Friday, November 18, 2016

How America Became An African Country

Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, a popular late-night news satire and talk show in the US, once described Donald Trump as America’s first African President.  In fact, Americans could do worse than look to the continent in general, and Kenya in particular, for a preview of what life under a Trump administration would be like.

President-elect Trump and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta have much in common. Both are fabulously wealthy, the children of privilege with questionable success in business, and both have been accused of fanning ethnic and racial hatreds. Both have risen to head their respective countries in the most unlikely of circumstances and in the face of global opprobrium. While many across the world echewed Trump’s xenophobia and reckless approach to international affairs, Kenyatta had faced similar opposition to his candidacy three years earlier. This was a consequence of his -and his running mate’s - indictment at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in relation to Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence in which over 1000 people died.

Trump and Kenyatta even have similar ideas about how countries should be governed.

Take their shared suspicion and contempt for the media. Where Trump has called journalists “scum”, “illegitimate” and “horrible people” and declared his aim to make it easier to sue them, Kenyatta regularly derides newspapers as only good or wrapping meat, and his administration has introduced new laws meant to stifle independent reporting. It has arrested and beaten journalists who persist in asking uncomfortable questions, and, leveraging its advertising and regulatory muscle, leaned on media houses to fire them or to pull their stories. Just recently, in response to a spate of corruption stories, Kenyatta declared that the media should be required to prove any allegation of government graft they dared to report on or face the consequences.

When it comes to fighting terrorists, their pronouncements are also remarkably similar. Both prefer to speak in vague and bombastic terms and to demonize Muslim refugees and immigrants rather than offer detailed policy prescriptions. Trump says his plan for defeating ISIS is a secret whose details he won’t be revealing to the public any time soon. One hopes he’ll be sharing them with the generals since he claims to know more about fighting the extremists than they do. The Kenyatta administration, after all, has taken more than three years to come up with a strategy to tackle radicalization and is no closer than Trump to articulating a strategy to defeat the Al Shabaab, the Somali based terror group that has murdered nearly 800 Kenyans, most of them after Kenyatta took office.

There is also the question of whether Trump will follow through on his oft-repeated promised to get Mexico to pay for a wall on the US’ southern border to keep out immigrants (which Mexico has repeatedly vowed not to do). Here too, Kenyatta can offer some guidance. Depending on which of its officials you choose to believe, the Kenyatta government is building a wall to keep out terrorists either along the entire 700km border with Somalia, or just on a small section near the border town of Mandera. It may or may not be a physical barrier (there has been some talk of a human wall) whose construction is either ongoing or has stalled.

In addition to the wall, Trump has vowed to round up and deport illegal immigrants whom he says are gaming and mooching off the system, driving up crime, taking jobs and opportunities away from US citizens and depressing US wages. That little of this is true doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot. Similarly, the Kenyatta regime has developed a fondness for demonizing refugees from Somalia, blaming them for everything from terrorist attacks to being a drain on the Kenyan economy, as a way of distracting from its own failures. In 2014, under operation Usalama Watch, it begun rounding up and deporting them, and restricting those that remained to the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in the desolate north. Then, earlier this year, the government declared it would close the Dadaab camp by the end of November and has been effectively dumping hapless and unwilling refugees back into their war-ravaged country ever since. (That effort has now been suspended following an international outcry).

In September 2013, the prolific Ugandan columnist, Charles Onyango-Obbo, wrote that the International Criminal Court “had finally made Kenya an African country”. What he meant was that as the government worked to scuttle the cases against the President and his deputy (and with them any prospect of accountability for the 2008 violence), it had brought the country into closer alignment with authoritarian regimes in vogue across much of the rest of the continent. In similar fashion, it is perhaps not so far off the mark to suggest that with the election of Donald Trump, the US too has become something of an African country.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Lessons For Kenya From The Trumpocalypse

To describe Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s US presidential election as a shocking upset is probably the understatement of the year. It is a seismic political upheaval which will rock, not just the American political system, but the entire edifice of Western liberal democracy, to its core.

Coming just months after the Brexit referendum in which citizens of the United Kingdom voted against all expectations to leave the European Union, which has been the lynchpin of that continent’s peace and prosperity for nearly three-quarters of a century, Trump’s win is, as the Financial Times declared, “another grievous blow to the liberal international order” and “a thunderous repudiation of the status quo”.

Little captures just how thunderous that rejection was than the fact that a national exit poll suggested that as many as 61 per cent of voters viewed Trump as “not qualified” to be President. He is the only candidate to ever be elected who did not have a smidgen of either governmental or military experience.
Over the coming days, there will be much soul-searching and head-scratching over how this came to pass and what it means. But at this early stage one thing is abundantly clear from Brexit and Trumpocalypse: large numbers of people in the West feel they have somehow missed out despite living in the one racial, geographic and ideological polity that more than any other has benefited from the existing globalized system.

Demagogic campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic profited from perceptions that the system was not working for the people, that unaccountable governing elites had signed them up to global trade agreements and policies, particularly on immigration, without their consent.  “Take our country back” was a common rallying cry. Substantial portions of the unhappy population became prey to a narrative that demonized immigrants as terrorists and free loaders and recommended retreat from the global system as a solution to domestic woes.

Trump’s triumph highlights fundamental questions about the structure and accountability of the post-Cold War global order, questions that have for too long been swept under a neo-liberal carpet. As Los Angeles Times’ journalist Vincent Bevins noted, “both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for 30 years.”

The focus has tended to be on economic growth which disproportionately benefited a few at the very top with little attention paid to widening inequality. In the past, elites have ignored the voices of those who lost out in globalization by, for example, hiding behind high walls and riot police to escape anti-WTO protests in the last decade.

This time, however, they had run out of places to hide.

There are valuable lessons here for Kenya’s elite. Like their counterparts around the world,  Kenya's punditry has predictably reacted with horror at the calamity that has befallen the US. “America does the unthinkable” wailed the Daily Nation, which bemoaned the fact that the US electorate had rejected “a smart politician with 30 years of experience” in favor of “a foul-mouthed casino owner and showman with an alligator-sized ego and, reportedly, the sexual morals of an alley cat”.

However, the fact is Kenyan voters, faced with a system that for 50 years has functioned to enrich a small coterie of politicians at their expense, has been regularly electing local versions of Trump -from a president indicted for crimes against humanity to members of parliament and governors implicated in corruption and drug trafficking. Like their Western counterparts, Kenya’s ruling elite have steadfastly ignored the demands for reform and accountability, the stark and growing inequality and the rumblings of discontent from the masses who have little to show for a half century of independence.

In that time, the political system has largely functioned to legitimize the power of rulers rather than to give voice to citizen concerns. What journalist and constitutional lawyer, Glen Grenwald, wrote of the West following the Brexit vote is just as true here. “Instead of acknowledging and addressing the fundamental flaws within themselves, [elites] are devoting their energies to demonizing the victims of their corruption, all in order to delegitimize those grievances and thus relieve themselves of responsibility to meaningfully address them.” Few will have forgotten President Uhuru Kenyatta’s attempts to fault ordinary Kenyans for the failure of his administration to deal with insecurity and corruption.

As in the West, the increasingly desperate electorate has fallen prey to populist, nativist and xenophobic rhetoric which has tended to blame religious and ethnic minorities as well as refugees. And elections have proven to have little to do with the ability of candidates to actually solve problems but rather seem to produce a rogue’s gallery of the corrupt, the bigoted and the criminal.

Democracy works when governments are evaluated on their performance, and when citizens watch whether governments keep their promises, and oust those that don’t measure up. Such accountability improves the provision of public goods, boosting incomes and welfare and reinforcing the sense of national belonging.

On the other hand, when the citizenry feels disillusioned about its ability to meaningfully participate in decision-making and to hold public officials to account, then politicians are evaluated on much less noble attributes: their capacity for patronage or even to what extent their election constitutes flashing the finger to the oligarchy –their ability to be what film maker Michael Moore described as “your personal Molotov cocktail to throw right into the center of the bastards who did this to you!

Trump’s election is therefore a wakeup call. There is a crisis of accountability and inclusion in democracies around the world and it calls us to engage in the wok of reimagining and reforming our governance systems so they better respond to the circumstances and problems of ordinary people rather than those of the elites who lord it over them.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

What We Must Make Uhuru Kenyatta Do

“What do you want me to do?”

With that statement, two weeks ago President Uhuru Kenyatta seemed to throw his hands up in resignation. The most powerful man in the land claiming to be powerless in the face of the rampant stealing of public resources that has now become the hallmark of his administration.

It surely does seem that everything the Jubilee administration touches turns to loot. Few of the projects it has initiated over the last 43 months -from laptops for schoolkids to the Standard Gauge Railway to the free maternity programme- have escaped the reek of corruption. Anti-corruption crusader, John Githongo, says it is “by far the most corrupt government in our history”.

And he should know. As head of the Office of Governance and Ethics. he famously blew the lid off the Angloleasing scandal, which annihilated the Mwai Kibaki regime’s anti-graft credentials and earned him death threats and exile. Few will have forgotten how in 2004 the then British High Commissioner, Edward Clay, described the gluttonous Kibaki acolytes as “vomit[ing] all over our shoes”.

It is all so very different from the euphoria that accompanied Kibaki’s electoral triumph and assumption of office a year earlier. Then, it seemed, Kenya was well on the way to slaying the proverbial corruption dragon. Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition allies, including Raila Odinga, had built their campaign on an unabashedly anti-corruption platform, promising to end the plunder the country had experienced under his predecessors, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi.

Their campaign against Moi’s “project” to install Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor, brought together many of the leading lights of the decades-long agitation against the KANU dictatorship (and not a few opportunistic politicians). Their sweeping victory raised expectations for change to stratospheric levels. Imbued with the belief that all was possible, that they were “unbwogable”, Kenyans were arresting corrupt policemen on the street and expecting their new government to start doing the same to corrupt politicians.

However, the revelations of continuing theft in high place coupled with the de facto immunity afforded to Nyayo era thieves, would bring such hope crashing down to earth. And there seems no end to the hangover from those euphoric days, each election has bought a government more corrupt than the last.

How did we come to this?

In their insightful book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson identify the nature of a country’s institutions, whether extractive or inclusive, as the primary determinant of its success. But unlike Kenya, where we equate institutions to an alphabet soup of organisations, Acemoglu and Robinson describe institutions as simply the rules, written and unwritten, that influence how systems work. Countries where such rules encourage participation by the masses, distribute political power broadly and subject it to constraint will tend to be successful whereas, as Kenyans can attest to from experience, those where the distribution of power is narrow and unconstrained will end up with systems geared to enrich a powerful few at the expense of the rest.

The primary reason why Kenya’s war against corruption remains little more than words on paper is because we are focused on changing personalities and organisations rather than the rules, or institutions, that underpin the system we inherited from the British colonials. In 1963 it was all about getting rid of the “colonial masters”. Half a century later, it was all about “Moi must go”. As the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission demonstrated, the rules of the game remained mostly unchanged. The government still functioned as a vehicle of plunder, with the only difference being that in place of white oppressors, we had black ones.

The inauguration of a new constitution in 2010 was the first real effort to address this system but here again, form is triumphing over substance. The fact of its passage continues to be hailed as a success (and it is) even as its spirit is crushed. Nominally independent institutions, such as the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions, remain, for all intents and purposes, subservient to the Presidential whim. Parliament, too, is little more than a lackey for the executive. The political sphere still largely excludes participation by most citizens in everyday governance while continuing to be the dominant influence over their lives. Impunity for wielders of political power is still the norm.

Passing the new constitution was just a necessary first step. As at independence, the real work lies in its implementation and in overthrowing the authoritarian substructure of the state to fit the aspirations the document espouses. This is where we are failing. The exclusive focus on prosecutions and convictions (which are necessary) sadly elides this.

It is true that the constitution limits the role of the President in punishing offenders. But this is not the problem. Where the President has been largely absent is in articulating and leading the necessary reform to ensure that the state delivers the system that the constitution he swore to uphold envisages. 

That, Mr President, is what we want you to do.

In the end, however, it is up to the people to insist that their politicians respect the rules and values espoused by the constitution. It is up to us to insist that accountability and transparency rather than secrecy and impunity become the hallmarks of how the public business is conducted. It is up to us to change the political calculus that the Uhuru administration makes.

John Githongo is wrong when he says “the era of fighting graft using public policy reform and technical fixes has ended.” We still need to think through how we make the system work for the masses of the people, and not just for a small elite. But he is right when he says it requires political will. Only what matters is not political will on the part of Uhuru Kenyatta but rather the political will of the Kenyan citizenry to hold him to account.