Some days are simply unforgettable. Thursday, 31st March, 2005, was one of them. I was a United Nations press officer back then, and terribly proud of being paid to help make the world a better place. Working at the UN headquarters in New York felt like entering Plato’s Ideal City, where realpolitik mixes with utopia. Despite its failures, I still had faith in the organisation’s willingness to make a difference in people’s lives. I used to think the UN’s imperfections were humane, and “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”, as Immanuel Kant put it.
On that Thursday, a colleague and I at the French desk of the Press Release Section were asked to cover a “historic” meeting. The UN Security Council was considering the referral of the horrific crimes committed by the regime of President Omar al-Bashir in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The meeting kept being delayed all day long. We were told that behind the closed-door, tense deliberations were raging. In Darfur, the victims, yearning for justice, were holding their breath, as many feared China would block the resolution to protect its client-regime of Bashir.
Late that night, at around 22:30 hours, we had to rush off to the meeting. Finally, the vote was going to take place. As I was making my way to the Security Council room, I was rather surprised by the smell of alcohol and the overwhelming joy and delight manifested by a loud diplomatic crowd. I was shocked to learn that the much-awaited vote was delayed, not due to some “tense deliberations”, but because diplomats were indulging themselves at a dinner party with plenty of booze. The Brazilian mission had organised a party to celebrate its presidency of the Council on the last day of the month, as the UN tradition goes.
The diplomats took their seats around the horseshoe-shaped table and tried hard to wear a serious face on top of their alcohol-induced red one. One representative after the other took the floor, delivering speeches they sometimes struggled to read. But since the fun was still in the air, the permanent representative to the UN of the Philippines, Mr. Lauro Baja, cracked this joke about the third resolution on Sudan on that month, which he compared to the third child of the Security Council:
“There was a middle-aged couple who had two stunningly beautiful teenage daughters, but who decided to try one last time for the son they had always wanted. After months of trying, the wife became pregnant, and, sure enough, delivered a healthy baby boy nine months later. The happy father rushed to the nursery to see his new son. He took one look at him, but was horrified to find that he was the ugliest child he had ever seen. He went to his wife and said that there was no way that he could have fathered the child. ‘Look at the two beautiful daughters I fathered,’ he cried. Then he gave her a stern look, and asked, ‘Have you been fooling around?’ The wife smiled sweetly and said, ‘Not this time.’”
Before Mr. Baja wrapped up his joke, a ripple of laughter erupted in the room. Even the usually stern Kofi Annan flashed a smile. Regardless of the point Baja was trying to make about the legitimacy of the resolution, I felt that such humour was inappropriate. Unsurprisingly, the video of that session was never posted on the UN website. Some editors must have felt it lacked the minimum of decency to be shared with the public.
This incident made me question the seriousness of the Council. It also convinced me to leave the protocol-ridden and speech-oriented UN headquarters for the field. The following month, I embarked on an eight-year long journey in the field, across Iraq, Jordan, Sudan and Egypt. At the headquarters in New York, most of my work was limited to summing up delegates’ speeches. But, in the field, I had to generate stories and pitch them, speak to the media, organise media events and run public information teams. Whether serving at the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) or the UN Development Programme in Sudan (UNDP-Sudan), my work consisted of promoting what the UN does, and how and why it does it.
Before Mr. Baja wrapped up his joke, a ripple of laughter erupted in the room. Even the usually stern Kofi Annan flashed a smile. Regardless of the point Baja was trying to make about the legitimacy of the resolution, I felt that such humour was inappropriate.
I enjoyed working with people from around the world, from Fiji to Chile. Bringing people from different places to work together is the best thing the UN does. Perhaps each staff had her or his own reason for joining the organisation. Some enrolled for the generous paycheck, others for the organisation’s ideals, and still others, including myself, wanted it all: the paycheck and the good conscience. But my experience in Iraq and Sudan taught me I couldn’t have it both ways. It also taught me a great deal about the double face of the organisation, the bright and the ugly one.
In Iraq, UNAMI staff worked hard with the Iraqi civil society to track and expose human rights violations, promote the freedom of the press, champion women’s, children’s and minorities’ rights and promote good governance, but their work kept being blocked by UNAMI itself. While working to expand people’s rights and freedoms in Iraq, UNAMI was also empowering the US-installed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the main perpetrator of human rights violations in the country and the prime obstacle to good governance. UNAMI, under the leadership of the German diplomat, Martin Kobler, helped the US and Iran’s man in Baghdad take the country from chaos to tyranny and terrorism.
Soon after he took office on October 2011, Kobler told a meeting I attended: “Al-Maliki said that the only thing he wanted UNAMI to do in Iraq is to help shut down Camp Ashraf. And this is what we are going to do.” Maliki’s plan was to force some 3,400 unarmed Iranian dissidents out of the camp, where Saddam Hussein (whose death warrant was signed by Al-Maliki in December 2006) had hosted them since 1986. He wanted them transferred to a location near Baghdad’s International Airport, and then out of the country. This was none of UNAMI’s official business, but it would soon become one.
While working to expand people’s rights and freedoms in Iraq, UNAMI was also empowering the US-installed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the main perpetrator of human rights violations in the country and the prime obstacle to good governance.
Kobler was acting under the instructions of Lynn Pasco, the American chief of the UN Political Department in New York. Pasco was implementing American foreign policy, using UNAMI and other political missions. Since Exon Mobile was thriving in Iraq, al-Maliki had to be pleased and appeased. This meant that the transfer of the Iranian dissidents had to take priority over the inclusiveness of the Iraqi political process and other urgent matters, the raison d’être of UNAMI’s presence in Iraq.
The only opposition Kobler faced was from us, the mission staff. Throughout my UN career, I had never seen so many colleagues intensely opposing their chief as in Iraq. “I am a lawyer and I am telling you: don’t sign the damn thing [memorandum of understanding],” a senior colleague shouted at Kobler’s face in a desperate effort to stop him from making us do al-Maliki’s dirty work. We wanted him to focus on helping Iraq, but our call fell on deaf ears. The fate of Iraqis was sealed in New York.
While UNAMI and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, were busy transferring the Iranian mujahideen from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty, al-Maliki was firming his grip on the power he had grabbed, thanks to Iran’s maneuvering and the consent of the administration of President Barack Obama. Nothing could’ve been worse for the Iraqi people than the UN looking the other way when the US was offering al-Maliki a carte blanche to violate the Iraqi Constitution, wreak havoc on the newly formed institutions, and cleanse or disenfranchise Sunnis from Iraqi politics (which ultimately drove the most disenchanted ones into the arms of Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State).
All along, Kobler was acting as one al-Maliki’s top aides. As the deputy chief of the Public Information Office, I found myself disagreeing with him, but often failing to stop his propaganda. My frustration had reached unbearable levels when I was head-haunted for the post of the spokesperson for UNAMID in Darfur in western Sudan. I didn’t hesitate to accept the offer, as I couldn’t imagine the UN appeasement of criminal regimes could get worse.
Soon after I arrived in Darfur in August 2012, I finally got the Philippines representative’s joke. The Security Council was a laughing matter. The many resolutions on Darfur signed off by Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States – the five permanent veto-holding members of the UN Security Council, also known as the P-5 – had degenerated into a farce. For each of these big powers, President Omar al-Bashir was a good client-regime that had to stay. But faced with mounting international outrage, the P5 had to be seen taking many steps against Khartoum. In reality, each step was purposely flawed, allowing al-Bashir to remain in power and get away with mass murder.
The farce started in 2004, when the Council “demanded” that the Sudanese government disarm the Janjaweed militias who were raping and killing civilians in Darfur and bring their leaders to justice or face “further actions”. One year later, al-Bashir began integrating most of his Janjaweed death squads into the armed forces, handing them heavier weapons and a license to kill civilians. In reaction, the Council’s threat of “further actions” turned out to be a partial and flawed arms embargo that allowed Khartoum to buy weapons, and use them in the entire country, except the western region. Obviously, without any mechanism to enforce this ridiculous arms embargo, Chinese and Russian weapons continued to flow into Darfur, in violation of these two countries’ own resolution!
Continuing this charade, the Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC in 2005. Al-Bashir and other suspects were later indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, in the absence of a mechanism to secure their arrest, al-Bashir (who was toppled in April last year) and his aides are yet to face justice at the Hague, even though al-Bashir has been charged and sentenced for corruption in a Sudanese court.
For each of these big powers, President Omar al-Bashir was a good client-regime that had to stay. But faced with mounting international outrage, the P5 had to be seen taking many steps against Khartoum. In reality, each step was purposely flawed, allowing al-Bashir to remain in power and get away with mass murder.
The last step of this farce was the 2007 Council decision to send UNAMID, the largest-ever toothless peacekeeping force, to Darfur. Al-Bashir only accepted this decision after the P5 caved in to his main condition: that UNAMID had to be drawn principally from African nations. This meant that Khartoum could kill, injure and humiliate African peacekeepers with absolute impunity. The Council also accepted a shameful Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement that put the genocidal Sudanese government in charge of the protection of UNAMID personnel. This is how immoral and farcical the P5 could get.
The eight months I spent in Darfur were long enough to convince me to resign and expose the UN’s systematic cover-up of the deadly bombing, mass assault on civilians, rape and forced displacement (mainly committed by Sudanese government forces), along with the daily harassment, humiliation and deadly assault on UNAMID peacekeepers. By April 2013, I had had enough of the UN’s hypocrisy. On the one hand, it claims to protect the people, help democratise societies, ensure respect of human rights and many other noble causes I still believe in. But, on the other hand, the essence of the UN’s work is to serve the P5 and their allies in their respective “spheres of interest” – a new euphemism for the former colonial concept of “spheres of influence”. This often entails shielding criminal and corrupt Third World governments. With one face, the UN caters to the people of the world, and with the other it serves first and foremost the P-5 governments. It’s “We the peoples” utopia versus “We the governments” reality.
The conclusion I reached is that what I witnessed in Iraq and in Sudan cannot be blamed on a few bad apples, or the poor performance of UNAMI and UNAMID. The problem was much bigger and ran much deeper in the system. It was a policy issue that starts in New York, at the UN Security Council. The colluding P5 have been using the UN to salvage their client-regimes facing threats from internal democratic forces and/or armed rebellion. They are also using it to throw the regimes that don’t know how to accommodate them, as happened in Côte d’Ivoire. France had had enough of Laurent Gbagbo’s rebellion and planned to install its new protégé, Hassan Ouattara, through the 2011 election. When Gbagbo lost the election but refused to quit, France dragged UN forces and weaponry into a joint bombing of his palace. It blatantly used and abused the UN for a “humanitarian” regime change to save the interests of its multinational corporations in its former colony.
But the Big Five could not have done it without a network of diplomats, including Western “democrats” like Kobler, who cherish democracy and peace in their own countries, but sustain dictatorship regimes across the world. Kobler is an excellent example of the UN’s revolving door politics. Once he accomplished his American-Iranian mission in Iraq, he was rushed to DR Congo in 2013 to head a 26,000- strong force and wage a UN war against armed militias on behalf of the government of Joseph Kabila. Under the Kabila family, the P5 countries had full access to the country’s precious reserves of diamonds, gold, cobalt, uranium and, of course, oil and related business. They had to protect the regime that accommodated their economic interests in return.
The conclusion I reached is that what I witnessed in Iraq and in Sudan cannot be blamed on a few bad apples, or the poor performance of UNAMI and UNAMID. The problem was much bigger and ran much deeper in the system. It was a policy issue that starts in New York, at the UN Security Council.
Having defeated some rebel groups for Kabila, Kobler headed to Libya, another oil-rich country the P5, under NATO, had bombed, in another “humanitarian” regime change. Kobler’s new mission consisted of installing in the capital Tripoli an Islamist government made up of militia leaders that would capture state funds and institutions. By imposing this UN-supported rebel faction against the resistance of others, the UN became a party in the Libyan conflict.
It’s precisely in Libya where one could see how the P5 are nothing but the world’s most dangerous gang and top arms’ producers and traders. Following his resignation, the UN envoy in Libya, Ghassan Salame, revealed that most of the Security Council members gave the retired Lieutenant Haftar the green light to militarily attack the very Tripoli-based government they had installed and claimed to support. When an intergovernmental organisation reaches such levels of hypocrisy and immorality, it simply needs to be resisted, scrapped and dismantled, instead of being reformed. Since the Security Council cannot be reformed – unless one thinks it’s possible to convert Dracula or Jack the Ripper into a saint – it has to go. And We the People can build another one, a better one.
My UN journey undoubtedly broke the blind trust I used to have in others. I learned to be more sceptical, without being cynical. This journey showed me my own limitations, flaws and mistakes too. I realised how big the gap is between who I am and the person I truly want to be.
I also learned to compromise on many things except two: Goodness and Truth. Truth “has been, is, and will be beautiful”, Tolstoy said.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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