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Trump Is Wrong, but China Cannot Escape Blame for the Pandemic

7 min read.

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw funding from WHO underscores how powerful UN member states play politics with people’s lives. But by withholding information that paints them in a bad light, influential countries like China are also endangering the world’s health.

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Trump Is Wrong, but China Cannot Escape Blame for the Pandemic
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Let me say at the outset that I think that the decision by United States President Donald Trump to withdraw funding to the tune of $400,000,000 a year from the World Health Organization (WHO) is a childish and despicable move, especially at a time when the world should be pooling its resources to fight the deadly coronavirus. As is so typical of the decisions the US president makes, this one was clearly made to deflect attention from Trump’s own failure to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the United States by heaping the blame on another country – in this case, China. Trump claims that WHO failed to criticise China when COVID-19 first emerged, and that it is “China-centric” in the way it approaches the pandemic. Hence the cut in funding.

This latest directive is part of an ongoing rivalry between the US and China that escalated in March when China deported American foreign correspondents working for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal after Trump designated five Chinese media organisations based in the US as “foreign missions”. President Trump retaliated by expelling from the US some 60 employees of Chinese state-owned media.

In addition to scoring points through journalists, both the US and China have resorted to spreading rumours about the origins of the coronavirus. On 12 March, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said that the US army might have brought the virus to Wuhan, the place where the pandemic originated. Some US officials have suggested that the virus emerged from a research lab near the city.

This war is now being played out at WHO

The irony is that neither Xi Jinping nor Donald Trump care much for press freedom. As the Economist noted, “Like many Chinese officials, he [Trump] dismisses unwelcome reporting as ‘fake news’. To him, journalists are collateral damage in a struggle with China that is about something bigger: ensuring that America retains its pre-eminence”.

Both the US and China have resorted to spreading rumours about the origins of the coronavirus

China, a country with superpower ambitions, is also not known for its tolerance of a free media. The Communist Party of China monitors the media with a heavy hand and China is consistently ranked as one of the countries with among the worst records when it comes to press freedom. (Reporters Without Borders ranks China as a country with the least press freedom, along with Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea.)

Is WHO to blame?

However, some of Trump’s allegations might not be completely off base. Questions linger about whether WHO played politics when the epidemic in China became a global pandemic. Why, for example, did WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, go out of his way to congratulate China for its “extraordinary” efforts to contain COVID-19? (Many argue that if China had successfully contained the disease, a local epidemic in Wuhan would not have spread around the world.) And why did the WHO director-general discourage countries from issuing travel bans when it was clear that the virus was travelling through planes, especially those departing from China?

WHO’s director-general has come under fire especially for playing down the severity of the outbreak of COVID-19 when it was first detected late last year, at around the same time that the US was planning to sign a trade deal with China to end a trade war that began in 2018. WHO only declared COVID-19 a “pandemic” in March.

Two US-based China experts have written a scathing article on Tedros’s response, in which they claim that the WHO director-general defended China despite its “gross mismanagement of the highly contagious disease”. Lianchao Han, the vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, and Bradley A. Thayer, a professor of political science at the University of Texas, accuse Tedros of heaping praise on China’s efforts to contain the virus even as China was detaining and arresting doctors and researchers who first raised the alarm on the disease. “China has misinformed and misled the world, and Tedros joined this effort by publicly praising China’s “transparency” in battling the spread of the disease,” they wrote in the 17 March edition of The Hill.

There is also the question of why WHO did not send independent experts to China to assess the extent of the disease, and depends almost entirely on the Chinese government for data on rates of infection and number of fatalities. Can a government that is known to whitewash negative or damaging information about itself be relied on to disseminate accurate figures? And should WHO be held accountable for not holding China accountable?

In the organisation’s defence, WHO’s special envoy, David Nabarro, admitted to BBC Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur that WHO cannot act or make decisions without the cooperation and approval of its member states. (China, a member state with significant clout within WHO, recently donated $20 million to the organisation towards its fight against COVID-19.) He told Sackur that the most WHO can do is “advise and guide” countries, not instruct them, a clear admission that rather than being the world’s health watchdog, WHO is really a vehicle through which countries can evade criticism by exerting pressure on the organisation’s leadership either directly or indirectly through donations.

Organisations that monitor global health policies say that WHO’s dual mandate of being both a technical agency with health expertise and a political body where states debate and negotiate on sometimes divisive health crises weakens the organisation’s ability to take tough or critical stands on the way individual countries handle health issues. This is a problem that is pervasive throughout the United Nations system (of which WHO is a part), where UN agencies with a mandate to provide technical support to countries often have to succumb to the political interests of the most powerful or influential member states, and therefore end up making decisions based on politics, rather than on scientific evidence.

Can a government that is known to whitewash negative or damaging information about itself be relied on to disseminate accurate figures?

It is significant to note that the UN Security Council has not held a single open meeting to discuss its response to COVID-19, even though it is becoming increasingly clear that the pandemic and the resultant lockdowns could become a security crisis that has the potential to destabilise countries politically and economically. (China is one the five permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers.)

Moreover, UN agencies like WHO have been losing credibility in recent years. Tedros, a former minister in the Ethiopian government, was elected as WHO director-general in 2017 at a time when the organisation’s management was being criticised internally. Last year, emails addressed to WHO directors (which were leaked to the Associated Press) complained of rampant racism at the organisation and theft of funds intended for Ebola victims. At WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, stated one email, African staff members suffer “systematic racial discrimination”.

The emails also spoke of widespread corruption and mismanagement of funds. One whistleblower claimed that logistics and procurement officers at WHO are known to be corrupt and that during one Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a plane was hired to transport three vehicles from a warehouse in Dubai at the highly inflated cost of one million dollars. Tedros promised to look into the matter.

Suppressing bad news

Sometimes influential member states can have their names deleted from UN reports that mention them adversely. In 2016, for example, after a leaked UN report on children’s rights violations became public, the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted to removing Saudi Arabia from a list of countries that had violated children’s rights. (Saudi Arabia has recently been donating large sums of money to the UN.)

Countries like China, which are particularly sensitive to negative publicity, are keen on such reports not becoming public. A recent CNN report claims that China has imposed strict restrictions on academic research on the origins of the coronavirus. Under the new policy, all academic papers on COVID-19 will be “subject to extra vetting before being submitted for publication”. This suggests that the Chinese government might doctor research findings to evade blame for the pandemic.

However, the Chinese government is not helping to improve its own image either. Recent reports of Africans being mistreated by Chinese authorities in Wuhan and other Chinese cities have created the impression that the Chinese are racist and anti-African. Yet, China has been actively wooing African countries with promises of “investments”, which in reality are usually large and highly opaque loan agreements. Many believe that China is not the friend of Africa that it purports to be, as these loans are likely to negatively affect African economies and lead to even more hardship.

The social media campaign by Africans against the mistreatment of Africans by Chinese authorities has soured relations between the African and Chinese people. Hostility towards Chinese nationals living and working in African countries where China has a visible presence is likely to increase as a result.

Yet, African governments, especially those that have taken out huge Chinese loans, like Kenya and Ethiopia, are reluctant to call out China. The Kenyan government made a feeble attempt to denounce the racist attacks against Africans, but has not condemned the actions of the Chinese authorities. In a scathing column published in the Sunday Nation recently, Prof. Makau Mutua described the predicament of Kenya vis-à-vis China as “unconscionable enslavement”.

Many believe that China is not the friend of Africa that it purports to be, as these loans are likely to negatively affect African economies

China’s role in allowing an epidemic to become a pandemic that is likely to be the cause of a global recession and untold suffering needs to be examined when this nightmare is over. It is alarming to note that the wet markets in southern China that are believed to have been the source of the conoravirus are still operating. In an authoritarian regime like China, it would be fairly easy to shut down these markets overnight. No one is asking the hard questions about why China still has a demand for wildlife meat, and what this may be doing to wildlife conservation efforts worldwide. By not shutting down these markets and continuing in the wildlife trade (some of which is illegal), China is endangering human life and creating conditions for the possibility of a coronavirus-like pandemic resurfacing in the future.

Much as I believe that Trump’s retaliation against WHO and China is based on a primitive tit-for-tat instinct, and on the US president’s unique ability to blame everyone but himself when things don’t go the way he expected, I also believe that China still has a lot of explaining to do. The world needs to know how this pandemic started, what went wrong and at what stage, if only to ensure that no such catastrophe occurs again.

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

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What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward

There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a buffoon. What happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way?

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What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward
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Consider something for a second: how severe could things have gotten, both in America and globally, if Trump weren’t an utter coward?

I can already hear the murmurs of dissent: “How can he be a coward? Trump just tried to overthrow the US government on live television!” Yes, that is entirely true — and yet he didn’t. The entire tenure of his administration seems to have been a series of near misses; flirting with dangerous ideas and flitting back under the umbrella of normalcy just before the precipice. Every disaster that he helped to foist on the world could have been exponentially worse — if only he had been as committed to being the strongman he always boasted to be.

He isn’t. He’s a little daddy’s boy, a frightened man-child who doesn’t have the courage to follow through on the bull he himself spouts in front of adoring supporters. He’s an entitled, rich, spoilt moron and always has been. For all the bluster, when the chips are down, he’s quick to back off. Remember that boastful kid in primary school who was probably dropped off in his family’s C-Class Mercedes and looked down on everyone within insulting distance? He’d puff himself up and spit on others, until one day someone slapped the hell out of him. Upon getting struck, and family power no longer mattering, it became apparent that he didn’t even know how to throw a punch. That’s Trump in a nutshell. But Trump was also the gleeful little sociopath who led the charge in starting a fire only to have it pointed out there could be consequences without Daddy around. Learning of possible repercussions, he was the type to throw others quickly under the bus and backtrack from his own fomented chaos.

To be clear, in the last year especially, Trump absolutely could have gone horrifyingly further than he did. Could you imagine if Trump, the wannabe little dictator that he is, had the convictions (terrible though they are) of a Museveni or an Uhuru? It was within his power to do so, but he kept pulling back. Take for instance the Black Lives Matter movement across the United States in the summer of 2020. Yes, there was horrible police violence, clashes amongst protesters, chaos and destitution. In the midst of all of those charred buildings and the all-pervasive sense of loss in Minneapolis (the city where George Floyd was executed by police), I had a feeling I could not quite shake off as masked marchers swarmed in the streets around me: couldn’t this have been so much worse? To be clear, there absolutely could have been martial law declared but all those Trumpian threats of militarising entire cities never fully materialised beyond a handful of arrests by unidentified officers of questionable loyalties.

Sure, all these things are a horror and an affront to “Western society”. We get it. But all things are relative in politics so imagine if Uhuru had been in Trump’s shoes. Kagame calling the shots. Museveni. What would have happened? Experience tells me that those ugly bruises and lost eyes from rubber bullets would have needed body bags; the amount of live ammunition used would have been innumerable, and the scale of the tragedy would have been of unheard of proportions. Ask a Kenyan university student how their protests tend to wind up; talk to a random Kampala youth about how things shook out a couple weeks after the presidential election. If you can manage to find one, talk to an opposition leader in Rwanda. If there are any brave enough to filter back into Burundi, ask anyone involved in the coup attempt against Nkurunziza a few years back. The point here isn’t to give undue credit to tyrants, but merely to point out that things can always be drastically worse.

What happened in November of 2020 in Kampala? Protests at the arrest of Bobi Wine were met with such utter brutality it was incredible that anyone would dare stick their head out. Officially 54 people were killed but there are claims that the real death toll is in fact far higher. Take the days after the Kenyan re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta back in 2017, when there seemed to be a sort of suspension of what was to come next as the election drama unfolded and the cops came down hard on Kawangware and Kibera. That’s what being a totalitarian looks like. It is cops firing on crowds, social media shutdowns and mass power cuts. Looking back years from now, the reality will prevail that Trump could easily have gone there but didn’t.

That is the essence of Trump, absolutely having the power to be a world-class dictator, but lacking the organisational skills, intelligence, or conviction to jump in all the way. He always dips his toe in at the deep end, but never dives. The waters of reality are always a bit too cold for him, the soup just a bit too hot for his liking. His legacy will be one of having half-assed it in all aspects of his administration, from fascism to COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. I don’t think that it is any real stretch to look at him and state plainly that he’s just too cowardly to really accomplish anything that he aspires to. While Sevo cranks out press-ups on state television, Trump has spent his time cranking out tweets in between bites of “quarter-pounder” cheeseburgers from the comfort of his own bed.

Of course, the Western media will not countenance such comparisons, let alone acknowledge how much worse the situation could have easily become at the US Capitol last January 6th. For the American media, this is (rightly) a major blow to US democracy, but (wrongly) the single worst thing that could have happened. For instance, what if just two more of the thousands of protesters had discharged the firearms they were carrying inside that crowded Capitol Building? What if the pipe bombs planted near the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee buildings had exploded? What if the mob had wedged its way into the chambers of the Senate and the House quickly enough to get their hands on members of congress? And what if Trump himself had not backed off and sent out a tepid message to his supporters at the 11th hour?

Think about this: in coup d’état terms, the Trump mob had pulled it off. They had taken the single most important government building in the US and had done so quite easily. Their flags were draped from balconies and their cronies were climbing the ramparts to continue streaming through the doors. They took the seat of government and, for a brief period during the process of transitioning power, successfully interrupted the proceedings and forced all the democratically elected members of congress to scurry into the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels below the Capitol Building to save their very lives. That is a coup. A successful one at that. For one committed to following through on his calls to overthrow the government, this would be a crowning achievement.

Picture this: if three years ago Raila Odinga had called on his supporters to storm State House, and they had successfully done so while Uhuru’s re-election  was being certified, forcing members of parliament to flee in their government-issue Prados, what would that be called? I know what the Western media would have said about it, that it is another sad story of a developing country in Africa that just could not get over the hump of real democracy. There probably would have been some backroom deals with international powers, and an intervention from all those British troops that hold the base up on Mount Kenya may not have been entirely out of the question. Perhaps Raila is the most eloquent example as he does have a bit of a track record of stirring up his supporters after controversial elections then backing down “for the sake of the country” after chaos has already erupted.

The coup was complete but Trump pulled out of it quicker than from his marriage to a wife turning 40. Why? Could it be that it is only when his advisors managed to get his ear during cable news commercial breaks that he realised that he might drown in the madness? I for one certainly think so. When he realised that there would be consequences for his little civil war charade, Trump felt what he always feels — fear. Trump didn’t realise there could be ramifications for what he was doing until someone (not named Mike Pence) put the fear deep into him. He backed off, and American democracy continues shakily on into an uncertain future

Now there actually might be consequences — legal ones at that. Banks are cutting ties and media partnerships are being snuffed out in rapid succession. Some Republicans are now actively jumping ship, others have deflected blame or finally acknowledged that there is a central symptom to the American political condition. It is too little, too late of course, and the task of getting Americans locked in a tribal political death embrace to try not to strangle each other is now firmly in the hands of centrist Democrats who may not actually follow through on the massive economic recovery needed for the citizens of the US to survive the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic disaster. Is the US still the preeminent superpower as the Trump administration takes the exit? Yes, unfortunately it is. Imperialism is still alive and well, and frankly could have weighed way more heavily on the global community over the last four years.

A lingering question remains, one that hangs like a suspended piano over the heads of the Democratic establishment: what or who will come along next? It is obvious that the cat has been let out of the dark ethers of conservatism for a while now; just how much has that cohort been emboldened? It is a question that I have asked before, but now as flags were draped on the smoldering fences that were brought down around the US Capitol, the core of the issue remains; what happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way? There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a showman; he evoked something amongst a huge swath of the public consciousness, only for it to prove illusory for Trump never understood what he had within his grasp in the first place.

Whoever comes next might just push the boundaries further out, might commit to striking Iran, take concentration camps for immigrants to a greater extreme, declare martial law and put armed troops in the streets with a standing “shoot to kill” order. Someone who might take measures to outlaw efforts to combat global warming and do all of this without batting an eyelid or seeing any reason to back down. The part of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic wasn’t what was visible, but the larger mass just below the surface and out of sight. To put it bluntly, next time the United States might not be pulled back from the brink by cowardice.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive
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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Uganda: Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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