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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

7 min read.

African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.

Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.

Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.

In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:

We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.

In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”

If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?

Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.

A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.

Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.

Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.

The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”

But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)

Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.

Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”

What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.

Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.

While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.

But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Samar Al-Bulushi is a contributing editor of Africa Is a Country and on the faculty of University of California, Irvine.

Politics

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Choices Facing Kenya and the Kenyattas

A combination of factors will force some of the most consequential choices our hardened elite have ever made and what they do now will determine what Kenya will look like in the coming decades.

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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Choices Facing Kenya and the Kenyattas

Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) – a fraternity not to be messed with on global social media – recently took on the IMF following the announcement that the Fund had approved another US$2.34 billion facility for the Kenyan government. The loan is intended to mitigate the fiscal crunch that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. #KOT’s concern was that the current ruling elite is so corrupt that not only have they stolen and misspent what they had previously borrowed, leading to a public debt portfolio of US$70 billion and rising, they will steal and misspend this new amount as well.

The IMF was forced to respond virtually – which was interesting – explaining the governance conditionalities attached to this latest facility. The Fund’s explanation did little to calm Kenyans and the debate still rages; for many, simply put, the IMF is being asked why it is serving whiskey to an alcoholic on condition that the alcoholic only takes a tot a day and imbibes “carefully”. Kenyans on Twitter believe they know their government better; they are likely right. Unfortunately, no matter how well intentioned, the IMF toolkit is  limited – the austerity spanner, loan wrench, conditionality screwdrivers and advisory nuts and bolts, these have been used before, in the 1990s, but this time the consumer is far more sceptical, and with good reason.

We are in the middle of major political realignments as we head into the 2022 general election, with President Uhuru Kenyatta currently serving his last term but clearly keen on a transition that will leave his family’s influence intact. The overall behaviour of the regime, and the elite at its core, is imbued with an assumption of impunity; they have since independence eluded accountability. This impunity gene in our politics can be traced back to the creation of Kenya by the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA), a group of businessmen with a royal charter to grab, tax, kill and essentially enslave the population at will. A combination of corruption, profligacy, incompetence, rapacious personalised accumulation, spiralling debt and now the devastating COVID-19 epidemic has – ironically – created the circumstances for the elite to think its way out of a crisis of its own making; as they say, never let a good crisis go to waste. Indeed, others have been here before.

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Some senior civil servants – and even the president himself, so I am told – are known to be fans of Lee Kuan Yew’s book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000 and share it liberally among colleagues. If they have read it, it is not always clear that they have understood it. A number of Asian countries – notably Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and to a lesser extent Thailand and Malaysia – used the crisis conditions following the Second World War to change the behaviour of their elite and transform their economies and societies. As Ken Ohashi – one-time Senior Economic Advisor to the Kenyan Presidency – explained in a feature carried in The Standard, the East Asian success stories emerged significantly out of a shift away from an “elite-favouring, rent-seeking centred economy” to economies structured to advance when individuals and companies come up with new ideas and are spurred by fair competition. Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore in particular took a dramatic shift away from our elite’s rent-seeking model of business.

In South Korea, President Park Chung-hee, who came to power in a military coup in 1961, ended the Kenyan style of corruption-oriented business by the political and commercial elite. He called in leaders of the traditional, largely family-owned businesses (the chaebols) and essentially forced them to become internationally competitive manufacturers. Ultimately, the majority couldn’t survive in an environment where they could not manipulate government policy and fiddle the books. But the Samsungs, Hyundais etc., flourished and are global giants today. As Ohashi argues, “Corruption never disappeared, but it ceased to be the mainstay of business strategy . . .  Taiwan and Singapore managed to revamp the fundamental business culture in a similar way and created an environment in which most companies focused singularly on producing competitive and increasingly higher-value products.”

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In Kenya’s history, the Jubilee regime has been the most sophisticated at managing the perceptions of its performance. Jubilee’s launches of bridges, roads, government programmes and other initiatives are slick and the speeches well written. This is true even when they are launching the same project multiple times. They have also spent more money than any other previous regime doing this. However, in the digital age, they have ultimately struggled and the narrative their media managers try to sell is so far removed from reality that the entire enterprise – even augmented by the likes of Cambridge Analytica – has collapsed in on itself.

This demonstrates the impact social media has had on the political terrain not only in Kenya but all over the world. As governments have become increasingly authoritarian and as the globalisation model has faltered, social media has become a space that is freer than the streets, particularly for the youth. As a result, more and more governments across the developing world have resorted to private intelligence, PR and other reputational management companies to manage this space while others, especially during elections, simply switch off the internet, a tactic that Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Benin, Rwanda, Morocco, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have resorted to in the recent past. However, this is not so easy in economies with a reasonably developed service sector and a relatively high use of financial technology.

In Kenya we have several governance balls in the air at the same time: elections (traditionally our season of grand theft); President Uhuru Kenyatta’s transition as he serves out his final term amid talk of changing the constitution and even holding a referendum to effect the change; spiralling corruption and debt; and the return of IMF conditionalities of the kind last witnessed in the 1990s. This time, however, and as I mentioned above, the IMF is confronted with a totally new demographic across Africa. It is overwhelmingly young – below 35; increasingly interconnected by technology; mistrustful of the World Banks and IMFs of this world, and also more aware of the inequities that the elites have wrought in the pre-pandemic era of globalisation.

Kenya’s political elite: hardened and resilient mystifiers

Still, Kenya has one of the continent’s most experienced and resilient political elites. They have over 50 years of experience in political wheeler-dealing, skulduggery, deal-making and sharing the loot from public coffers – uninterrupted by coups, major social meltdowns or grand economic experiments. The odd thing about the corruption perpetrated by an even minimally coherent elite is that it produces a stagnating political stability so long as there is enough loot to share around. It is not an ideal situation and it is fraught with deepening inequality and declining public trust in governance institutions and in the politicians themselves. Still, the guys at the top can hold on and even sustain a hegemon on the basis of backroom deals, understandings and accommodations. And with the right foreign friends this job is made even easier.

Currently, there is considerable bewilderment about the Kenyatta succession as our politicians position themselves for the 2022 elections. Part of this is deliberate mystification. Newspaper headlines sometimes seem to derive from a single photo of politicians at a meeting posted on Twitter where it’s not at all clear what the discussions were about. The mystification is also in part caused by the fact that there are no ideological or significant policy differences between the different competitors for the presidency. Even COVID-19 – the disruptor of the century – hasn’t changed their modus operandi.

The odd thing about the corruption perpetrated by an even minimally coherent elite is that it produces a stagnating political stability so long as there is enough loot to share around.

The pandemic has stripped naked the governance models of all nations and it has been surprising to see what is hidden underneath all the constitutions, institutions, platitudes and political theatre. It has led to a resurgence of authoritarianism where democracy was already in recession globally and there is disquiet that some states will fail. Add to this the fact that China is now a risen power and for the first time, under President Xi, is directly marketing its technocratic/meritocratic authoritarian model as an alternative to liberal democracy which is noisy and free but which can, as a result, be slower in delivering public goods and has, in recent years, produced dangerously comical leaders in some of the most developed countries in the world. China will clearly play a significant role in defining the post-pandemic geopolitical reality.

For our ruling elite, however, the confusion is compounded by the 2010 Constitution which has placed severe limitations on their capacity to disrupt both each other and the governance institutions for their personal political ends. Indeed, the 2010 Constitution was written specifically because of the elite’s penchant to manipulate the previous constitution to their political advantage, as witnessed from 1964 to the late 1990s. Some have described it as a “rule book for naughty boys”, full of self-executing provisions and with a level of detail in terms of institutional design that betrays a lack of trust on the part of its drafters that the elite have any real fidelity to the spirit of the document.

Kenyatta Inc.

What our current elite does now will determine what Kenya will look like in the coming decades. It is thus that Uhuru Kenyatta, who should be a lame duck by now, continues to play an energetic role in his own succession – not necessarily because of his grip on political matters but because of the Kenyattas’ unique private commercial achievements. In fact, there is some concern that all the realignments and political shenanigans could make the 2022 polls more destabilising than previous transition elections. Traditionally, incumbency elections in Kenya – where a head of state is going into elections to compete for another term – are the most violent, as was the case in 1992, 1997 and 2007. Transition elections, on the other hand, when a head of state is serving his last term, as in 2002 and 2013, are far more peaceful.

The Kenyatta family enterprise, whose foundation is built on land acquired during President Jomo Kenyatta’s tenure between 1964 and 1978, is now a highly diversified fledging multinational, with Brookside Dairies as its flagship and significant international shareholding. These commercial interests have been expanded, diversified and consolidated during Uhuru Kenyatta’s tenure as president. Chapter VI of the constitution on Leadership and Integrity – especially those of its provisions that touch on conflict of interest – does not exist in our political reality.

Meanwhile, public debt has accumulated so rapidly under the Kenyatta regime – Kenyans believe that much of it has been misappropriated – that the mess in public finances no longer has a technical fix, only a political one. Indeed, the outrage expressed by Kenyans on social media at the IMF’s US$2.3 billion facility was caused by the belief among many that this money will also be stolen. Some of the conditionalities the IMF has insisted on in apparent good faith – such as the reform of key state-owned enterprises – were particularly controversial because of the conviction among some that this was a green light for them to be taken over by the very people who precipitated the debt crisis in the first place.

Chapter VI of the constitution on Leadership and Integrity – especially those of its provisions that touch on conflict of interest – does not exist in our political reality.

Local real estate company Knight Frank estimated that by last year Kenya had over 3,000 dollar millionaires. The question that looms over the succession and transition currently underway – and which may explain why it is so confusing – is this: a small group of families have emerged from the last eight years spectacularly wealthy; how do they protect this wealth going forward? Similar questions faced elites in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, etc., especially after the Second World War, but the elites in those countries ultimately chose a generally inclusive form of meritocratic governance.

There are many elites who, having accumulated wealth which they wish to protect in perpetuity, choose to securitise and militarise their politics – essentially throw liberal constitutions out of the window and hold on to the power to steal through a mixture of manipulation, bribery and force. There are those who would argue that the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is a vehicle to politically engineer the elite out of the structures imposed on them by the current constitution and essentially emerge with a political deal that serves all their political and commercial interests. Others argue that the elite inclusivity that informs the Building Bridges Initiative – expensive as it will be – is just what Kenya needs. This is a considerably more uncertain model than, say, the Taiwanese or South Korean ones, where the elites fashioned a political and constitutional arrangement that served not just their own interests but those of the entire population as well. Securing the peace and prosperity of the masses is the surest protection for the wealth of the elite.

The combination of factors – the impact of COVID-19; upcoming elections with all the realignments they imply; a volatile region; increasingly unmanageable debt; and, most importantly, the demographic challenge of a now thoroughly disillusioned youth who no longer believe politicians or trust their own governance institutions – will force some of the most consequential choices our hardened elite have ever made. Multinationals like the Kenyattas’ need political predictability and policy consistency unless they are in the extractive sector, selling alcohol, drugs or cigarettes rather than perishables like milk and yoghurt.

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Politics

IMF: Easy Scapegoat, Wrong Culprit

In the end, it is up to Kenyans to hold their government accountable for the hardships it created. There is only so much the IMF can do, beyond suspending access to the loan or overdraft facility if the country is too lax in implementing agreed measures.

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IMF: Easy Scapegoat, Wrong Culprit

The recent anti-IMF crusade certainly made the point that people are fed up with the current administration’s economic management. Kenyans On Twitter (KOT) can be a force, and quite often a useful one, especially when dealing with narrowly defined issues that their intended target – a corporate, or a government organisation – can easily address. Why the International Monetary Fund authorised another loan to Kenya, however, is a far more complex issue.

The following is a brief and hopefully accessible attempt at an explanation of the basics of how the IMF works. An important disclaimer: This article is not about the IMF’s specific policy preferences.

Not an Ordinary Lender 

The Fund has three main functions: Monitoring global economic risks, Advising members on the management of their economy, and acting as a lender of last resort.

The third function is the context for their most recent Kenya loan. This is crucial to understand: recourse to the IMF is almost always a last resort. Unlike commercial lenders or development banks, the IMF does not lend for specific projects or programmes. Nobody goes to the IMF to build a new railway or to buy mobile clinics (by which I mean barely modified shipping containers supplied by a company with no track record in medical equipment). You do so when you face a crisis and have few other options. At that point, you will by default have to make some difficult choices.

Kenya’s economy has been hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic which has reduced demand for Kenyan products and services abroad and slowed down Kenya’s economy domestically. At the same time, there is need for more government spending to address the crisis. This is not unique to Kenya. It is a global challenge.

However, while covid has certainly made Kenya’s economic challenges more difficult, it is not the only, or even the primary, reason for the current crisis, and for seeking IMF assistance. Even before the pandemic, the current administration had already created a situation in which it had few to no reserves left to deal with a crisis.

Revenue collection had been behind (clearly unrealistic) targets for years, leading to persistent large fiscal deficits that needed to be financed. This also indicates that budget planning had serious flaws. Furthermore, the rapid increase in debt, at commercial terms, often for white-elephant projects with inadequate-to-no returns, has required a larger percentage of the already scarce revenues to be diverted to debt service. Several observers, including David Ndii, have warned of this for years.

Covid exacerbated but did not cause Kenya’s problems. The reasons why the country is in the unsustainable situation of having to borrow to finance recurrent expenditures and service debt is of GOK’s making and would likely have led to a crisis even without Covid.

In short, what the IMF is offering is a crisis loan, and another loan for another white elephant. The current loan facility is intended to strengthen Kenya’s forex holdings and ensure that the government can continue meeting its payment obligations.

These are not minor reasons: If a country runs out of hard currency, trade will grind to a halt. Not everything can be simply replaced with local production. If GOK cannot pay its employees, this will have a ripple effect through a large number of families, and to the people and companies they typically buy from. As a crisis measure, the IMF loan is effectively the least-worst response.

Covid exacerbated but did not cause Kenya’s problems. The reasons why the country is in the unsustainable situation of having to borrow to finance recurrent expenditures and service debt is of GOK’s making and would likely have led to a crisis even without Covid.

It will also allow GOK to borrow more. Is this ideal? Certainly not. But there are few alternatives at the moment. At least in the short term, you should hope that Treasury will use the cheaper IMF money and the new borrowings enabled by it, to retire more expensive debt and meet its other current obligations.

In the medium to longer term, you should hope that Treasury pursues what is typically referred to as fiscal consolidation: to ensure that planned spending is more in line with revenue collection; that revenue collection is forecast more accurately; that less money is lost to corruption; and that GOK borrows sensibly.

What the IMF Doesn’t Do  

Making the IMF the bogeyman is problematic for several reasons. To begin with, it reduces the agency that Kenya and its citizens have, however imperfect. The misguided focus on the IMF lets off the hook the actors who are actually responsible for the current situation, and obscures paths that people can take to fix it.

Rasna Warah’s recent op-ed on The Elephant, SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan, repeats a lot of that misinformation.

She bases her arguments on two dated and widely discredited works: the disputed ‘Economic Hitman’ who tells tales of the 70s; and Naomi Klein, not an economist, and who has gone on to new recent fame as a conspiracy theorist and is generally not respected for the soundness of her research.

The Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) were painful for a large number of people but invoking them is lazy without the acknowledgement of the historical background. SAPs, too, were imposed after countries had hit a balance of payments crisis (i.e. had run out of hard currency). They were used in the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. decades ago, in different economic and political circumstances, during the Cold War. And even the IMF has some learning capacity. Subsequent instruments were modified to, for example, protect spending on social safety nets or redirect public expenditures towards areas that focus on the poor.

What the IMF is offering is a crisis loan, and another loan for another white elephant. The current loan facility is intended to strengthen Kenya’s forex holdings and ensure that the government can continue meeting its payment obligations

Then there is this hodgepodge of allegations: ‘Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as ‘conditionalities’) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.”

The IMF cannot create a crisis. It monitors economic developments and reviews member countries’ economies regularly in consultation with them. The results of these reviews are written up in the report on the Article IV consultations – so called because they are required by Article IV of the IMF’s Articles of Agreement. You can find them under each country on their website.

The IMF also doesn’t ‘carefully manipulate data’. They use the member country’s data and indicate the sources. In Kenya’s case, they were published by the Central Bank, Treasury, and the Kenya National Bureau of Standards. The Fund may disagree with the member country on the forecast (GOK, for example, often tends to be a bit more optimistic regarding GDP growth) but you can check the following year to see who was more accurate. This is also something that ratings and research firms do – take the data that a country publishes, feed them into their model and add their assessment to determine a country’s creditworthiness.

As mentioned, the IMF is a lender of last resort, so the loans that may drive a country into a debt crisis did not come from the Fund – it was all the borrowing elsewhere that created this situation. As a lender of last resort, the IMF also does not lend for infrastructure.

The IMF also does not need to ‘bring Kenya back into the fold’ because Kenya is a member country, and remains so. In 2017, the IMF suspended Kenya’s access to an emergency overdraft facility because Kenya did not pass the first review of the underlying agreements for this facility. This was leaked to the press in early 2018, just before the eurobond – the IMF had likely kept this quiet to not be accused of interfering in the election. Although Kenya failed the scheduled second and third review as well, lending resumed in 2020 with a loan to help address the pandemic’s impact.

The IMF cannot create a crisis. It monitors economic developments and reviews member countries’ economies regularly in consultation with them.

This bit is also not quite correct: “When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China”. Kibaki consolidated public finances that he inherited from Moi, and was far more cautious about borrowing in general, and about borrowing on commercial terms. This was reversed under the current administration. Under Uhuru Kenyatta, ironically once Kibaki’s Finance Minister, the percentage of concessionary loans fell, and the percentage of commercial loans, especially from China, shot up.

None of the above is secret information. The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is a useful resource to understand debt and fiscal data, and people like David Ndii have written about debt and fiscal trends, and the build up of risk, for years.

Or you could go to the bogeyman directly:

Out of 196 countries, only seven are not members, so the IMF sits on a treasure trove of data and research. The IMF’s website is a useful resource if you are interested in economic analysis, either generally or for a specific project (or to comment on IMF’s loan facility to Kenya). If you are not an economist, it will take a bit of practice using the IMF website: It is very technical, and IMF staffers write much like central bankers, i.e. their style is very dry and anodyne (It can take a while to figure out that when they say something is ‘not ideal’, that means it is really rather bad). You may need to look up some terminology, and it also helps to look up the specific instruments that the IMF uses.

Kenya’s most recent Article IV report, i.e. the write up of the discussion of the state of the economy, is here. You can read through the IMF’s agreed programme with Kenya here. If you want to talk about ‘structural adjustment’, you should take note of the details of what the IMF and the Kenyan government have agreed. There is no need to speculate because this information sits right there, in public view.

What About Conditionalities? 

Because the IMF is a lender of last resort and steps in when a country faces a crisis, the loan is typically accompanied by an agreement between the Fund and the member country on what the government should do immediately and with respect to structural changes to prevent the crisis from recurring.

This is a little like sitting down your drunk uncle and demanding some tangible changes after you’ve bailed him out time and time again so that his kids can stay in school. Except in this case the drunk uncle is a sovereign government that was – and I’m going out on limb here, given the problems with election governance – elected by the people to carry out their business on their behalf. This makes things a lot more complicated.

Because the IMF is dealing with a sovereign, elected government, it cannot take over the running of the country’s affairs (aside from the fact that this would not be practical for an organisation that serves most countries around the globe). Handing over to the IMF would invalidate the voters’ right to choose their representatives.

Because the IMF is a lender of last resort and steps in when a country faces a crisis, the loan is typically accompanied by an agreement between the Fund and the member country on what the government should do immediately and with respect to structural changes to prevent the crisis from recurring.

As the country is already in a crisis, there will necessarily be hard choices in the short term. Since the SAPs, agreements between the IMF and the borrowing countries usually include explicit clauses to ensure social protection, i.e. to ring fence money for healthcare and social safety networks so that cuts in spending have to be made elsewhere, or to continue investing in areas that would benefit the poorer demographics. This is also included in Kenya’s most recent agreement.

But in this, the IMF has to rely on the recipient country to adhere to the agreement since the Fund does not sit in Treasury approving GOK expenditure. If your country’s overall governance is weak – with, for example, an estimated 30 percent of the budget being stolen every year through dodgy contracting that enriches the rich instead of improving services for the general population – the IMF cannot fix this overnight. Rolling back corruption takes time, and is incredibly difficult, even if there is political will, which you can justifiably doubt. An increase in, for example, fuel taxes is considerably more immediate and achievable, which is important in a fiscal crisis.

In Kenya, that previously translated to the government ending a VAT exemption on fuel. This has a far-reaching impact that affected poor people more than the wealthy, and the resultant public protests led to a halfway solution of reducing the VAT to 8%, achieved through parliament. The important takeaway is that it is GoK that dug Kenyans into this hole, and limited the options for getting them out, not the IMF.

In the end, it is up to Kenyans to hold their government accountable for this and the hardships it created. There is only so much the IMF can do, beyond suspending access to the loan or overdraft facility if the country is too lax in implementing agreed measures, including “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”. As a lender of last resort, its main purpose is to provide support for short term stabilisation, with which a turnaround can be planned.

Further, not borrowing from the IMF, as a loud segment of KOT has demanded, would not prevent the pain of adjustment, and it might make it more severe, e.g. through international trade disruptions, and more government defaults on domestic payments.

So who should Kenyans shout at? 

The people they elected to manage the financial and other affairs of this country.

This includes MPs and other legislators. A big part of their job is to check the executive, including what the executive proposes during budget planning. It isn’t to go along with whatever nonsense is proposed, whether in the budget, or in a supplementary budget, or with respect to yet another increase of the debt ceiling, and to wait for “incentives” to vote them through. This is especially relevant for those measures agreed with the IMF.

Kenyans should also consider, and demand accountability for, how the ruling classes’ political shenanigans, such as the Building Bridges Initiative, affect public finances (referenda don’t come cheap).

Finally, they should focus their outrage and pressure on the lenders who continue to finance GOK’s profligacy and its particularly problematic projects, rather than on the institution helping to clean up the mess.

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Politics

Capitalism Is Killing Us

Anyone who lives in fear of getting sick exists in a state of unfreedom.

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Capitalism Is Killing Us

What makes something tragic? This predominantly philosophical question has spawned a variety of answers stretching back two millennia and concerning broad topics such as the role of tragedy in art, politics, and ethics. But the word has a more straightforward, ordinary usage, and in the past year it has repeatedly been invoked to describe the overwhelming extent of death produced by COVID-19 and its effects. People are not only perishing due to the virus itself, but from the accumulation of distress that comes with the pandemic’s hardships, both economic and psychological. For lack of a better word, many think of the ongoing state of affairs as being, in some deep sense, tragic.

The past few weeks have seen a particularly devastating chapter. A day after the world learned that American rapper DMX was no more, South Africans learned that Johannesburg-based medical doctor Sindisiwe van Zyl had also passed. Trained as an HIV clinician and affectionately known as “Dr. Sindi” or “The People’s Doctor,” she rose to popularity for using her social media platform to answer people’s medical questions. Not only did she spread information via radio appearances and public writing, she also often extended her services to those in need of them free of charge.

Dr. Sindi was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the start of the year and was later hospitalized after developing chronic breathing problems. In the week leading up to her passing, her husband, Marinus van Zyl, launched a crowdfunding initiative to raise funds to cover her steep medical bill, which by that point was in excess of about R2 million (US$136,000). South Africans were more than willing to chip in, and a week later, half of the targeted amount was raised. The campaign was rendered futile shortly thereafter, when she died at age 45.

This turn of events makes Dr. Sindi’s story a classically tragic one. Tragedy is usually thought of as apolitical, involving a virtuous individual who comes up against unforeseen or unstoppable forces that cause them deep, usually irrevocable harm, despite their best intentions and efforts to avoid it. Her story resonates as all the more outrageous considering the fact that she was a medical doctor who not only fell deeply ill, but in the process was unable to fully afford the medical care required to get better. She was presumably financially secure and a sign of black “excellence.”

However, one tricky fact about Dr. Sindi’s case is that she was treated in a private hospital. In South Africa, most social services are bifurcated: alongside free, state-run clinics and hospitals available to all free of charge, there are for-profit hospitals and clinics that charge payment for care, upfront or through medical aid schemes. At the time of the crowdfunding campaign’s launch, earnest questions circulated on social media about what would have happened had a person of less clout been in her predicament, and about what happens to the majority who aren’t able to access private health care in the first place.

There is a common underlying assumption to these questions, which reveals what South Africans think about health care: that private health care is better. It is thought that, even when a person cannot afford treatment in a private hospital, in an ideal world the opportunity to do so would be available to them—in other words, that universal access to private health care is a position to strive toward. An obvious reason for why South Africans think this way is made apparent by looking at the state of public hospitals.

Most are mismanaged, their resources misappropriated for corrupt ends, with stories regularly surfacing about horrific malpractice. One ghastly story in recent history was when 143 people died from starvation and neglect in state-run psychiatric facilities. This scandal was only called “Life Esidimeni” because that was the name of the original private hospital from which the patients were transferred back to the state’s care. The consensus was that this should not have happened.

There is a common underlying assumption to these questions, which reveals what South Africans think about health care: that private health care is better

Yet, one could ask, why are things privatized? This seems like an absurd question, especially considering that the extent of privatization in South Africa makes it feel like an inevitable feature of social life. If you operate from a certain class position in South Africa, it’s likely that every amenity you use is privatized, including supposedly “public” spaces like parks and outdoor recreational facilities (“right of admission reserved”).

If you belong to another class position, you are often excluded from access (perhaps not explicitly), unless it is to enter for work. This system of differentiated access rightly evokes images of apartheid South Africa, where race determined where one could move and what one could access. And, much like apartheid, it comes with its own naturalization, making it seem like a fact of how things are rather than the consequence of deliberate political and economic design.

But contrary to some trendy but puzzling revisionism taking hold, apartheid itself was driven by the need to facilitate accumulation for white capital by super-exploiting the black masses. The defining feature of capitalism is that it expropriates and dispossesses, which means that the things we all depend on to survive and flourish—whether it’s land or raw materials—became controlled by a select few. Thus, the fundamental basis of capitalism is privatization, the appropriation of common resources for their transformation into commodities to be sold back to us. And, in order to access these commodities, we face the imperative to earn a living by working for those who control their production.

The important thing to recognise about capitalism is that it organises the entirety of life around the market—whether it is where we buy life’s necessities or avail ourselves for jobs that will give us incomes to afford those necessities. The coercion of the market is hardly registered over the course of life, firstly because it is impersonal (no one stands over you and physically forces you to work), and secondly because we are told we have the free choice of choosing to work or not, as well as of what work we’d like to do (just work hard to make it happen!).

But rather than being a free and just condition, life under capitalism is a precarious and oppressive one. Without the assurance that one will retain their job forever, with the fear that the security one has achieved for themselves might yet disappear, people feel compelled to work harder for better—to one day be promoted to manager, to one day own their own business entirely. Why? Paradoxically, to become less dependent on the market! The problem with capitalism is that this freedom is still promised through the market.

The important thing to recognise about capitalism is that it organises the entirety of life around the market—whether it is where we buy life’s necessities or avail ourselves for jobs that will give us incomes to afford those necessities

This is the tragedy of Dr. Sindi’s story—what happens when the market fails you? Returning to the point that there was nothing obliging her to use private health care—in a very strict sense, this is true. But what would have been the alternative? By this point, it should be clear that it is not just the unique incompetence of governments which constrains their successful provision of public goods, but also that they have to compete with an outsized private sector that monopolizes most of the available resources.

The premise of postwar social democracy in the West, when the state was at its most interventionist, was not simply to dole out welfare to the needy, but to restrict the power of the market through collective provision of our most social needs—health care, transportation, schooling, and housing. Underwriting such an arrangement is the norm that our lives are lived interdependently, not as isolated, self-interested atoms.

The crowdfunding campaign kick-started to assist Dr. Sindi and her family with medical expenses testifies to our intuitive capacity for solidarity. But that so many assisted is the right response to a fundamentally wrong state of affairs. That is, it was an instance of trying to solve a public, systemic problem (the lack of free, quality health care) through a private interaction (donating money), obscuring that it is not simply Dr. Sindi’s individual circumstances that were unfortunate, but the society which made her circumstances possible. Like most forms of charity, it represented what Oscar Wilde called a remedy that’s “part of the disease.”

Tragedy is borne from the human need to live life well, and to do right by those we care about—whether it’s our relatives, friends, or colleagues. Capitalism makes tragedy an ever-present threat looming over life. It pits not only ourselves but various aspects of our lives and beliefs against each other because it subjects humans and our needs and values to the overpowering competitive logic of the market. The problem is that the consumerist ideology of capitalism, which sells the good life as an endless pursuit of commodities—a bigger house, a better car, better clothes—results in a tragic state of being, for at no point is capitalism capable of answering the question what is it all for. As the debut album for the 80s English pop band It’s Immaterial goes, “Life’s hard and then you die.”

The crowdfunding campaign kick-started to assist Dr. Sindi and her family with medical expenses testifies to our intuitive capacity for solidarity. But that so many assisted is the right response to a fundamentally wrong state of affairs

Of course, if one were to suddenly become conscious of all this, that doesn’t guarantee that they’d desire an alternative. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system but a form of life, and one that’s made humans more individualistic and less discerning of the common good. Even for the group most exploited by capitalism—the working class—resistance isn’t a given, as this requires a coordinated effort that involves personal risk and hardship. But today’s economic crisis, though it affects the working class most acutely, has started to squeeze the middle class too, as capitalism is now unable to deliver the social mobility and high rates of consumption that it once promised. Many are in a similar position to Dr. Sindi’s: overindebted, underinsured, and a missing paycheck away from personal catastrophe.

As the South African left reconstitutes itself in the wake of COVID-19, universal health care must be one of its leading demands. The proposed National Health Insurance Bill, which will transition South Africa’s health care system to a single-payer model, is a step in the right direction. But to challenge the for-profit health system and hold the state accountable will require a big fight, and the weakness of trade unions, plus the general disarray of working-class forces, means it is a fight it can’t wage alone.

A reorganised left must present universal health care not just as a tool to assist those with inadequate health coverage, but also as a basic condition for realizing our freedom. This must become the new common sense. If what makes humans free is that we have the distinct capacity to set and pursue our own ends, then what permanently threatens that capacity are the limitations of our bodies—their abilities are finite, they are bound to get sick, and eventually, they die. A free society should guarantee their care, for without it, freedom is impossible. Anyone who lives in constant worry of what would happen to them if they got sick, of whether they will be able to afford care or time off work, lives in a state of unfreedom. Any model of society that makes this worry inevitable is itself diseased.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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