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Sweating the (not-so) small stuff: millennials and the informal sector

In Kampala, as elsewhere on the continent, the status parade celebrating the tiniest successes costs a fortune. What if those resources were turned to more profitable pursuits? MARY SERUMAGA, musing on Millennials, the informal sector and a Twitter exchange, has an epiphany in a matatu.

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Sweating the (not-so) small stuff: millennials and the informal sector

One reaction to David Ndii’s op-ed, HUSTLER NATION: Jobless youth, millennial angst and the political economy of underachievement, caught my attention being at once amusing and instructive:

It was instructive because Ndii began his piece by explaining the concept of the demographic dividend about which we hear so much. He pointed out that the ratio of dependants to potential earners in Kenya had fallen by 36 percent since the 1980s. With fewer retirees and children to support there is more available for investment. That demographic shift, he said, was a potential avenue for Kenya and other countries with a youth bulge to increase incomes through investment.

He went on to point out that a demographic dividend is not triggered automatically by numbers. Reaping the dividend requires an enabling environment which involves a range of factors including political stability, a favourable investment climate, and an educated youth, “not trained, but trainable”.

It goes without saying that for most of Africa one should not assume political stability as a constant. At the same time, said stability is relative. Yet everywhere, human enterprise continues. No African country has yet turned off the lights and shuttered-up the place.

Ndii’s article focuses on investment possibilities more than on politics. Far from suggesting an automatic progression from the youth bulge to reaping its dividends, the article is devoted instead to how to make the best of a bad situation. When we think of investment, everyone from the leaders down assumes big projects, big money, and therefore, big foreign investors. Ndii argues that the dividend can be reaped by leveraging the income–generating capacity of the informal sector which is the dominant sector of the economy. One would add that the informal sector is only informal because government services do not extend to the grassroots. But a farmer is a farmer, a taxi driver a taxi driver, a vendor a vendor etc, whether s/he is registered, banked and has a PIN or not. The money s/he earns is legal tender.

The third requirement, a trainable youth, is available in abundance.

So where can the youth get the money to invest? I got an idea in a matatu. A young girl on her way to work was chatting to another passenger. She had her own business. She got the capital from her father who, having thrown graduation parties for her four elder siblings, had had the bright idea of giving this youngest child the cash – not much, just under $200.

These parties are not merely elitist preoccupations; in Uganda and elsewhere, even families of the most humble means insist on a party for whatever final certificate their child has managed to obtain. Ditto weddings, pre-wedding introductions, post-wedding parties, lavish last funeral rites, printing “Save This Date” and “Thank you” cards, massive white marquees and tiny ones seating just the bagole (the graduands) and lots and lots of flowers. The list of ways in which to fritter away resources is endless.

In Kampala, restaurants, hotels and the National Theatre now charge a fee for holding meetings at their premises because every Saturday there are fundraising committees spread out on the grounds, devising ways and means of extorting cash from every last relative and friend. So ubiquitous are parties that it makes more economic sense to hire out vacant plots as ‘Venues’ rather than attempt to build on them.

In Uganda and elsewhere, even families of the most humble means insist on a party for whatever final certificate their child has managed to obtain. Ditto weddings, pre-wedding introductions, post-wedding parties, lavish last funeral rites, printing “Save This Date” and “Thank you” cards, massive white marquees and tiny ones seating just the bagole (the graduands) and lots and lots of flowers. The list of ways in which to fritter away resources is endless.

At the same time, Sunday supplements in the newspapers often feature ‘magicians’ – youths and older people who have managed to establish cocoa or other non–traditional produce plantations for the domestic and export markets.

What if investment funds were set up each graduation season and money invested in those rather than in celebrations? What if we imposed restraints on ourselves without waiting for austerity measures to be imposed from outside?

In what is it possible to invest?

As an investment target, Ndii gives the example of increasing production capacity in an existing sector – beef production. The details speak for themselves. There is under-utilised capacity in many other sectors.

The Ugandan numbers for milk and dairy products also paint a picture of unrealised potential. Unrealised because the initiative was left to the State. Very much like the cotton and coffee sectors on which the economy was built and which kept British textile manufacturers and their coffee industry afloat, milk is mainly produced by smallholder (informal sector) farmers. Milk vending was and remains mainly informal through kiosks. Because 80 percent of the general population is not connected to the power grid (the figures are probably higher among farmers), milk producers cannot keep the milk fresh. Even if they had refrigeration, frequent power outages make it necessary to use fuel–driven generators, an extra expense.

What if investment funds were set up each graduation season and money invested in those rather than in celebrations? What if we imposed restraints on ourselves without waiting for austerity measures to be imposed from outside?

It occurred belatedly to the government that ordinary Ugandans may want to participate meaningfully in the profits from the milk industry. Money was invested in milk coolers. Cooling and post-production plants were to be established all over the country to serve small holders – precisely the thing envisaged in 1967 when the Dairy Corporation was established with funds from the public purse. Under the Structural Adjustment Programme, however, the Dairy Corporation was mysteriously transferred to a Thai investor in 2004 for a nominal one dollar after the competitive bidding process for it was cancelled by President Museveni. No reasons were ever given. It is pointless to try to understand it – it doesn’t make sense.

In 2008, dairy farmers produced close to four million litres per day. Processing capacity at the time was just under 300,000 litres per day and even then only one-third of that capacity was being utilized (Wozemba & Nsanja, 2008[i]). If it can’t be made into cheese or another milk product, the produce from the second daily milking is thrown away. An acquaintance from Burundi tells me that his family used their excess milk to fertilize their banana plantation.

Money was invested in milk coolers. Cooling and post-production plants were to be established all over the country to serve small holders – precisely the thing envisaged in 1967 when the Dairy Corporation was established with funds from the public purse. Under the Structural Adjustment Programme, however, the Dairy Corporation was mysteriously transferred to a Thai investor in 2004 for a nominal one dollar after the competitive bidding process for it was cancelled by President Museveni.

As with all displacements of smallholder interests in favour of large monopolies, the bargaining power of milk producers was weakened by the sale of the Dairy Corporation, forcing producers to rely on a handful of foreign and domestic private milk processors for all post-production services. They simply cannot negotiate competitive prices for their milk.

Some of the slack has been taken up by the Masaka Archdiocese, which has established one cooling plant and has plans for five more. In the absence of the State, is it not possible for young citizens to dominate this sector rather than an oligarchy? If at least as much time is spent on examining this proposition as is spent organising the social binges celebrating academic success, perhaps some progress could be made.

Some of the slack has been taken up by the Masaka Archdiocese, which has established one cooling plant and has plans for five more. In the absence of the State, is it not possible for young citizens to dominate this sector rather than an oligarchy? If at least as much time is spent on examining this proposition as is spent organising the social binges celebrating academic success, perhaps some progress could be made.

The exchange between Ndii and Yebei was amusing because it was so predictable. In response to the piece, a proposition for self-employment was floated. The clue is in the phrase – breeding cattle is not rocket science. It was ignored and a solution to unemployment, especially among graduates, was now demanded. When no further suggestions from the author were forthcoming, party and inter–generational politics kicked in. The ‘affront’ was felt on Facebook where the view was expressed that the issue at play is selfish, privileged older people especially MPs and policy–makers. As though Millennials are not old enough and numerous enough to send representatives to Parliament.

The Alternative

The alternative is not good. Ndii: “If these factors are not there (i.e. the enabling environment), and the requisite investment fails to materialize, a demographic transition can turn into a political nightmare.” A la Zimbabwe, the Arab Spring and other places.

It really is up to us – we dialogue or die.

[i] David Wozemba & Nsanja Rashid, Study on Dairy Investment Opportunities in Uganda, 2008, for SNV (a Dutch NGO).

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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KENYA BUDGET 2018/19: It’s time for a taxpayers boycott

The Kenya Budget 2018 has drastic implications on national and regional stability, on the Kenyan economy and on Kenyan workers. Its projections contradict data shared in previous Economic Surveys; it makes patently false claims, for instance, about the decline in domestic credit, to justify doling out billions to already well-provisioned sectors, notably manufacturing. But more than anything else, it is quite simply a perfect script for more waste and theft. By L. MUTHONI WANYEKI

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KENYA BUDGET 2018/19: It’s time for a taxpayers boycott

It’s time for a taxpayer’s boycott in order to evaluate what is increasingly sapped out of us through tax and against what’s disgorged out of us through the theft and waste of our money. Let’s compare the facts, according to the government’s own Economic Survey 2018 and this week’s budget speech.

This year’s budget aims are meant to align with, and support the Jubilants’ so-called ‘Big Four Agenda’ – boosting manufacturing activities, enhancing food and nutrition security, achieving universal health coverage and supporting the construction of at least 500,000 affordable houses by 2022. Bear in mind, however, that the first Jubilant administration, through its Economic Transformation Plan, also had a focus on agriculture and manufacturing.

Last year, the real added value of agriculture shrunk by 3.5 percent to 1.6 percent. This was blamed (as usual) on the lack of rainfall. True, there were shocking decreases in production of key crops – coffee’s production dipping by 11.5 percent and tea’s by 7 percent with only horticultural production going up. But there was an overall increase in the value of marketed production of Ksh.28.6 billion for the agricultural sector. So why did the real added value shrink? What happened?

There’s no doubt that Kenya’s efforts to expand social protection are worthwhile. Reforming social insurance, for instance. Or expanding social assistance to vulnerable groups. But social protection is about risk mitigation – preventing the already precarious from tipping over into even more precarious. Social protection is not about growing jobs, enabling livelihoods and improving returns from employment. It’s also not about ensuring that the intent to improve access to quality social services translates into actual access to social services.

The real added value of manufacturing shrunk by 1.9 percent to 0.2 percent. This was blamed (also as usual on the extended electoral process, high production costs and competition). Note that credit extended to manufacturing actually increased – by Ksh 36 billion, no less. Yet there were shocking decreases in the levels of key manufactured products – except for maize and soda (!). What happened?

Regardless of what happened last year, to fix these sectors now, our Treasury proposes the following:

For the agricultural sector (amongst the usual pleas to move away from rain-fed agriculture and so on), to put about 700,000 acres under large-scale production by public-private partnerships (PPPs). No mention is made of where these additional acres are to come from – when land theft, fragmentation and scarcity is the source of so much national tension already. Maybe the President’s family intends to return the immense tracts of public land the founding President appropriated for himself?

For the manufacturing sector, contradictions abound. On the one hand, Kenya’s speedy accession to the African Continental Free Trade Area is praised. On the other hand, regional (and other) competition is being dealt with by ‘re-negotiations’ and ‘reviews’ of the sub-regional trade arrangements we are already committed to. Plus the rather cavalier raising of customs duties on anything we’re deemed capable of producing – to no less than 35 percent (!) on everything from iron and steel to paper, plywood, textiles and vegetable oils. This, we are informed, should raise us an additional Ksh.27.5 billion (not to mention the ire of our neighbours in the sub-region). Free trade is only good when it’s good for us, apparently.

Moving on to the financial sector: the Treasury had much to tell us about the supposedly negative effects of the interest rate cap. It has, we were told, made banks ‘shy away’ from would-be borrowers, who have also pushed depositors towards an expanded range of non-interest earning deposit accounts. It has also, we were told, slowed growth in credit afforded to the private sector.

Yet the Economic Survey for 2017 told us otherwise. As mentioned above, credit to the manufacturing sector grew last year – by Ksh.36 billion. Credit to the construction sector also grew last year – by Ksh.5.1 billion. Overall, domestic credit increased by 7.9 percent in 2017 – including an increase of credit to the private sector by 2.4 percent. And, despite interest rates remaining fairly steady, deposit rates went up as well!

 Credit to the manufacturing sector grew last year – by Ksh.36 billion. Credit to the construction sector also grew last year – by Ksh.5.1 billion. Overall, domestic credit increased by 7.9 percent in 2017 – including an increase of credit to the private sector by 2.4 percent. And, despite interest rates remaining fairly steady, deposit rates went up as well!

But no…the Treasury has decided this experiment in making banks less usurious must end. It will be seeking to repeal the now infamous Section 33B of the Banking (Amendment) Act. For those worried about small borrowers, especially for small and medium-size enterprises, have no fear. The new, combined Biashara Fund is here (which’ll combine the three special funds for SMES owned by women and the youth).

And, just so we’re clear that Treasury isn’t, in fact, on the side of usury, it will be seeking to institute a ‘Robin Hood’ tax – charging a 0.05 percent tax on all bank transfers of Ksh.500,000 or more to go towards public health. Which we might be happy about if they came from banks and not us (as individuals and businesses). And if Treasury wasn’t also increasing the (already outrageous) tax on all mobile money transfers by two percent to 12 percent. What the good Lord gives with one hand he’ll certainly take away with the other.

Oh, and in case we missed it, instead of the progressive income tax increase on high-earners we had expected, now everybody gets a tax increase. The Employment Act is to be amended to impose a housing tax on all of us – an additional 0.5 percent will be taken from every formal sector worker, matched by an additional 0.5 percent from the employer virtuously to go towards housing.

Our spending target is to come in at just under Ksh.2.56 trillion. The aim apparently being to reduce our deficit from 7.2 percent to 5.7 percent while keeping our debt to gross domestic product ratio just below 50 percent. This spend target is slightly under our spend for 2017 – which sat, at the end of the day, at just under Ksh.2.78 trillion. Not controlled for theft and waste obviously

Our spending target is to come in at just under Ksh.2.56 trillion. The aim apparently being to reduce our deficit from 7.2 percent to 5.7 percent while keeping our debt to gross domestic product ratio just below 50 percent. This expenditure target is slightly under our spending for 2017 – which sat, at the end of the day, at just under Ksh.2.78 trillion. Not controlled for theft and waste, obviously.

With regard to theft and waste, the Treasury announced a bunch of moves to make public procurement more to scale and transparent, with significant allocations to all criminal justice institutions now involved in the ‘multi-agency’ effort against theft and waste. But it’s hard not to be cynical given the absolute lack of attention apparently paid to improving efficiencies and prudence.

There’s no doubt that Kenya’s efforts to expand social protection are worthwhile. Reforming social insurance, for instance. Or expanding social assistance to vulnerable groups. But social protection is about risk mitigation – preventing the already precarious from tipping over into even more precarity. Social protection is not about growing jobs, enabling livelihoods and improving returns from employment. It’s also not about ensuring that the intent to improve access to quality social services translates into actual access to social services.

That translation has been utterly undermined by the breadth, depth, prevalence of the theft and waste of public money that prevails. Treasury needs to convince us that it’s taking that theft and waste seriously. Sorry, the measures announced just don’t cut it.

It’s time for a taxpayers boycott. Really. There’s no taxpayer who is not absolutely and completely embittered by what we have to contribute. Because what we contribute is going to theft and waste.

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KENYATTA’S WAR ON CORRUPTION: Words won’t cut it, the budget is the corruption

Corruption in Kenya isn’t about greedy procurement officers, fiddling civil servants, crooked businessmen, shady bankers, thieving politicians. These are merely creatures of an inherently corrupt political system. The current crisis was triggered by the capture of the public finance management system by what we call ‘cartels’. Now broke and in debt from all the looting, Treasury has officially turned against the people. By JOHN GITHONGO.

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KENYATTA’S WAR ON CORRUPTION: Words won’t cut it, the budget is the corruption

The three key issues Kenyans are talking about today when they survey the political scene are corruption; ‘the handshake’ between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta; and, the fate of Deputy President William Ruto as he prepares for a run at the presidency in 2022. For his part, Mr. Kenyatta came out of the handshake in March with a renewed push against the theft and plunder that has characterised his regime thus far. He has issued strong statements against corruption; announced that procurement officers would be asked to step aside and vetted before resuming their positions. Previously he’d even announced that lie detector machines would be introduced into the public service to promote integrity. Most recently, he pronounced public officials (starting with himself) would be subjected to lifestyle audits and that all major public procurements would see their details published in the media including the names of the companies winning the tenders complete with their beneficial owners. All strong stuff especially coming on the back of a series of breathless exposés in the mainstream press of the looting of a range of government bodies, the National Youth Service (NYS) merely being the most egregious and colourful. The scandals have exasperated Kenyans.

Oddly though, all the bold pronouncements are yet to capture the public imagination. Indeed, Kenyans seem sceptical about the President’s anti-corruption crusade. This is partly because he has historically been big on talk and small on action where this particular vice is concerned. Secondly, there is suspicion regarding its timing. Why do now what you were unwilling to do between 2013 and 2017? Thirdly, there is the rather scattershot character of the anti-corruption initiatives announced. This has led some to observe that a series of tactical moves are being employed without a coherent strategy. For example, it is self-defeating to attempt a serious anti-corruption campaign in a society as open as Kenya’s while alienating the media and civil society at the same time. Public opinion is mobilised by civil society, civic society (the churches, professions etc) and the media – not by politicians no matter how well-meaning.

This is partly because Kenyatta has historically been big on talk and small on action where this particular vice is concerned…There is suspicion regarding the timing of the latest war on corruption. Why do now what you were unwilling to do between 2013 and 2017?

The broad scepticism that has greeted Kenyatta’s efforts thus far was best articulated by one of the country’s most experienced progressive politicians, Senator Jim Orengo of Ugenya, speaking before the Senate on May 31st. He warned that the real corruption in Kenya was happening at the highest levels but we Kenyans were afraid to call it out. He essentially asked the president and other top leaders to look around themselves and they would find that the real rot sits in cabinet with them: “In the inner sanctum of power there are people sitting there who should not be sitting there.”

The truth of the matter is that 50 percent of the fight against corruption is related to perceptions. Despite extraordinary efforts to manage the media, the current campaign is yet to capture the public imagination. Until it does Mr. Kenyatta is rolling a stone uphill watched by a disbelieving population. As I said, part of the problem is that it’s clear he doesn’t have a coherent strategy, which makes even simple efforts all the more difficult. Secondly, Kenyatta and his colleagues are victims of an even more serious strategic misinterpretation.

Corruption in Kenya isn’t about greedy procurement officers, fiddling civil servants, crooked businessmen, shady bankers, thieving politicians. These are creatures found in all societies. The issue at hand in the Kenyan context is that these players are born of a system of politics and governance that is itself inherently corrupt; one in which the thieves and those who facilitate them thrive. Indeed, if one were looking at where the next scandals will come from one doesn’t need an army of technicians with polygraph machines. This week the Cabinet Secretary for Finance presented to parliament a Ksh.2.5 Trillion (US$25 billion) budget. The thieving in Kenya starts right here. It is built into the budget. When the budget of the NYS shot up from US$50 million to US$250 million in Jubilee’s last term it was clear that this wasn’t a measure of the NYS’s absorptive capacity or a vast upgrading of this programme but the creation of what was literally a slush fund created to be stolen. This ‘theft-ready’ budget is a product of our politics. Last week the Auditor General, Edward Ouko, told Reuters that corruption across all levels of government threatens the integrity and basic functioning of the state. He said that the corruption was ‘coordinated at a high level’.

This week the Cabinet Secretary for Finance presented to parliament a Ksh.2.5 Trillion (US$25 billion) budget. The thieving in Kenya starts right here. It is built into the budget. When the budget of the NYS shot up from US$50 million to US$250 million in Jubilee’s last term it was clear that this wasn’t a measure of the NYS’s absorptive capacity or a vast upgrading of this programme, but the creation of what was literally a slush fund created to be stolen. This ‘theft-ready’ budget is a product of our politics.

It is time to accept that Kenya’s corruption crisis may in part be caused by the deliberate collapsing of our public finance management system – chunks of it are owned by what have come to be known as ‘cartels’. When this happens the challenge you face is not chasing bribe-soliciting cops on the beat but fixing a situation where the budget itself is the corruption. There are generally three types of corruption: petty corruption that is often extortion by public officials for small considerations to overlook minor infractions or expedite the delivery of services already paid for in your taxes. Grand corruption that typically involves senior officials conspiring with private sector players to skim off public works projects of one kind or the other. There is a third type of ‘corruption’ that I call looting or economic delinquency on the part of the elite. In this type of thieving the pretence of a project to skim off is set aside as elites raid public coffers with impunity and pocket billions. This causes the kind of macroeconomic effects we are seeing in Kenya as our foreign debt soars on account of the looting of a small elite.

It is time to accept that Kenya’s corruption crisis may in part be caused by the deliberate collapsing of our public finance management system – chunks of it are owned by what have come to be known as ‘cartels’. When this happens the challenge you face is not chasing bribe-soliciting cops on the beat but fixing a situation where the budget itself is the corruption.

*******

In 1998 the fight against corruption, which had been a global advocacy campaign since the early 1990s by organisations like Transparency International, entered the mainstream of the global development agenda. There was no development programme in any developing country that didn’t have an anti-corruption aspect; that didn’t say something about transparency, accountability, basic freedoms etc. Even the World Bank whose legal department had previously blocked its officials from mentioning ‘corruption’ broke with tradition and joined the bandwagon. Previously corruption was described as project ‘leakages’ and ‘slippages’.

What had actually happened is that with the fall of the Berlin wall the opening up of political space meant that corruption, bribery and other forms of skulduggery that had been essential to governance during the Cold War found themselves being reported in newly free media, by a public free to associate and speak their minds. Between 1998 and 2008 a series of corruption scandals shook governments across the world. From Kenya to Germany, Peru, South Korea etc. In Latin America alone between 1998 and 2008, 11 governments fell due to corruption scandals that morphed into political crises of one sort or the other. By the start of this century anti-corruption researchers such as the respected Chilean economist Dani Kauffmann (now of the Natural Resource Governance Institute), argued to Moises Naim in Foreign Policy that with regard to the fight against corruption “Much was done, but not much was accomplished. What we are doing is not working.”

Indeed, corruption was increasingly blamed for all societal ills. More recently we’ve seen corruption scandals cause political shakeups in India, Mexico, Brazil, Bulgaria, Thailand, Guatemala, South Koreas etc. In Kenya we face a crisis in the health and education sectors; we are unable to create jobs for a majority of our youth. Unsurprisingly, corruption is the easiest to blame for what are sometimes failures caused by incompetence, a lack of capacity and the inability of the ruling elite to define the national interest separate from their own commercial interests.

Between 1998 and 2008 a series of corruption scandals shook governments across the world. From Kenya to Germany, Peru, South Korea etc. In Latin America alone between 1998 and 2008, 11 governments fell due to corruption scandals that morphed into political crises of one sort of the other. By the start of this century anti-corruption researchers…argued…that with regard to the fight against corruption: “Much was done, but not much was accomplished. What we are doing is not working”.

In Kenya, a serious effort to delineate personal interests from national ones would go a long way to dealing with our corruption problem. Conflict of interest was entrenched in our public service by the infamous Ndegwa Commission report of 1972 and we’ve been paying for it ever since. Most recently it is the poor who are paying most for it. The budget this week saw a cash-strapped regime under the gun of the IMF increase taxes on basic commodities in part to pay for the cynical profligacy of the elite since 2013. Ironically, Kenya’s constitution has created a legal infrastructure that should make the kind of economic delinquency and looting that’s in evidence impossible. But breathing life into a constitution requires political will that still seems to be lacking. In the meantime anti-corruption campaigns will be embarked on full of drama, gimmicks, speeches and technical fixes to problems that have much to do with the fact that our elites refuse to let governance institutions work, as they should. As a result, they are struggling to engineer the public sympathy and support essential to make the changes that need to happen.

Research by Juliet A. Attelah

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KENYA’S LOOMING RESOURCE CURSE: Dancing to Machiavelli’s drum

Fed a daily news diet of scandal and sensation, and the choreographed drama of minions arrested and driven off in sleek SUVs, the Kenyan public’s attention is daily diverted from the far more serious resource scams, planned and conducted by the men in the shadows. In Lamu and Turkana, the theft of billions of dollars is already underway. By MIRIAM ABRAHAM.

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KENYA’S LOOMING RESOURCE CURSE: Dancing to Machiavelli’s drum

The large hall was decorated with African art from the 54 Member States of the African Union. Singers and dancers from several African countries were entertaining dignitaries as they filled their plates with delicacies from the motherland. It was after all, Africa Day. The 25th day of May when we celebrate the formation of the Organization of African Unity (now African Union). And on the four screens around the large hall was the theme for this year: ‘Winning the Fight Against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa’s Transformation.’

What a thematic choice by the African Union, I thought to myself. I was struck by the choice of words especially beginning with the positive: ’winning’. But my optimism was short-lived as the representative of Nigeria was called up to the podium to give remarks as the “champion” of the anti-corruption theme. I quickly looked up the latest Transparency International Corruption Perception Index to see the success of President Buhari’s fight against corruption, only to find that Nigeria had slipped from its 2016 ranking by 12 places to rank No. 148 out of 180 countries surveyed in 2017. Why, I wondered, didn’t the organisers select champions from countries that have seen significant improvement in their index score such as Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal or Botswana that has continuously ranked top in Africa. But then again: This Is Africa.

At this rate, I was expecting the Kenyan representative to be the next in line as the co-champion, standing at 143rd ranking on the Index! We were, fortunately, spared that particular embarrassment. As I listened to each speaker glorify African unity and deliberately evading the theme of the day, I could not stop thinking of the contradictions of our continent. We often have big aspirations that we parade but never implement – “winning the fight against corruption” being very high up on the list.

These empty aspirations were eloquently mimed by President Uhuru Kenyatta during his address to the nation on Madaraka Day.  Like most Kenyans, I remained unmoved by his speech. Have we not seen this circus before? Did we not vet officials in the Judiciary and the Police before? Any lessons? Is this not just another game in elite self-preservation?

To be fair though, as a country, we have not outdone Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption charade. Yet. We recall how late last year under the supervision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, hundreds of billionaires including over 50 from his own royal family were detained at the luxurious Ritz Carlton hotel, a gilded prison if ever there was one. There were claims of torture and abuse. The detainees reportedly signed off their wealth to the tune of billions in exchange for their release. In the meantime, the same Crown Prince allegedly splurged $500m to buy a yacht and a chateau outside Paris for $300m. It has been billed as the world’s most expensive home.

The charade by the Saudis has the feel of Kenya, albeit on a different scale. On 28 May, we watched as tens of high ranking officials were rounded up and escorted to court in top-of-the-range vehicles on charges of stealing money from the National Youth Service programme. It was a well- choreographed show; we have seen it before. Like the Saudis, we are fighting corruption for Machiavellian reasons. We all know too well the politics of our country. We hold “elections”; the coalition that “loses” cries foul. In order to govern in a polarized environment, the winning faction of the elite agrees to share the loot and, in the process, ditch a few people to give room to the new entrants. Statecraft. It is what “the men from the shadows” as John Githongo calls them in his article, One Week in March: Was the Handshake Triggered by the IMF?, engineer with the nod of the international community, so called, to maintain the status quo. To paraphrase from one of Niccolò Machiavelli’s works, one should not attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.

On 28 May, we watched as tens of high ranking officials were rounded up and escorted to court in top-of-the-range vehicles on charges of stealing money from the National Youth Service programme. It was a well- choreographed show…We are fighting corruption for Machiavellian reasons. We know all too well the politics of our country. We hold “elections”; the coalition that “loses” cries foul. In order to govern in a polarized environment, the winning faction agrees to share the loot and, in the process, ditch a few people to give room to the new entrants. Statecraft. It is what “the men from the shadows”…engineer with the nod of the international community.

One can see this art of deception playing out with the white elephants of Lamu county.  Amu Power Company, a consortium that includes the Chris Kirubi-affiliated Centum Investments, has been awarded the tender to build the Lamu Coal Power Plant. In addition to the grave environmental concerns raised by community activists in Lamu, the approved Ksh 200 billion (US$ 2 billion) project does not make financial sense.

In a detailed analysis by Tony Watima in the Business Daily, the project’s high fixed cost of Ksh 36.2 billion per year is raised by its capital-intensive nature. While this would have made sense if the project was meeting real demand, it turns out that the additional demand is fictitious, a product of the Jubilee government’s fantastical ambitions. While real demand will stand at 2,500 Mw by 2022, Jubilee set itself a target of securing installed capacity at 5,000 Mw. Between reality and fantasy lies the opportunity for mischief. Thus, in the case of the Amu project, Kenyans will be paying almost solely for idle capacity. It will mean that each consumer will see an increase in their bill by Ksh 600 every month that would go directly to the Amu investors.

Amu Power Company, a consortium that includes the Chris Kirubi-affiliated Centum Investments, has been awarded the tender to build the Lamu Coal Power Plant. In addition to the grave environmental concerns raised by community activists in Lamu, the approved Ksh 200 billion (US$ 2 billion) project does not make financial sense…Kenyans will be paying almost solely for idle capacity. It will mean that each consumer will see an increase in their bill by Ksh 600 every month that would go directly to the Amu investors.

Amu is billed as the most expensive fixed cost project among the power generators. An additional 1,000 Mw of power that is excess of demand – and therefore idle capacity. In other words, we are incurring US$ 2 billion in debt to finance a white elephant. These costs do not include the potential loss of income from the fishing activities of the local community, and tourism. They also do not include the known health impacts from coal burning, the most toxic and dangerous pollutant of all fossil fuels.

If the government is serious about “winning the fight against corruption” as this year’s African Union theme pledges, then it must begin by being transparent about the Lamu Coal Power Plant. It must also be transparent about how it handles the export of crude oil from Turkana, lest we quickly join the millions of Africans for whom oil and minerals only yield the proverbial resource curse.

It must also address the systemic manifestations of corruption that begin from the budget preparation process. As a former senior official in a state institution, I witnessed first-hand how numbers are padded to inflate the actual requirements for any project. Requisitions of products that were in abundance in warehouses were made. Goods not needed at all were included in the budget. Consultancy fees, costs for transportation of goods and official travel were common lines that were padded with excess fat that would be “chopped” by officials, as my Nigerian friends would say.

The best lie detectors – probably also procured through corrupt means – cannot replace the dramatic shift in culture that is required in the genuine fight against corruption. Respect for professionalism, integrity, transparency and the rule of law are the fundamental cornerstones of a “corrupt free” Kenya. These are the same principles that this government, at its highest level, has frequently and gleefully violated. Targeting mid-level officials without touching the top-ranking thieves will only be scratching the surface. It will be classic Machiavellism. Or what Muthoni Wanyeki in her recent article eloquently called a ‘game of smoke and mirrors’.

The best lie detectors – probably also procured through corrupt means – cannot replace the dramatic shift in culture that is required in the genuine fight against corruption. Respect for professionalism, integrity, transparency and the rule of law are the fundamental cornerstones of a “corrupt free” Kenya. These are the same principles that this government, at its highest level, has frequently and gleefully violated.

If we as the tax payers fall for the deception, we will be cheering the smokescreen magicians. We will find ourselves questioning the #STOPTheseTHIEVES protesters, wonder why they are disrupting the supplications made at the recent Prayer Breakfast. And in a few weeks, just like we have done with the theft and electoral injustice at the IEBC, we will forget these scandals. Well, until the proceeds from the crude oil imports and the siphoning of money through the Lamu coal plant reach peak levels and “the men from the shadows”, the real rulers of the country, deliver baits on another NYS scandal that the media will gullibly headline, as the looting continues elsewhere and the elite entrench their political and financial positions.

As our African-American brethren say: Stay Woke!

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