The geography of economic potential: Myths from the “White” Highlands
At 67,000 km2, Marsabit County is Kenya’s second largest county after Turkana (71,600 km2). It is just under 12 per cent of Kenya’s land mass. Before the discovery of wind power resources, it was known only as an arid and semi-arid conflict-prone region dominated by pastoralism. But according to the Marsabit Statistical Abstract published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), almost a quarter of the county, 16,000 km2 km, is arable land which receives 1000 mm of rainfall per year, high enough for large-scale rain-fed mechanised agriculture. I know of a hi-tech operation in Laikipia that is producing 25 bags per acre of maize with 650 mm of rainfall a year.
Let us do some simple math. If we use maize to benchmark the potential at a price of Sh2,000 a bag, that works out to Sh240 billion a year (16000 km2 is equivalent to 4m acres) This alone would rank as the fifth highest county GDP after Nairobi, Nakuru, Mombasa and Kiambu.
Kitui County (30,430 km2) is one third larger than Israel (22,145 km2), and receives about the same amount of rainfall. Over and above being food self-sufficient in everything other than grain, Israel exports $8 billion (Sh800 billion) worth of agricultural produce a year, 70 per cent more than our total marketed agricultural production on last year (Sh465 billion) and more than our total exports.
Economic potential is not a fixed endowment. It is a variable that is determined by investment. And of course it is dynamic. Before wind technology became technically and economically viable, Marsabit’s strong wind did not count as economic potential. The basic laws of economics don’t change. This assertion was just as true in 1965 when the government adopted the policy of concentrating public investment in the “high potential areas” which were defined as “areas having abundant natural resources, good land and rainfall, transport and power facilities, and people receptive to, and active in development” as it is today.
It is not just the geography of economic potential that the architects of the Sessional Paper got wrong. They also got the economics of investment wrong. Let me illustrate with a numerical example. We grow maize in Kitale but we could also grow maize in Tana River, as we’ve been trying to do lately. The potential yield is 30 bags per acre in both places. In “high potential” Kitale the yield is presently 15 bags per acre. In Tana River it is five bags. Where should we invest to maximise national output? For simplicity, let’s work with one acre of land in each region; investing to maximise yield in Kitale raises national output to 35 bags, investing in Tana River to 45 bags.
Investment is subject to an economic law known as diminishing marginal returns. Think of growing a maize crop, and fertiliser as capital. Let’s say the recommended application is 50kg/acre. The table below shows a hypothetical relationship between different quantities of fertiliser application, yield, and implied return to fertiliser investment (Columns 1 & 2). Column 3 shows incremental yield and Column 4 the additional yield expressed in bags of maize per kilo of fertiliser. The fifth column converts the production into monetary value calculated at Sh2,000 per bag of maize and Sh50 per kilo of fertiliser. A farmer who applies no fertiliser may harvest 5 bags. Applying 10 bags increases yield to 15 bags, which works out to a bag a kilo. But increasing from 40 to 50 kg increases maize yield by only 3 kg. In money terms, this is a loss of Sh10 per kilo of fertiliser. The maximum return on capital is reached somewhere between 40 and 50 kg of fertiliser per acre.
Consider a farmer who has five acres of land, and enough money for only 50 kilos of fertiliser. She can apply 50 kilos of fertiliser on one acre as recommended and harvest 30 bags. If she ploughs all five acres and applies 10 bags on each acre, she will harvest 75 bags. Obviously, which is more profitable depends on the other costs such as plowing, weeding, seeds, etc. It is doubtful though, that these costs could offset the 45-bag difference. Returns to capital behaves the same way; the more capital employed, the lower the return.
The first decade of independence witnessed very rapid agriculture-led growth that seemed to validate Sessional Paper No. 10’s “to those who have, more shall be given” public investment strategy. But this growth came primarily from adoption of coffee, tea and dairy farming by African smallholders, hitherto the preserve of white settler farmers and by the late 70s, this “low hanging fruit” was exhausted. Kenya’s agricultural productivity stagnated in the late 80s. With the exception of export horticulture, there has been no new source of agricultural productivity growth since the 60s. Consequently, Kenya’s cost of producing food is now the highest in the region.
The “high potential areas” now cry foul about cheap imports of everything that they produce, pleading to be protected from Ugandan maize and eggs and milk and Tanzanian vegetables. Expensive food translates into poverty and loss of international competitiveness. At Sh3,000 per bag (Sh30/kg), Kenyan maize costs close to double the world price ($160 per ton or Sh16/kg), while the factory gate of sugar ($800/ton is two and half time the world price ($280/ton). When food is expensive, people have less disposable incomes to spend on other things. It also makes the country’s labour expensive vis à vis competitors where food is cheap, for example South Asia where $80 (Sh8.500) is a decent wage for EPZ workers. We keep asking how it is that we fell behind East Asian countries; the flawed trickle-down economics of Sessional Paper No.10 is one of the reasons.
The free loading bogeyman: Who pays what tax?
The inaugural county economic data published by the KNBS last year put the 2017 Gross County Product (GCP) of Nyandarua and Kwale at Sh245 billion and Sh86 billion respectively, that is, Nyandarua’s economy is about three times as big as Kwale’s. But Nyandarua’s economy is one of the country’s least diversified, with agriculture accounting for 86 per cent. Kwale’s on the other hand is quite diversified; agriculture accounts for 47 per cent, the rest being tourism-related services, mining (titanium), quite a bit of manufacturing, construction and real estate services.
The national tax yield is currently in the order of 15 per cent of GDP. If Nyandarua was to pay its fair share, based on an estimated 2019 GCP of Sh296 billion (obtained by adjusting the national nominal GDP growth rate), it would contribute Sh44 billion to the national tax kitty. It is hard to see where this tax would come from. It is doubtful whether there is a single entity which pays Sh500 million in taxes in Nyandarua. I would challenge the Kenya Revenue Authority to show that it raised Sh5 billion in direct taxes in Nyandarua last year.
Base Titanium’s 2019 annual report shows it paid direct taxes to the tune of Sh2.5 billion (Sh1.5 billion in royalties and Sh1 billion in income tax). Including indirect taxation such as payroll tax and taxes paid by suppliers, the total is over Sh3 billion. Tourism generated Sh200 billion last year, and about 40 per cent of that (Sh80 billion) is tax. The Coast accounts for 43 per cent of hotel occupancy. If we apportion Kwale a third of that, we arrive at an estimate of Sh10 billion in tax. Add income taxes paid by other industries (sugar, steel, construction, real estate) and wealthy residents and we are will be approaching Sh15 billion.
Kwale is also more populous, with 867,000 people compared to Nyandarua’s 686,000 as per the 2019 census. Average household expenditure is comparable in both counties, with Kwale at Sh6,470 and Nyandarua at Sh6,690 per person. If we were to factor in indirect consumption taxes paid by households, such as VAT, Kwale still comes out ahead at 25 per cent more. It is thus likely that overall, Kwale, with an economy a third the size of Nyandarua pays three times the taxes.
Central Kenya counties are not owed more money by the rest of the country. They do not contribute more tax, and may even contribute less than their equitable share. If they have evidence to the contrary, they should table it. In addition, the country’s highest economic growth potential lies elsewhere. There is no rational economic or social development criteria that would justify redistributing money to central Kenya.
Where does the National Government money go?
Since coming into being seven years ago, county governments have—excluding last financial year (up to FY18/19)—secured Sh1.66 trillion of nationally raised revenue. County governments are mandated to spend 30 per cent on development projects, which they seldom do (it’s a bad policy but that’s another matter). This means that the maximum they could have spent on development projects is Sh500 billion, an average of Sh11 billion per county. Over the same period, the national government’s development expenditure is Sh2.94 trillion. In effect, the national government has spent at least 11 times more than the counties on development projects (the National government’s total expenditure comes to Sh11.4 trillion).
We should be seeing at least ten times the impact of national government development. Makueni County government’s Sh140 million women and children’s hospital ought not to be the talk of the county, and the country. Makueni people should be seeing the equivalent of 70 projects comparable to this hospital build by the national government. It is doubtful that there is any county that can show more national government projects than county ones, despite the national government spending 10 times the money.
Where are these national government projects? We do not know. What we can say for sure is that northern Kenya is not getting its fair share. If population were used as a criteria as proposed, and north-eastern counties (Mandera, Garissa, Wajir) had received their rightful share based on their share of national population (5 per cent), the national government would have spent Sh147 billion there. How many kilometres has it tarmacked? To the best of my knowledge, zero.
It is often suggested that northern Kenya counties ought to reduce dependency on the more developed south by developing their own revenue base. It is even suggested that pastoralism is an antiquated mode of production and it is time that the region abandoned or modernised it.
Livestock production (cattle, sheep and goats) contributed Sh115 billion to the economy last year—the second largest agricultural sub-sector after export horticulture (Sh145 billion) although ordinarily it would be third after tea, which went down from Sh127 billion to Sh104 billion in 2018. Livestock production was more than three time the value of cereals (Sh36 billion), seven times sugarcane (Sh17 billion) and more than ten times the value of coffee (Sh10 billion). It is also worth noting that northern pastoralists do not receive subsidised inputs or regular bailouts that some of these other high potential producers receive on a regular basis.
The most readily available strategy for northern Kenya to develop its revenue base is to add value to livestock. Few agricultural products can match the value addition potential of livestock —at least eight times the value of a live animal. On current output, this is potentially a Sh800 billion livestock industry. And according to analysis by the government policy think tank KIPPRA (Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis), the livestock industry leads in employment generation potential. But to unlock this potential, northern Kenya needs the physical infrastructure linking it to market so that instead of trekking live animals to be slaughtered near the market, they can be slaughtered at source so as to retain the hides for processing.
The Constitution of Kenya established the Equalisation Fund for this purpose, for the national government “to provide basic services including water, roads, health facilities and electricity to marginalised areas to the extent necessary to bring the quality of those services in those areas to the level generally enjoyed by the rest of the nation”. The Constitution stipulates that 0.5 per cent of revenue be put in, and retained in the fund. A decade on, the Fund has not been operationalised, even though a provision is dutifully reflected in the budget every year. If indeed the money is set aside, the fund should have upwards of Sh50 billion.
The evident resolve to take away money from northern Kenya, while at the same time withholding money that is the region’s constitutional entitlement, begs the question whether the true intention of the one-man-one-shilling formula is to increase the money flowing to central Kenya or to keep northern Kenya poor and marginalised.
Land or people? Why money should follow function
Kirinyaga (Pop. 610,000, 1,478 km2) and Nyamira (Pop. 605,000, 913 km2)) have about the same population and are equally small and so, on both population and area, they’d come out about even. In Kirinyaga, 52 per cent of households have piped water in their compounds. In Nyamira only 7.7 percent do, as per the Integrated Household Budget Survey (IHBS) 2015/16. Similarly, Migori (Pop. 1.12 m) and Murang’a (Pop. 1.07m) are in the same population bracket, but 35 per cent of Murang’a households have piped water. In Migori, it is 1.6 per cent. Busia (Pop. 890,000) might feel it has a leg up on Nyeri (Pop. 759,000) population-wise, but the IHBS 2015/16 puts Busia’s poverty incidence at 69 per cent against Nyeri’s 19 per cent. Busia’s interests in terms of how money should be allocated are more aligned with those of their northern Kenya poverty peer group.
Why then would Busia, Migori or Siaya for that matter conclude that their interests are aligned with those of equally populous counties as opposed to those with which they share needs? Residents of these and other counties in a similar situation are owed an answer to this question. Population per se is not a criteria for allocation of revenue. It has been used as a proxy for the cost of providing services. If Kirinyaga County had only one hospital located at Kerugoya, every resident would be able to access it in less than 45 minutes. To provide the same quality of access in Marsabit would require 45 facilities, and roads leading to them. Obviously, it is difficult for Marsabit to equip 45 facilities to match Kirinyaga’s one hospital. Population density also matters. Incidence of poverty matters. Climate (e.g. malaria incidence) matters.
On revenue sharing by formula
Consider a Ward with three villages allocated NGCDF (National Government Constituencies Development Fund) money for one project. One village proposes a secondary school, the second a dispensary and the third a tarmac road. How to choose? An economic axiom known as the Arrow Impossibility Theorem posits that there is no win-win solution for this problem and thus problems of this nature are solved by give and take. Formulas such as rates of return are helpful for illuminating discussion but they are not of themselves a solution. There is no scientific method of adding up and subtracting the continued suffering from lack of healthcare and the income loss on produce that fails to get to market during the rains from the happiness of having a secondary school. The only human institution that thrives on self-interest is commerce. This should disabuse the Senate and the country at large of the idea that we can tinker with a formula until it pleases everyone. This impasse is political, and not politics of the best kind. Put the formulas aside and return to reason.
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Twitter: Let It Burn!
Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.
Elon Musk finally bought Twitter. Although everyone expected the move to quickly prove foolhardy, the speed of the implosion has been impressive. The latest gaffe is a failed attempt to monetize verification by requiring paid subscriptions for them, which has led to all manner of comical impersonations (one macabre highlight was a “verified” George W. Bush account tweeting “I miss killing Iraqis. “Tony Blair” responded with “Same tbh”). Some are watching with shock and horror and wondering if Twitter can be saved. But, when sulfur and fire rains, it is best not to look back.
Africa Is a Country managing editor, Boima Tucker, put it best some years ago: “Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation.” The thing to reckon with is the extent to which we have exaggerated the emancipatory potential of networked communication and social media, partly owing to our own psychic overinvestments in it. Which is not to deny that it has never shown democratic and egalitarian potential, but that’s never been what Twitter is for. There can be no right platform in the wrong world.
What was Twitter for then? In the New York Review of Books, Ben Tarnoff describes it as a “network of influence.” In a world characterized by the economization of everything, social media is the place to commodify the self, to transform one’s unique traits and personality into a product for public display. The main imperative online is to “stay on brand,” to cultivate an appealing enough persona in the endless “production of new genres of being human.”
The key contradiction of social media use, of course, is that even though these platforms appear to us as complete products that we participate in and consume, we are the ones responsible for ensuring their possibility in the first place. As the media scholar Christian Fuchs notes, “Digital work is the organization of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. These products can be online information, meanings, social relations, artifacts or social systems.” Thus, it is us who create the value of these platforms.
In a better world, these digital communications platforms would be democratically owned and operated. But one also wonders if in a better world they would be as necessary. Perhaps, when we are less socially disaffected, living in societies with social provision, an abundance of recreational public goods and less exploitative, dignifying work, then we would all have less reason to be online. For now, the question is: in a time when this ideal is nowhere close to being within view, how best can we use platforms like Twitter as tools to get us to that world?
The possible answers here are murky. Twitter seems like a critical piece of infrastructure for modern political life. Musk is not alone in thinking of it as a marketplace of ideas, as something like a digital town square. Yet, and especially in Africa, Twitter is not as popular a platform, and even on it, a minority of Twiteratti exert an outsized influence in terms of setting the discursive agenda. But setting aside the question of who is excluded from the digitalized public sphere of which Twitter is a cornerstone, the important question is whether the quality of political debate that takes place is healthy or desirable at all. Granted, it can be fun and cathartic, but at the best of times, amounts to hyper-politics. In Anton Jager’s explanation, this:
can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinized for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicized, but little is achieved.
We would lack critical self-awareness if we did not admit that Africa Is A Country is a venue whose existence greatly benefits from an online presence—so it goes for every media outlet. Tarnoff points out that “… if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses.” To lack an online presence is to reconcile oneself to irrelevance. Although, the news cycle itself is a disorienting vortex of one topic du jour to the next. It makes difficult the kind of long, slow, and sustained discourse-over-time that is the lifeblood of politics, and instead reduces everything into fleeting soundbites.
Nowhere is the modern phenomenon of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “pointillist time” more apparent than on Twitter. For Bauman, pointillist time is the experience of temporality as a series of eternal instants, and the present moment’s connection to the past and future “turns into gaps—with no bridges, and hopefully unbridgeable.” The consequence of this, is that “there is no room for the idea of ‘progress.’” Living through a mode where everything seems to be happening all at once, is both to experience time as what Walter Benjamin called “a “time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new,” but curiously, at the same time, for everything to feel inert, and for nothing to seem genuinely possible.
For a while, notions of historical progress have been passé on the left, associated with Eurocentric theories of modernity. Now, more than ever, the idea is worth reclaiming. The Right today is no longer straightforwardly conservative, but nihilistic and anti-social, thriving on sowing deeper communal mistrust and paranoia. These are pathologies that flourish on Twitter. The alternative to media-fuelled hyper-politics and anti-politics is not real politics per some ideal type. Politics, in the first instance, is not defined by content, but by form. The reason our politics are empty and shallow is not because today’s political subject lacks virtues possessed by the subjects of yore. It’s because today’s political subject is barely one in the first place, lacking rootedness in those institutions that would have ordinarily shaped an individual’s clear sense of values and commitments. The alternative to digitized human association, as noted by many, is mass politics: only when the majority of citizens are meaningfully mobilized through civic and political organizations can we create a vibrant and substantive public sphere.
AIAC editor Sean Jacobs observed in his book, Media In Post-apartheid South Africa: “the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes is the decline of mass political parties and social movements.” Whether Twitter dies or not, and if it does, whether we should mourn it or not, should be beside the point for those committed to building a world of three-dimensional solidarity and justice.
COP 27: Climate Negotiations Repeatedly Flounder
The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world
As COP 27 in Egypt nears its end, I find it difficult, almost impossible, to talk to my children about climate change. The shame of our monumental failings as a global community to address the greatest crisis our planet has consciously faced weighs too heavy. The stakes have never been higher, the moral quivering of political leaders has never been more distressing.
“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” goes the famous commandment from George Orwell’s political allegory Animal Farm. It applies with particular acuity to international negotiations, where each country has a seat, but seats hold very different weights. The outcome of the Sharm-El-Sheik conference will in large part depend on what Western governments are willing to commit to and follow up on. Rich European and other Western countries are historically responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. The moral case for them being the first-movers and the biggest movers on cutting emissions is crystal clear, and genuine commitments on their part may hold the key to opening up the floodgate of policy innovation towards decarbonization in other countries.
In this context, viewed from the Global South, recent events in the country that still held the COP presidency until it was handed over to Egypt appear as signs of the madness that grips societies before a fall. In her short time as head of government in the UK, Liz Truss spoke as if she lived on another planet that did not show signs of collapsing under the battering of models of economic growth birthed under the British Empire, gleefully pronouncing that her three priorities for Britain were “growth, growth and growth.” Her successor, Rishi Sunak, announced that he would not attend the COP 27 climate summit because he had to focus on the UK economy. The silver lining is that Truss did not last long and Sunak was shamed into reversing his decision. In a scathing rebuke, the Spanish environment minister called the shenanigans of British political leaders “absurd” and pointed out that elections in Brazil and Australia show that voters are starting to punish leaders who ignore climate change.
I see another silver lining. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that Europe was warming twice as fast as other parts of the world. A similar report was not issued for North America, but other studies indicate faster than average temperature increases across the continent’s northeastern coast, and its west coast was home to one of the most striking heat waves last year, with a memorable summer temperature peak of 49.6°C recorded in British Columbia, Canada.
Professor Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary-general, emphasized that the findings highlighted that “even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events.” In other words, the report should make Europeans think it could happen to us, with “it” being devastating floods on the scale of what Pakistan and Bangladesh recently experienced, or the hunger-inducing droughts afflicting Madagascar and the Horn of Africa. While some may find it dismal that human beings remain relatively unmoved by the plight of other human beings considered too distant or too different, this is a part of human nature to reckon with. And reckoning with it can turn a sentiment of shared vulnerability into an opportunity for the planet.
Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries to pay developing countries loss and damages to fund their transitions to greener energies and build crucially needed climate adaptability to limit deaths. Underlying such a position is a centuries-old smug belief that Europe and North America will never need to depend on solidarity from other parts of the world. The WMO report calls into question such hubris, as did the Covid 19 pandemic before that.
The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world. Europe and North America, where barely 15% of the world population resides, accounted for more than half of COVID deaths. Turning the normal direction of disaster statistics upside down, high- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for four out of five Covid deaths globally. While some scientists still pose questions over the real death toll in low-income countries, I was grateful to not live in the West during the pandemic. In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Senegal where I spent most of my pandemic months, I often encountered “COVID refugees,” young Europeans who had temporarily relocated to work remotely from Africa to escape pandemic despair at home.
We are at a point in our failures to fight climate change where fiction writers and other experts of human nature are often more useful than scientists in indicating what our priorities should be. Many fiction writers have turned their focus on what will be necessary for humans to remain humane as societies crumble. Before we get to that stage, let us hope that political leaders and delegates keep remembering that climate disaster could very concretely befall them personally at any time. Let us hope that the sense of equal—or more cynically, unpredictable—vulnerability instills a sense of global solidarity and a platform to negotiate in true good faith. Let us hope that we can start talking to our children again about what we adults are doing to avert the disaster that looms over their futures.
The Specter of Foreign Forces in Haiti
The so-called ‘Haitian crisis’ is primarily about outsiders’ attempts force Haitians to live under an imposed order and the latter’s resistance to that order.
What actually happened on the nights of October 6th and 7th, 2022, remains unclear. What reverberated was the rather loud rumor of the resignation of Haiti’s acting prime minister Ariel Henry. He was a member of President Jovenel Moïse’s pro-US Pati Ayisien Tèt Kale (PHTK) party. (Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.) Had Henry truly resigned? Or was it just a well-propagated rumor? Could it have perhaps been both at the same time: that Henry might have indeed resigned but had been coerced to stay, thus making the news of his resignation spread like gossip that the governmental communication machine had fabricated for public consumption?
Nevertheless, we witnessed the following the next day: in Henry’s address to the nation, he first requested the intervention of foreign military forces in Haiti. He then made a formal request to the United Nations. This call was picked up by international organizations, particularly the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. In the media coverage of the events, no relationship was established between the (rumored) resignation of the de facto Prime Minister and his request for military intervention. Was it a way to keep our minds occupied while waiting on a response from the international community? Or was the military intervention a promise made by the international community to Henry for the withdrawal of his letter of resignation?
Media coverage has seemingly obscured what happened on October 6th and 7th by choosing to focus solely on the request for military intervention, obscuring a chain of events in the process. Was the same request addressed to the UN and the US administration? Or were these two distinct approaches: one within a multilateral framework and the other within a bilateral framework? Supposing it was the latter, what does this tell us about the Haitian government’s domestic policy, about US foreign policy toward (or against) Haiti, or even about geopolitics (as part of a white-hot world order)—especially in light of US Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols’ visit to Haiti, his ensuing meetings, and the presence of US Coast Guard ships in Haitian waters?
At least one thing’s for sure. Since the request for formal intervention and the presence of the US in the form of its warships and its emissary, the question of military intervention has been swiftly framed as a discourse on the supposed “consensus between Haitians.” In reality, it refers to the convergence of interests between the representatives of the de facto Haitian government; the representatives of the Montana Accord (agreed on between civic and political groups in the wake of Moise’s assassination); and the president, Fritz Jean, and prime minister, Steven Benoit, agreed on as part of that accord. The message is clear: If you do not want a military intervention, side with Ariel Henry, who initiated the request himself. Any posture of self-determination must undergo review by Ariel Henry and his crew.
In these circumstances, there can be no self-determination. It is as though those truly responsible for the military intervention (which was already underway) aren’t those who asked for it, but rather those who were unable to thwart it by finding an agreement with the former group. In this sense, the “nationalist” label (the current catchall term which, among other things, is being made to include any praxis refuting the colonial apparatus) refers to doing everything possible to avoid military intervention—and that means doing exactly what the representatives of the “Colonial Capitalist Internationale” want.
American presence in Haiti—in the form of warships and a high-ranking emissary—takes after historical colonial endeavors such as the Napoleonic expedition for the reestablishment of slavery (1802) and King Charles X’s fleet, sent to demand ransom for Haiti’s independence (1825). Yet, in this case, the point is not to put pressure on those who hold the keys to institutions, but rather to avoid losing control in a context where those in government are not only misguided, but also display the greatest shortcomings in managing the lives of the population for the better. The US’s current presence thus more closely echoes the language of the English warship HMS Bulldog, sent to shell the city of Cap Haitien to support President Geffrard against the anti-government insurrection of Salnave.
The Henry government uses the same grammar as its tutelar powers to discuss the current situation. Much has been made of “efforts deployed by the United States and Canada”: they have consisted in flying police equipment into Haiti on Canadian and US military cargo aircraft. Henry and the Haitian National Police offered warm, public thanks for material paid for with Haitian funds some time ago; indeed, these deliveries have come very late, and only thanks to pressure from Haitian civil society actors. More problematic still, the presence of foreign military planes at the Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince has served both as evidence of an ongoing military intervention and as a subterfuge to obtain such an intervention.
This request for intervention, while it seeks to obfuscate this fact, nevertheless exposes the political illegitimacy of the Henry government—made up of members of Henry’s PHTK and former members of the opposition. Its illegitimacy doesn’t rest on the usual discussion (or lack thereof) and confrontation between the governors and the governed, nor on the classic power play between the political opposition and the authorities in place; rather, it is the result of the absolute rejection on the part of Haitians of an order controlled and engineered by the PHTK machine in Haiti for over 10 years with one purpose in mind: defending the neoliberal interests and projects of the Colonial Capitalist Internationale. The request for intervention reveals the fact that the rejection of the PHTK machine is but one part of a broader rejection of the neoliberal colonial order as it has manifested itself in various anti-popular economic projects, which themselves were made possible by many attempts at reconfiguring Haiti socially and constitutionally: consider, to name but a few, the financial project of privatization of the island of Gonâve, the referendum to replace the 1987 Constitution, and others.
For the first time since the US military intervention of 1915 (the centenary of which was silenced by the PHTK machine), we are witnessing a direct confrontation between the Colonial Capitalist Internationale and the Haitian people, as local political go-betweens aren’t in a position to mediate and local armed forces (whether the military, the militias, or the armed gangs) aren’t able to fully and totally repress unrest. In this colonial scenario—drafted in the past five years, maintained and fueled by the geopolitics of “natural disasters,” epidemics, pandemics, and the presence of gangs (simultaneously functioning as the armed extensions of political parties and materializing “disorder”)—the only possible solution to chaos is military intervention by foreign forces.
Yet one cannot pretend that such an intervention will help the Haitian people, and no agreement crafted in the language of the colonial system can stifle popular demands and aspirations which, in the past twelve years, have built what Haitian academic and activist Camille Chalmers calls a real “anti-imperialist conscience.”
What of late has breathlessly been labeled the “Haitian crisis” must instead be identified as the highest point of the contradiction which has brewed throughout the PHTK regime: between the International Colonial Capitalists’ will to force us to live under an imposed order and our resistance to that order.
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