that turnover taxes can also be punitive when designed to create a disincentive for buying particular products. They say that environmental regulations sometimes encourage this practice.

Despite the expansive nature of the informal sector, aiming at the bottom end of the pyramid is suspect. We must keep in mind that the current regime is struggling with a debt burden that is uncreative and evil. TOT could be an attempt to cut off informal sector traders from the market. There are 1.3 million micro and small enterprises in Kenya, which, according to a government survey, employed about 2.4 million people – 17 per cent of the total workforce in Kenya – in 2009. They were engaged in the following: close to two-thirds (64.1 per cent) of all enterprises were in the trade sector; retailing made up 62 per cent of all trading in Kenya; manufacturing comprised 13 per cent, while services accounted for 15 per cent.

It is immoral for the government to burden the poor.

In a liberal democracy, argues Prof. Nicholas Wolterstorff of Yale Divinity School, the state should act impartially when distributing burdens and benefits to its citizens. Our government is absent in the lives of poor citizens because of skewed development priorities. The poor live in squalour with children attending overcrowded schools. They have dismal access to healthcare and are the main users of public transport on what is left of roads.

But the government now finds it expedient to tax these businesses operating on the margins of our nation, either in the slums of our cities and towns or in the rural areas. Yet it is through their businesses that low-income households have managed to improve their lot, not through any government subsidies or incentives.

There are 1.3 million micro and small enterprises in Kenya, which, according to a government survey, employed about 2.4 million people – 17 per cent of the total workforce in Kenya – in 2009.

We can use taxes for the public good, to even out the inequalities in society and to provide essential services to all citizens. Eric Nelson, a Harvard professor, explains the idea that the state should coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property because it is the business of the state to engage in the redistribution of wealth through taxation, thus ensuring the welfare of the poor; this idea is the genesis of welfare states in many European countries.

Forcing a blanket tax without considering the business conditions of payees is reminiscent of the colonial administration’s hut and poll tax of the 1920s. Then, local leaders and community representatives defended their people against the colonial extortion. Responding to the tax demands, Luo leaders in Nyanza consulted and convened a a general meeting at Lundha in Gem on 23 December 1921. About 9,000 people attended from all parts of Nyanza to discuss the hut tax. During the meeting, Chief Ogada Odera of Gem in Central Nyanza lamented: “As regards our taxes, they used to be 3 shillings. Mr John Ainsworth [the Nyanza Provincial Commissioner in Kisumu from 1906] told us that the amount would be increased to 5 shillings. We agreed. The government then increased it to 8 shillings. It is very heavy. Besides, we do not want our women taxed.”

Forcing a blanket tax without considering the business conditions of payees is reminiscent of the colonial administration’s hut and poll tax of the 1920s.

Chief Ogada made a perceptive comment: “As regards the word colony, the government came here and found us occupying the land and now it calls us ‘wasumbni’ [their slaves].”

Most commentators on TOT have sided with the government’s position and made a virtue of the extortion of poor businesses by calling the tax fair, patriotic, and easy to compute and complete. I think they are misguided. Kamotho Waiganjo reflected this distorted thinking when he commented in the Standard:  “But the government was getting no tax benefit from these businesses…those who operate in the formal sector, and who are therefore in the taxman’s spotlight…cough up 30 per cent of annual profits as tax…businesses in the informal sector means that many of the operators in this expansive sector escape the taxman’s dragnet. Not anymore.”

This assumption – that the poor in the informal sector churn out a considerable volume of revenue but do not contribute to the tax pool – is erroneous. TOT is an indirect tax on businesses and not a tax based on income from business profits. Informal sector businesses already pay other indirect taxes that are levied on fuel, electricity, VAT on their goods and rent taxes collected from rental income. Shouldn’t their cost of goods, business expenses, and other costs also be considered, as they are with formal businesses?

Most commentators on TOT have sided with the government’s position and made a virtue of the extortion of poor businesses by calling the tax fair, patriotic, and easy to compute and complete. I think they are misguided.

Some argue that the cost of compliance is low and that all that these small businesses need to do is record their sales. Those paying turnover tax will not need to worry about tracking their expenses; their tax is only on turnover. They say keeping proper business records will benefits business owners because proper records would help them evaluate their business performance, monitor purchases and sales, and make crucial business decisions.

However, the consequences of eviscerating small businesses would be catastrophic owing to sector’s significance in the economy. It may arouse two major reactions from the poor:

First, if the small businesses sense extortion, they may disappear into thin air. These businesses are supersensitive to extortion by the authorities and would hibernate, adjusting their operations till conditions change. The damage in the wake of their disappearance could be devastating. Mr. Francis Atwoli, the Secretary-General of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), warned that further taxation on small and medium businesses will not only destroy the fastest growing sector of the economy but also render many Kenyans jobless.

The 2016 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics survey shows that approximately 400,000 micro, small and medium enterprises do not celebrate their second birthday. Few reach their fifth birthday, leading to concerns about the sustainability of this vital sector.

Second, if poor business owners interpret this tax as oppression, they will revolt. Implementation of TOT will conjure up the pain of the colonial era. The colonial hut and poll taxes became a heavy burden on the people of Kenya in the 1920s. B A Ogot[4] (2009:772) observes that it was made worse by the method of collection, which was ruthless and arbitrary. In Nyanza, the colonial regime collected the hut tax from all huts in a kraal, including the cattle sheds. When many people refused to pay these taxes, the colonial authorities, including chiefs and tax clerks, resorted to brutal methods of collection, ordering policemen, chiefs and sub-chiefs to raid villages, set houses on fire, and confiscate property or food stuff such as grains, bananas and cassava.

Since TOT will eat into the livelihood of these business owners, they will revolt. But the authorities will crush their revolt due to their lack the organisational capacity, unlike the UK’s anti-poll tax groups of 1990. Introducing an unpopular “poll tax” is credited for forcing Mrs. Margaret Thatcher out of office in November 1990. The Green Paper of 1986, Paying for Local Government, proposed the poll tax, which charged a fixed tax per adult resident for the services provided in their community, hence the term poll tax. It was a change from payment based on the worth of one’s house to a resident individual. The tax was, therefore, criticised as being unfair, and needlessly burdensome on those who were less well-off. What followed were protests and riots that prompted the abolishing of the tax following the change of government in November 1990.

What should KRA do with poorer businesses?

The government and the KRA, the implementing tax collection authority, can act morally and avoid hurting small-scale businesses. They can make it a priority to rationalise the informal sector rather than wipe it out through harsh tax policies.

Turnover tax, as currently enacted, is elective. Therefore, qualifying small businesses can opt to register for the standard tax system. This move would allow them to be recognised like other businesses. And with sound records, they may take advantage of comprehensive inclusion rules and a reduction process that requires maintaining proof of expenditure. We should make efforts in aiding small-scale businesses to maintain proper business records and wean them into an alternative tax regime.

The government and the KRA, the implementing tax collection authority, can act morally and avoid hurting small-scale businesses. They can make it a priority to rationalise the informal sector rather than wipe it out through harsh tax policies.

This government should heed the words of Hubert Humphrey, the former US Vice President, who on November 1, 1977, said: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

The tinders are there waiting for something to ignite them. If the poor interpret TOT as extortion, we may as well have ushered in days of revolt.

 

[1] Trader uses Mshwari for working capital, interests at 7.5% per month.

[2] Allow Voluntary registration for traders who are below the threshold for compulsory VAT registration.

[3] Cheeseman, N., & Griffiths, R. (2005). Increasing Tax Revenue in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Case of Kenya. Oxford Council on Good Governance, Economy Analysis, 6.

[4] Ogot BA. 2009: A History of the Luo speaking people of Eastern Africa. Kisumu Kenya Anyange press ltd.

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Rev. Canon Francis Omondi is a Priest of All Saints Cathedral Diocese of the ACK, a Canon of the All-Saints Kampala Cathedral of the Church of Uganda, Adjunct Lecturer at St. Paul’s University, Limuru, and Research Tutor at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. Views expressed here are his own.

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Twitter: Let It Burn!

Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.

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Elon Musk finally bought Twitter. Although everyone expected the move to quickly prove foolhardy, the speed of the implosion has been impressive. The latest gaffe is a failed attempt to monetize verification by requiring paid subscriptions for them, which has led to all manner of comical impersonations (one macabre highlight was a “verified” George W. Bush account tweeting “I miss killing Iraqis. “Tony Blair” responded with “Same tbh”). Some are watching with shock and horror and wondering if Twitter can be saved. But, when sulfur and fire rains, it is best not to look back.

Africa Is a Country managing editor, Boima Tucker, put it best some years ago: “Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation.” The thing to reckon with is the extent to which we have exaggerated the emancipatory potential of networked communication and social media, partly owing to our own psychic overinvestments in it. Which is not to deny that it has never shown democratic and egalitarian potential, but that’s never been what Twitter is forThere can be no right platform in the wrong world.

What was Twitter for then? In the New York Review of Books, Ben Tarnoff describes it as a “network of influence.” In a world characterized by the economization of everything, social media is the place to commodify the self, to transform one’s unique traits and personality into a product for public display. The main imperative online is to “stay on brand,” to cultivate an appealing enough persona in the endless “production of new genres of being human.”

The key contradiction of social media use, of course, is that even though these platforms appear to us as complete products that we participate in and consume, we are the ones responsible for ensuring their possibility in the first place. As the media scholar Christian Fuchs notes, “Digital work is the organization of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. These products can be online information, meanings, social relations, artifacts or social systems.” Thus, it is us who create the value of these platforms.

In a better world, these digital communications platforms would be democratically owned and operated. But one also wonders if in a better world they would be as necessary. Perhaps, when we are less socially disaffected, living in societies with social provision, an abundance of recreational public goods and less exploitative, dignifying work, then we would all have less reason to be online. For now, the question is: in a time when this ideal is nowhere close to being within view, how best can we use platforms like Twitter as tools to get us to that world?

The possible answers here are murky. Twitter seems like a critical piece of infrastructure for modern political life. Musk is not alone in thinking of it as a marketplace of ideas, as something like a digital town square. Yet, and especially in Africa, Twitter is not as popular a platform, and even on it, a minority of Twiteratti exert an outsized influence in terms of setting the discursive agenda. But setting aside the question of who is excluded from the digitalized public sphere of which Twitter is a cornerstone, the important question is whether the quality of political debate that takes place is healthy or desirable at all. Granted, it can be fun and cathartic, but at the best of times, amounts to hyper-politics. In Anton Jager’s explanation, this:

can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinized for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicized, but little is achieved.

We would lack critical self-awareness if we did not admit that Africa Is A Country is a venue whose existence greatly benefits from an online presence—so it goes for every media outlet. Tarnoff points out that “… if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses.” To lack an online presence is to reconcile oneself to irrelevance. Although, the news cycle itself is a disorienting vortex of one topic du jour to the next. It makes difficult the kind of long, slow, and sustained discourse-over-time that is the lifeblood of politics, and instead reduces everything into fleeting soundbites.

Nowhere is the modern phenomenon of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “pointillist time” more apparent than on Twitter. For Bauman, pointillist time is the experience of temporality as a series of eternal instants, and the present moment’s connection to the past and future “turns into gaps—with no bridges, and hopefully unbridgeable.” The consequence of this, is that “there is no room for the idea of ‘progress.’” Living through a mode where everything seems to be happening all at once, is both to experience time as what Walter Benjamin called “a “time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new,” but curiously, at the same time, for everything to feel inert, and for nothing to seem genuinely possible.

For a while, notions of historical progress have been passé on the left, associated with Eurocentric theories of modernity. Now, more than ever, the idea is worth reclaiming. The Right today is no longer straightforwardly conservative, but nihilistic and anti-social, thriving on sowing deeper communal mistrust and paranoia. These are pathologies that flourish on Twitter. The alternative to media-fuelled hyper-politics and anti-politics is not real politics per some ideal type. Politics, in the first instance, is not defined by content, but by form. The reason our politics are empty and shallow is not because today’s political subject lacks virtues possessed by the subjects of yore. It’s because today’s political subject is barely one in the first place, lacking rootedness in those institutions that would have ordinarily shaped an individual’s clear sense of values and commitments. The alternative to digitized human association, as noted by many, is mass politics: only when the majority of citizens are meaningfully mobilized through civic and political organizations can we create a vibrant and substantive public sphere.

AIAC editor Sean Jacobs observed in his book, Media In Post-apartheid South Africa: “the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes is the decline of mass political parties and social movements.” Whether Twitter dies or not, and if it does, whether we should mourn it or not, should be beside the point for those committed to building a world of three-dimensional solidarity and justice.

This post is from a 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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COP 27: Climate Negotiations Repeatedly Flounder

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world

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As COP 27 in Egypt nears its end, I find it difficult, almost impossible, to talk to my children about climate change. The shame of our monumental failings as a global community to address the greatest crisis our planet has consciously faced weighs too heavy. The stakes have never been higher, the moral quivering of political leaders has never been more distressing.

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” goes the famous commandment from George Orwell’s political allegory Animal Farm. It applies with particular acuity to international negotiations, where each country has a seat, but seats hold very different weights. The outcome of the Sharm-El-Sheik conference will in large part depend on what Western governments are willing to commit to and follow up on. Rich European and other Western countries are historically responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. The moral case for them being the first-movers and the biggest movers on cutting emissions is crystal clear, and genuine commitments on their part may hold the key to opening up the floodgate of policy innovation towards decarbonization in other countries.

In this context, viewed from the Global South, recent events in the country that still held the COP presidency until it was handed over to Egypt appear as signs of the madness that grips societies before a fall. In her short time as head of government in the UK, Liz Truss spoke as if she lived on another planet that did not show signs of collapsing under the battering of models of economic growth birthed under the British Empire, gleefully pronouncing that her three priorities for Britain were “growth, growth and growth.” Her successor, Rishi Sunak, announced that he would not attend the COP 27 climate summit because he had to focus on the UK economy. The silver lining is that Truss did not last long and Sunak was shamed into reversing his decision. In a scathing rebuke, the Spanish environment minister called the shenanigans of British political leaders “absurd” and pointed out that elections in Brazil and Australia show that voters are starting to punish leaders who ignore climate change.

I see another silver lining. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that Europe was warming twice as fast as other parts of the world. A similar report was not issued for North America, but other studies indicate faster than average temperature increases across the continent’s northeastern coast, and its west coast was home to one of the most striking heat waves last year, with a memorable summer temperature peak of 49.6°C recorded in British Columbia, Canada.

Professor Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary-general, emphasized that the findings highlighted that “even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events.” In other words, the report should make Europeans think it could happen to us, with “it” being devastating floods on the scale of what Pakistan and Bangladesh recently experienced, or the hunger-inducing droughts afflicting Madagascar and the Horn of Africa. While some may find it dismal that human beings remain relatively unmoved by the plight of other human beings considered too distant or too different, this is a part of human nature to reckon with. And reckoning with it can turn a sentiment of shared vulnerability into an opportunity for the planet.

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries to pay developing countries loss and damages to fund their transitions to greener energies and build crucially needed climate adaptability to limit deaths. Underlying such a position is a centuries-old smug belief that Europe and North America will never need to depend on solidarity from other parts of the world. The WMO report calls into question such hubris, as did the Covid 19 pandemic before that.

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world. Europe and North America, where barely 15% of the world population resides, accounted for more than half of COVID deaths. Turning the normal direction of disaster statistics upside down, high- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for four out of five Covid deaths globally. While some scientists still pose questions over the real death toll in low-income countries, I was grateful to not live in the West during the pandemic. In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Senegal where I spent most of my pandemic months, I often encountered “COVID refugees,” young Europeans who had temporarily relocated to work remotely from Africa to escape pandemic despair at home.

We are at a point in our failures to fight climate change where fiction writers and other experts of human nature are often more useful than scientists in indicating what our priorities should be. Many fiction writers have turned their focus on what will be necessary for humans to remain humane as societies crumble. Before we get to that stage, let us hope that political leaders and delegates keep remembering that climate disaster could very concretely befall them personally at any time. Let us hope that the sense of equal—or more cynically, unpredictable—vulnerability instills a sense of global solidarity and a platform to negotiate in true good faith. Let us hope that we can start talking to our children again about what we adults are doing to avert the disaster that looms over their futures.

This post is from a 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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The Specter of Foreign Forces in Haiti

The so-called ‘Haitian crisis’ is primarily about outsiders’ attempts force Haitians to live under an imposed order and the latter’s resistance to that order.

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What actually happened on the nights of October 6th and 7th, 2022, remains unclear. What reverberated was the rather loud rumor of the resignation of Haiti’s acting prime minister  Ariel Henry. He was a member of President Jovenel Moïse’s pro-US Pati Ayisien Tèt Kale (PHTK) party. (Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.) Had Henry truly resigned? Or was it just a well-propagated rumor? Could it have perhaps been both at the same time: that Henry might have indeed resigned but had been coerced to stay, thus making the news of his resignation spread like gossip that the governmental communication machine had fabricated for public consumption?

Nevertheless, we witnessed the following the next day: in Henry’s address to the nation, he first requested the intervention of foreign military forces in Haiti. He then made a formal request to the United Nations. This call was picked up by international organizations, particularly the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. In the media coverage of the events, no relationship was established between the (rumored) resignation of the de facto Prime Minister and his request for military intervention. Was it a way to keep our minds occupied while waiting on a response from the international community? Or was the military intervention a promise made by the international community to Henry for the withdrawal of his letter of resignation?

Media coverage has seemingly obscured what happened on October 6th and 7th by choosing to focus solely on the request for military intervention, obscuring a chain of events in the process. Was the same request addressed to the UN and the US administration? Or were these two distinct approaches: one within a multilateral framework and the other within a bilateral framework? Supposing it was the latter, what does this tell us about the Haitian government’s domestic policy, about US foreign policy toward (or against) Haiti, or even about geopolitics (as part of a white-hot world order)—especially in light of US Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols’ visit to Haiti, his ensuing meetings, and the presence of US Coast Guard ships in Haitian waters?

At least one thing’s for sure. Since the request for formal intervention and the presence of the US in the form of its warships and its emissary, the question of military intervention has been swiftly framed as a discourse on the supposed “consensus between Haitians.” In reality, it refers to the convergence of interests between the representatives of the de facto Haitian government; the representatives of the Montana Accord (agreed on between civic and political groups in the wake of Moise’s assassination); and the president, Fritz Jean, and prime minister, Steven Benoit, agreed on as part of that accord. The message is clear: If you do not want a military intervention, side with Ariel Henry, who initiated the request himself. Any posture of self-determination must undergo review by Ariel Henry and his crew.

In these circumstances, there can be no self-determination. It is as though those truly responsible for the military intervention (which was already underway) aren’t those who asked for it, but rather those who were unable to thwart it by finding an agreement with the former group. In this sense, the “nationalist” label (the current catchall term which, among other things, is being made to include any praxis refuting the colonial apparatus) refers to doing everything possible to avoid military intervention—and that means doing exactly what the representatives of the “Colonial Capitalist Internationale” want.

American presence in Haiti—in the form of warships and a high-ranking emissary—takes after historical colonial endeavors such as the Napoleonic expedition for the reestablishment of slavery (1802) and King Charles X’s fleet, sent to demand ransom for Haiti’s independence (1825). Yet, in this case, the point is not to put pressure on those who hold the keys to institutions, but rather to avoid losing control in a context where those in government are not only misguided, but also display the greatest shortcomings in managing the lives of the population for the better. The US’s current presence thus more closely echoes the language of the English warship HMS Bulldog, sent to shell the city of Cap Haitien to support President Geffrard against the anti-government insurrection of Salnave.

The Henry government uses the same grammar as its tutelar powers to discuss the current situation. Much has been made of “efforts deployed by the United States and Canada”: they have consisted in flying police equipment into Haiti on Canadian and US military cargo aircraft. Henry and the Haitian National Police offered warm, public thanks for material paid for with Haitian funds some time ago; indeed, these deliveries have come very late, and only thanks to pressure from Haitian civil society actors. More problematic still, the presence of foreign military planes at the Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince has served both as evidence of an ongoing military intervention and as a subterfuge to obtain such an intervention.

This request for intervention, while it seeks to obfuscate this fact, nevertheless exposes the political illegitimacy of the Henry government—made up of members of Henry’s PHTK and former members of the opposition. Its illegitimacy doesn’t rest on the usual discussion (or lack thereof) and confrontation between the governors and the governed, nor on the classic power play between the political opposition and the authorities in place; rather, it is the result of the absolute rejection on the part of Haitians of an order controlled and engineered by the PHTK machine in Haiti for over 10 years with one purpose in mind: defending the neoliberal interests and projects of the Colonial Capitalist Internationale. The request for intervention reveals the fact that the rejection of the PHTK machine is but one part of a broader rejection of the neoliberal colonial order as it has manifested itself in various anti-popular economic projects, which themselves were made possible by many attempts at reconfiguring Haiti socially and constitutionally: consider, to name but a few, the financial project of privatization of the island of Gonâve, the referendum to replace the 1987 Constitution, and others.

For the first time since the US military intervention of 1915 (the centenary of which was silenced by the PHTK machine), we are witnessing a direct confrontation between the Colonial Capitalist Internationale and the Haitian people, as local political go-betweens aren’t in a position to mediate and local armed forces (whether the military, the militias, or the armed gangs) aren’t able to fully and totally repress unrest. In this colonial scenario—drafted in the past five years, maintained and fueled by the geopolitics of “natural disasters,” epidemics, pandemics, and the presence of gangs (simultaneously functioning as the armed extensions of political parties and materializing “disorder”)—the only possible solution to chaos is military intervention by foreign forces.

Yet one cannot pretend that such an intervention will help the Haitian people, and no agreement crafted in the language of the colonial system can stifle popular demands and aspirations which, in the past twelve years, have built what Haitian academic and activist Camille Chalmers calls a real “anti-imperialist conscience.”

What of late has breathlessly been labeled the “Haitian crisis” must instead be identified as the highest point of the contradiction which has brewed throughout the PHTK regime: between the International Colonial Capitalists’ will to force us to live under an imposed order and our resistance to that order.

This post is from a 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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