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People Power in the 2010 Constitution: A Reality or an Illusion?

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The 2010 Constitution of Kenya is among the most progressive constitutions in the world that guarantees basic human rights and gives citizens enormous powers to determine how they are to be governed. Yet, ten years after its promulgation, the Constitution has done little to alter the status quo, thanks to a political leadership that is committed to subverting the Constitution’s core values and principles.

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“Public participation calls for the appreciation by State, Government and all stakeholders implicated in this appeal that the Kenyan citizenry is adult enough to understand what its rights are under Article 34 [of the Constitution]. In the cases of establishment, licensing, promotion and protection of media freedom, public participation ensures that private “sweet heart” deals, secret contracting processes, skewed sharing of benefits-generally a contract and investment regime enveloped in non-disclosure, do not happen. Thus, threats to both political stability and sustainable development are nipped in the bud by public participation. Indeed, if they did the word and spirit of the Constitution would be both subverted.Communications Commission of Kenya & 5 Others v Royal Media Services Limited & Others [2015] eKLR, para 381.

The role of constitutions and law in social transformation 

The role of law in social transformation has a long genealogy when posed as a question about whether law and the courts can advance, stagnate or impede transformation and revolution. This question, once the source of serious and continuous jurisprudential debates, has acquired a consensus that law, indeed, has a role to play in societal transformation and revolution. This multi-disciplinary consensus is shared by lawyers, economists, policymakers, politicians, international organisations, and think tanks.

The debate on the new phenomenon of transformative constitutionalism has been both enriched and transformed by this consensus. The very idea of a transformative constitution (such as those of India, Colombia, South Africa, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Kenya) is the idea that the constitutional superstructure is embedded in a theory that it will be an instrument for the transformation of society rather than a historical, economic and socio-political pact to preserve the status quo as the earlier constitutions did. Constitutions and law have a class content. The superstructure does not merely conform to the economic base passively.

Issues of base and superstructure need creative and undogmatic re-analyses given the changing contexts and circumstance of the world. It should be argued that the dialectical relationship between the base and superstructure will need creativity, innovation, lack of dogma in the varying economic, political, social, ideological, cultural, and intellectual contexts without losing sight of the original revolutionary messages and expected revolutionary outcomes. This approach takes into account the limitations of transformative constitutions and constitutionalism as a basis for understanding revolutionary constitutions of the past, such as the Bolshevik, Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese ones. Meanwhile, transformative constitutions are about mitigating the status quo that societies find unsustainable and unacceptable.

While still on the issue of relations between base and superstructure, the constitution and law are part of the superstructure as is politics. The base determines the long movement of history. Most African states were governed by laws that did not recognise Africans as citizens. In my view, these vital aspects of the superstructure are significant forces in the short to immediate term. I would add, however, that they play either a progressive or a retrogressive role depending on the way they are used to fight the base (in our day and age, imperialism) or reinforce it. Whether these aspects play a progressive role, whether they have transformative potential depends on who uses them and how. And this depends mainly on the quality of political leadership and authentic opposition in all countries.

Judicial leadership is integrated in such leadership. I believe progressive forces in the Judiciary can use the constitution and law in moving society towards fundamental transformation. They will do that by developing progressive jurisprudence out of the constitution and the law, accepting that judicial officers do politics, and that their institution, the judiciary, is an institutional political actor. 

We, the people of Kenya

Modern transformative constitutions – under which the Kenyan one falls – address two fundamentally critical pillars that anchor societal development: the equitable distribution and use of political power and land and natural resources of the country. The two pillars are the basis of survival, promise of democracy, equity, and prosperity in a nation. They impact the struggles for freedom, emancipation, struggles against exploitation, domination and oppression. These struggles are internal as well as external. It is these struggles that capture, going forward, a new nation, and a new planet that is peaceful, non-militaristic, free, just, equitable, ecologically safe, prosperous, and in my books, socialist. It is only the people the world over who can make this vision a reality. The 2010 Constitution puts Kenyans in this trajectory of struggle. It seeks to mitigate the status quo that is unacceptable and unsustainable while becoming a basis for further struggles towards freedom and emancipation.

The constitution-making process that birthed the 2010 Constitution was people-driven. The consultations with the Kenyan people were robust. The debates on whether the people’s will was reflected in the many drafts that were considered was an extension of the struggle to ultimately guarantee that the Constitution was a people’s constitution. Once in place, the implementation of the Constitution triggered yet another struggle in the constitution-making process. The Constitution Implementing Constitution, Parliament, and courts became central in the struggle to breathe life into the new Constitution. That struggle still continues.

There can be no doubt in the provisions of the 2010 Constitution about the centrality of the Kenyan people in its implementation. In the Preamble it is We, the people of Kenya that ADOPT, ENACT and give this Constitution to ourselves and to our future generations. Chapter One of the Constitution is appropriately titled Sovereignty of the People and Supremacy of the Constitution. Article 1 (1) & (2), respectively, provide that “All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this Constitution” and “The people may exercise their sovereign power either directly or through their democratically elected representatives.”

The constitution-making process that birthed the 2010 Constitution was people-driven. The consultations with the Kenyan people were robust.

Kenyans are further called upon under Article 3 (1) “to respect, uphold and defend this Constitution.” Although English and Kiswahili are the official languages of the Republic of Kenya under Article 7, the State is obligated to “promote the development and use of indigenous languages, Kenyan Sign language, Braille and other communication formats and technologies accessible to persons with disabilities.” Under Article 10, participation of the people is one of the national values and principles of governance. In reinforcing this value, other relevant values are patriotism, national unity, human dignity, democracy, equity, human rights, rule of law, non-discrimination, protection of the marginalised, integrity, transparency, accountability, and sustainable development. Under Article 11 the “Constitution recognises culture as the foundation of the nation and the cumulative civilization of the Kenyan people and nation.”

The Kenyan Bill of Rights, under Chapter 4, is perhaps the most progressive in the world. It gives Kenyans the promotion and protection of their whole gamut of political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights. (However, it must be noted that the Bill of Rights has its limitations. It is not clear on the protection of gay rights. Land rights are still based on the protection of private property under Article 40. Although there is a category of community land, the fundamental land regime is one that protects land as a commodity, making the ownership and use of land the root cause of poverty and gross inequalities.) Article 22 (1) in the Bill of Rights states “Every person has the right to institute court proceedings claiming that a right or fundamental freedom in the Bill of Rights has been denied, violated or infringed, or threatened.” Article 258 (1) provides that “Every person has the right to institute court proceedings claiming that this Constitution has been contravened or is threatened with contravention. Article 22 (2) and Article 258 (2) decree robust sovereignty of Kenyans as individuals and in the public interest.

All these provisions are the basis of Kenyan citizens and institutions developing robust jurisprudence of public interest litigation (PIL) in the protection of the Bill of Rights, in particular, and the Constitution in general. These provisions give Kenyans the responsibility to protect the Constitution from subversion by Parliament, state institutions, the executive, and/or external forces that could, through investment agreements or military pacts, subvert our Constitution. (We need to glorify the work of Katiba Institute and Okoiti Omtata for breathing life into these provisions. Katiba Institute works with individuals or social movements to take up cases in their interest. So does, Omtata. One hopes that going forward the Law Society of Kenya will take up serious and robust public interest litigation, as provided under the Law Society Act.)

The sovereign power of the Kenyan people is delegated or donated to Parliament (whose members the Constitution decrees be individuals of integrity). The Constitution also provides for how political parties are to mobilise people. Article 81 provides for “free and fair” elections that deliver electoral justice to Kenyans. So, the “legislative authority of the Republic is derived from the people” under Article 94. So are executive and judicial authorities “derived from the people” under Articles 129 and 159, respectively.

The sovereign power of the Kenyan people is delegated or donated to Parliament (whose members the Constitution decrees be individuals of integrity). The Constitution also provides for how political parties are to mobilise people.

All the structures under the national and county executive, such as finance and security, also derive their authority from the people of Kenya. Commissions created under Chapter 15 have one of their objects “to protect the sovereignty of the people” of Kenya. The peoples’ sovereignty reigns supreme in matters of amending the Constitution under Articles 255-257. Article 259 provides for a theory of interpreting the Constitution that is pro-people and cognisant of the people’s economic, social, cultural, spiritual, and political struggles that underpin the word and spirit of the Constitution.

Reality or lip service? 

I would like to comment on two case studies, namely, the Makueni County Experiment and the current political initiative called the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). In my view, the former case study breathes life into the sovereignty of the people while in the latter case the political leadership subverts that same sovereignty.

Case Study 1: The Makueni County Experiment

There is no doubt that the Makueni County Experiment in the implementation of the 2010 Constitution has caught the imagination politicians, public intellectuals, civil society groups, and foreign interests represented by the diplomatic missions in Nairobi. There has been consistent bench-marking to Makueni by governors of other counties. The media could have participated robustly in these bench-marking trips, but that has not been the case.

Makueni is, indeed, a beacon of progress in the implementation of the Constitution. The robust public participation and civic education in matters of county governance are a reflection of the reality of the sovereignty of the people. Makueni County has a county agenda discussed right from the grassroots in a six-tier consultation process. In matters of governance, Makueni County has made a reality of the constitutional requirement of the people’s authority. The county has donated its executive political power to the grassroots in the County Agenda. The consensus reached in the Agenda cannot be varied by the County Assembly or the leadership of the County Government. Monitoring of budgets and the implementation of the Agenda is subjected to robust public participation.

The political leadership of Makueni County is known to be incorruptible. It accounts in a transparent manner the resources entrusted to it by people. Some key projects have become the talk of the country: universal healthcare; scholarships; factories; and other projects in compliance with the county agenda such as the mango and milk plants; and innovative research on education as a public good. Partnerships with foreign interests have been on the basis of the vision of the county, a good precedent in negotiation after the county clearly knows its interests.

It does not surprise me that the Makueni Experiment has not been glorified by the political leadership in this country. Recognising beacons of incorruptibility, progress, public participation, and transparent accountability of resources is the last project the political leadership wishes to see.

Makueni County’s narratives of incorruptibility, good governance, public participation, donating executive power of the county to the grassroots, implementing a county agenda borne out of people’s participation, and allowing monitoring and policing of county budgets and projects should have been the case study the BBI engaged with seriously.

Case Study 2: The Presidential Taskforce on Building Bridges to Unity Advisory (popularly known as BBI)

We must undertake a major consultation, in the form of an inclusive national conversation culminating in a major conference with the single aim of producing a vision of a unique Kenyan civilisation 100 years from today.”BBI report, page 100. 

“If BBI has failed to unite 6 Kenyans [ethnic barons], [namely] Raila, Ruto, Uhuru, Kalonzo, Mudavadi, and Wetangula, how can it unite 47 million Kenyans?” – Post on Twitter

On page 7 of its report, the BBI Taskforce states who it interviewed:

The Taskforce heard from more than 400 elected leaders past and present; prominent local voices from the community; and young people who added their voices to citizens in the Counties. This included more than 35 Governors and their Deputies as well as dozens of Senators, MPs, and MCAs in the Counties and in Nairobi. Submissions were given by 123 individuals representing major institutions, including constitutional bodies and major stakeholders in the public and private sectors; 261 individuals and organisations who sent memoranda via email; and 755 citizens who offered handwritten submissions during public forums in the Counties. Kenyans made their views heard as individual citizens, institutionally, and based on diverse interests and experiences. This report reflects their views and insights.” 

The BBI, given the sample of consultations above, has the audacity to shamelessly announce from the rooftops that the “Kenyan people have spoken!”

After reading pages 7-17 and 100-126 of the BBI report, I have only come up with burning questions, all involving the implementation of the Constitution. It seems to me that this effort should have been restricted to the political leadership to account for the failures that the report narrates in the nine issues it focuses on. The political leadership could have been asked to give reasons for:

  • Their continued politics of division and disunity;
  • Their failure to implement national ethos in the 2010 Constitution;
  • Their failure to guarantee the independence of national institutions;
  • Their failure on the so-called war on corruption;
  • The continuing gross violations of human rights of the Kenyan people by state authorities;
  • Their failure to restructure the colonial provincial administration system, as decreed by the Constitution, and to reinforce county governance;
  • Divisive, corrupt, unfree, not peaceful, unacceptable elections;
  • The Executive seeking to claw back constitutional provisions that guarantee the decentralisation and democratisation of the imperial presidency through equitable distribution of political power, land and natural resources of the nation and the defence of devolution;
  • The utter failure of political parties to comply with the provisions of Article 91 of the Constitution on the basic requirements for political parties; and the failure of the government to give capacity to the Registrar of Political Parties to police, monitor, deregister and hold political parties accountable in their obedience of the Constitution;
  • The deliberate subversion of the national value and principle of inclusiveness through political alliances of the “Big Five” communities to the exclusion of all others;
  • The continued wastage and theft of national resources and the failure to implement the many reports of the Auditor-General and other Commissions set to investigate the issue of corruption;
  • Their failure to conduct forensic lifestyle audits that were to start with the President and his Deputy;
  • Not entrenching of Article 43 on economic and social rights in political platforms and national policy;
  • Their failure to reduce the mounting sovereign national debt and its disastrous economic, social, and political consequences;
  • Their failure to submit development funds to the counties and to audit the effectiveness of the 15% currently given to the counties;
  • Their failure to secure the lives and properties of the people of Kenya;
  • The impotency of the Summit of the 48 governments;
  • Their failure to make healthcare, housing, water, education, food and the environment public goods, as envisaged by Article 43 of the Constitution; and
  • Their failure to transparently account for the authority that the people of Kenya donated to the political leadership.

The Taskforce could have focused on good practices (apparently there were not many) in the implementation of the Constitution. The Taskforce paid lip service to public participation, as is clear from the report.

It does not surprise me that the Makueni Experiment has not been glorified by the political leadership in this country. Recognising beacons of incorruptibility, progress, public participation, and transparent accountability of resources is the last project the political leadership wishes to see.

BBI reminds me of the Saitoti Committee tasked with finding out if Kenyans wanted multiparty democracy. Although the response from the people was in the affirmative, the Committee chose to report to President Moi that the people did not want political pluralism. Here the BBI did not ask the political leadership the reasons for not implementing the Constitution, but goes on to give recommendations that beg that question. The BBI put the cart before the horse. The BBI is a monumental political distraction and an abdication of the national interest for the interests of the ruling Kenyan elite. The BBI provides a golden political opportunity for those who are agitating for an alternative political leadership in Kenya to birth, nurture and consolidate it.

Conclusion 

One county governor told me once that the 2010 Constitution gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby whose protection and security was entrusted to a ruling Kenyan elite that was a master in trafficking children’s body parts! A great metaphor that I believe is as pessimistic as it is true.

BBI reminds me of the Saitoti Committee tasked with finding out if Kenyans wanted multiparty democracy. Although the response from the people was in the affirmative, the Committee chose to report to President Moi that the people did not want political pluralism.

However, the metaphor underestimates the resistance of the Kenyan people in the protection of their baby. While the Kenyan elite continues to pay lip service to the implementation of the Constitution, the people of Kenya resist this elite and focus on making the 2010 Constitution a reality in its economic, social, cultural, political, and ideological vision. It mitigates the current status quo in Kenya that the people find unsustainable and unacceptable.

Implementing the 2010 Constitution can be the basis – if given the right political party or environment – of our imagination and thinking of a Kenyan society that is just, free, peaceful, non-militaristic, ecologically safe, equitable, prosperous, and socialist.

This lecture by the former Chief Justice, Dr. Willy Mutunga, was delivered on 10 February 2020 to post-graduate students at The East Africa Institute of the Aga Khan University (EAI) in partnership with IGLUS (iglus.org)

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Dr Willy Mutunga is a public intellectual and former Chief Justice of Kenya.

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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.

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Africa’s Pandemic Response Calls for Reclaiming Economic and Monetary Sovereignty
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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.

Signed:

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

See the full list of signatories here, and add your name here.

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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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