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CHINA’S DEBT IMPERIALISM: The Art of War by Other Means?

The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious attempt to create a global infrastructure corridor spanning 65 countries and connecting 60 percent of the world’s population, is the biggest imperial coming-out party in modern history. Not by armed conquest but by a strategy of debt-financed diplomacy, from Sri Lanka to Montenegro, from Islamabad to Mombasa, China is deploying its $3.2 trillion credit surplus to establish a 21st century Oriental Empire, impoverishing entire continents through the allure of roads, railways and bridges. DAVID NDII conducts a global cost-benefit analysis.

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CHINA’S DEBT IMPERIALISM: The Art of War by Other Means?
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Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without fighting, captures their cities without laying siege, he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.” ~Sun Tzu

Colombo. On June 8, Fly Dubai’s last flight departed from Sri Lanka’s spanking new Mattala Rajapaska International Airport. It was the only airline flying there. Sri Lanka’s national airline stopped flying there in 2015. The “world’s emptiest airport” as its been known since it opened in 2013, is now officially a lily white elephant. The airport is a stone’s throw from Habantota, the world’s emptiest sea port that has made Sri Lanka the poster child of China’s predatory lending. The two are the largest of a slew of ill-fated mega-infrastructure projects that were supposed to transform Habantota, which happens to be the home town of former President Mahinda Rajapaska (for whom the airport is named, or rather, who named it for himself), into Sri Lanka’s second city.

It has not quite worked out that way. Rajapaska lost elections in 2015 in a cloud of corruption scandals, after a decade in power during which he buried Sri Lanka in a mountain of Chinese debt. After weighing its options the successor government ceded the Habantota port to China in exchange of a partial debt write-off. It has not helped. Sri Lanka is still caught in China’s debt trap. Last year, it turned to the IMF for a bailout. This year, Sri Lanka is looking to raise US$ 1.25 billion from China to keep up with its debt repayments.

Podgorica If you are an imperialist looking for a European client state, you could not do better than Montenegro. It is small (population: 620,000; GDP US$4 billion), vulnerable, and in a most strategic location on the Adriatic coast. Its hinterland includes Serbia and Hungary, both landlocked, as well as the Black Sea countries (Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine) whose access to the sea, the Bosphorous, is controlled by Turkey.

Montenegro has been mulling a grand motorway from its port city of Bar to Boljare on the Serbian border for a long time, a distance of only 165 kilometres, but the country is extremely rugged, making the cost prohibitive. Two feasibility studies done in 2006 and 2012 for the Montenegro government and the European Investment Bank concluded that the highway was not economically viable. Then China came along.

The first 41 kilometres of the highway, built with an EUR 800 million Chinese loan, has nearly bankrupted Montenegro, forcing the government to raise taxes, freeze public wages and cut welfare spending. Borrowing close to 20 percent of GDP to build a quarter of a road is unwise. Unable to proceed, Montenegro has signed an MOU with the Chinese contractor to complete and operate it as a toll road on undisclosed terms. The fear now is that the Chinese have extracted onerous revenue guarantees. The contractor is none other than the state owned corruption scandal prone China Road and Bridge Company, the builder and operator of Kenya’s new standard gauge railway.

Montenegro has been mulling a grand motorway from its port city of Bar to Boljare on the Serbian border for a long time, a distance of only 165 kilometres…Two feasibility studies done in 2006 and 2012 for the Montenegro government and the European Investment Bank concluded that the highway was not economically viable. Then China came along. The first 41 kilometres of the highway, built with an EUR 800 million Chinese loan, has nearly bankrupted Montenegro, forcing the government to raise taxes, freeze public wages and cut welfare spending. Borrowing close to 20 percent of GDP to build a quarter of a road is unwise.

Islamabad. Pakistan sits between China and the Persian Gulf. When China buys oil from the Middle East and Africa, it has to be shipped 6000 kilometres round India, through the Straits of Malacca to the South China Sea. The Malacca Dilemma refers to China’s vulnerability to a potential trade blockade on this narrow sliver of ocean between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Enter CPEC. CPEC stands for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Billed as a crown jewel of the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC is an ambitious and costly modernization of Pakistan’s infrastructure centred on a transport corridor linking China’s “landlocked” hinterland to Pakistan’s Arabian sea port of Gwadar. The corridor cuts the distance of China’s western border to the sea by half, from four to two thousand kilometres. China has already taken control of the Gwadar port on a 40-year lease and is building an airport and industrial parks— effectively making it a Chinese enclave inside Pakistan. Costed at US$40 billion when it was launched in 2013, CPEC’s price tag has escalated to US$ 62 billion.

Four years on, Pakistan is in deep financial trouble. The CPEC projects are bleeding the country and destabilizing the economy. In addition to CPEC debt, Pakistan is now living on a Chinese financial lifeline —US$5 billion so far — to stave off a foreign exchange crisis. A succession of devaluations have failed to stem the tide, and foreign reserves are now down to less than two months requirements. Pakistan is now caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea: to go for an IMF bailout or to settle into becoming a Chinese client state. An IMF bailout would put pressure on Pakistan to scale down CPEC and expose the secretive financing to western scrutiny.

CPEC stands for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Billed as a crown jewel of the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC is an ambitious and costly modernization of Pakistan’s infrastructure centred on a transport corridor linking China’s “landlocked” hinterland to Pakistan’s Arabian sea port of Gwadar, cutting the distance of China’s western border to the sea from four to two thousand kilometres. China has already taken control of the Gwadar port on a 40-year lease and is building an airport and industrial parks— effectively making it a Chinese enclave inside Pakistan. Costed at US$40 billion when it was launched in 2013, the price tag has escalated to US$ 62 billion. Four years on, Pakistan is in deep financial trouble.

What is China up to?

There are two readily apparent economic objectives that China could be pursuing, one immediate, and one longer term.

The immediate objective is investment diversification. China is sitting on US$ 3.2 trillion of foreign reserves accumulated from its trade surpluses with the rest of the world, more than those of the next four countries combined (Japan $1.27 trillion, Switzerland $740 bn, Saudi Arabia $900 bn, Russia $460 bn). Most of this money is held in safe but low yielding American and European government securities, with just over a third (US$ 1.2 trillion) in US government securities. Analysts estimate that another one third is held in other US dollar-denominated securities.

The longer term objective is sustaining its economic rise. China’s economy may be the world’s biggest but it is still a middle-income country, with an average income of less than a fifth of Singapore. One of the big questions out there is whether China will escape the “middle income trap”. The middle income trap is the observation that while many countries easily transition from poor to middle income status, only a few managed to transition from middle to high income. Of 103 countries that were middle income in 1960, according to an analysis by the World Bank, only 13 had transitioned to high income status by 2008, almost fifty years later.

China is sitting on US$ 3.2 trillion of foreign reserves accumulated from its trade surpluses with the rest of the world, more than those of the next four countries combined. Most of this money is held in safe but low yielding American and European government securities…Returns on these have been pretty dismal since the global financial crisis. But outside these markets there aren’t many assets that can absorb money on this scale. The BRI can thus be seen as a strategy by China to create such assets.

China has followed the export-led industrialization model of Japan and the Asian Tiger economies. This model will soon run its course. China’s average manufacturing wage has increased three-fold in dollar terms over the last decade, and is now on a par with the poorer former communist eastern European countries. To make the transition will require China to move up the product value chain, or as a recent paper by investment bank UBS put it, from “made in” to “created in” China. This will entail moving its factories abroad, some closer to markets, some to low-wage locations. Some of the BRI initiatives do seem to be gearing up for this. CPEC is an obvious case. China’s Great Wall company has a manufacturing plant in Bulgaria, which is in the hinterland of the Montenegro motorway.

It still begs the question why it needs to roll out the biggest building project since the Great Wall of China. Japan and the other Asian Tigers did not have to. And the BRI’s scale and aggression defies these rational economic objectives. If it goes to plan, it will span 65 countries, accounting for 60 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of global economic output, and cost between four and eight trillion dollars That is not economics. It is empire building. It is not inconceivable that China is operating on a nineteenth century imperialism blueprint. Indeed, the Belt and Road Initiative graphics that litter the internet conjure images of Chinese power men around a world map sticking pins on strategic targets.

It is off to a rough start. Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia’s comeback prime minister has cancelled three big BRI projects worth $22 billion signed by his predecessor, who is now facing corruption charges. He says he is trying to save Malaysia from bankruptcy. Even Burma’s steely generals have got cold feet. They have cancelled a port project citing fears that it could end up like Sri Lanka’s Habantota. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister of Tonga, rallying fellow South Pacific Island nations to negotiate debt forgiveness with China, expressed his fears that China could seize strategic assets.“If it happens in Sri Lanka, it can happen in the Pacific.”

Habantota is turning out to be a strategic blunder.

Did China actually set out to trap countries into debt or has the Belt and Road Initiative gone awry? It is conceivable that China is unfazed by the political blowback. Folklore has it that the Chinese take a very long term view of things. But it is more likely that China did not anticipate the blowback.

China seems to have underrated the vulnerability of its would-be client states to the vagaries of global capitalism and overrated the grip of the regimes that it is corrupting on power. China will not be the first great power to do this. The USA has been muscling and blundering its way, wreaking havoc around the world by conflating its interests and political values for the better part of a century.

Did China actually set out to trap countries into debt or has the Belt and Road Initiative gone awry? […]China seems to have underrated the vulnerability of its would-be client states to the vagaries of global capitalism, and overrated the grip on power of the regimes that it is corrupting. China will not be the first great power to do this.

The real Achilles heel of the debt traps is that China has little recourse should any of its distressed debtors default. Western lenders can and often take concerted action on defaulters (a la Greece and “the troika”), but China is a lone ranger.

In China, economic illiteracy on this scale is not without precedent. Sixty years ago, Chairman Mao had the brilliant idea that industrialization could be drilled down to producing copious amounts of grain and steel. The government set a target of doubling steel production within a year and overtaking Britain’s production in 15 years. China’s peasant farmers were herded into communes. Villagers were forced to set up backyard furnaces. Pots, pans and other metal possessions were seized and melted up to meet production quotas. Trees were decimated and even furniture burned to fuel the furnaces. The Great Leap Forward, history’s most monumental political blunder, cost between 20 and 40 million lives.

It is noteworthy that Kenya is the BRI’s only touchpoint on the African continent.

Kenya’s SGR, Uhuru Kenyatta’s erstwhile legacy project, has turned out to be the bugbear that this columnist among others warned that it would be. Its freight capacity is a third of what was promised, and it cannot be competitive without a hefty public subsidy. Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration has increased Kenya’s foreign debt two and a half fold, from US$9 billion to US$25 billion. The railway alone accounts for a third of this increase; another third is by sovereign bonds for which the country has nothing to show.

Public debt service now stands at KSh 860 billion (US$ 8.6 billion), a staggering 72 percent of the last financial year’s tax receipts. The question that is frequently asked now is whether, if Kenya cannot pay, the Chinese will take over the port of Mombasa. Word on the streets of Mombasa is that the port was pledged as security for the railway loans. In a manner of speaking, they already have. The Chinese have a concession to run the railway until 2027. That includes a take-or-pay freight assignment contract, which is to say, the Kenya Ports Authority, the port operator, has to meet the railway’s freight target or pay the railway for the unused capacity. In effect, the port is working for the railway.

The question that is frequently asked now is whether, if Kenya cannot pay, the Chinese will take over the port of Mombasa. Word on the streets of Mombasa is that the port was pledged as security for the railway loans. In a manner of speaking, they already have.

“It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, ” said Charles Elliot, the Kenya Protectorate commissioner who oversaw the construction of the Uganda railway. “But it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.” Almost 120 years later, after it emerged that Kenyan workers are routinely subjected to physical punishment by Chinese, following which the Chinese ambassador dismissed this as Chinese culture, Kenyans are wondering whether the railway heralds a new age of Oriental colonialism. On this, my take is that China and Kenya’s political class have bitten off more than they can chew.

Seeing senior public officials grovelling and making excuses for these Chinese excesses gives perspective to history, from the chiefs who sold their people into slavery to those who signed away their lands to European imperialists for blankets and booze. We get it.

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Letter by US Senators to US Government on IMF China Belt and Road Initiative

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David Ndii

David Ndii is one of Kenya's leading economists and public intellectuals.

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Khashoggi Murder: Is There a Double Standard at the United Nations?

The UN’s silence on Khashoggi’s much-publicised murder was surprising for many because his killing had created shockwaves globally, not only because it had occurred inside an embassy but also it had apparently been carried out in a cruel medieval manner that entailed torture and dismembering of body parts.

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Khashoggi Murder: Is There a Double Standard at the United Nations
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In June this year, Agnes Callamard, the United Nations rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, made a startling statement that is not usually heard within the hallowed chambers of the UN. Not only did she implicate a rich member state in the killing of the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, she also castigated the UN for not doing enough to address the issue.

Callamard told the UN Human Rights Council, whose members include Saudi Arabia, that Khashoggi’s murder “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible”, implying that Saudi prince Mohamed bin Salman, the de facto head of the Saudi kingdom, may have played a crucial role in the brutal murder of the journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. She also criticised the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for failing to demand accountability for the murder of the journalist, adding that “the silence of this intergovernmental body and lack of measures were a disservice to the UN and to the world”. (Although Callamard reports to the UN, she is not a UN staff member.)

The UN rapporteur argued that because the UN has remained quiet on the killing of the journalist, who had been a critic of the regime in Saudi Arabia, it has put at risk the lives of all journalists and has violated its own mandate to protect freedom of speech and expression. Journalists and human rights activists around the world had said that the killing of the journalist was a direct assault on freedom of the press. She called on the UN and its member states to carry out an international criminal investigation on the murder.

The UN Secretary-General responded that the only way to carry out such an investigation was through a UN Security Council resolution sanctioned by the Council’s five permanent members, namely the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. However, this is highly unlikely because at least one of these members – the United States – has been reluctant to push investigations into the murder further. President Donald Trump, who is more keen on selling arms to Saudi Arabia rather than on ensuring that human rights are respected, has been lukewarm about Khashoggi’s murder, and has even hinted on several occasions that doing business with the Saudis is more in the US national interest than ensuring that justice for Khashoggi is done. Callamard claims that the US government did little to assist her investigation, and that she was not granted access to the CIA or the US Department of Justice.

The UN Secretary-General responded that the only way to carry out such an investigation was through a UN Security Council resolution sanctioned by the Council’s five permanent members, namely the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China

The UN’s silence on Khashoggi’s much-publicised murder was surprising for many because his killing had created shockwaves globally, not only because it had occurred inside an embassy but it had apparently been carried out in a cruel medieval manner that entailed torture and dismembering of body parts. The fact that his body has not been found to this day also suggests that perhaps it was burnt beyond recognition or has been buried in a secret location.

Callamard’s call to make the Saudi regime accountable for Khashoggi’s death has largely fallen on deaf ears, with the Saudis insisting that they have carried out their own investigations and that the culprits are facing trial. No one quite believes that these trials are actually being conducted by impartial courts or if even they are, whether the suspects are actually the ones who carried out the killing, which was conducted in hit squad manner that could only have been sanctioned by the highest echelons of the Saudi government. One right-hand man of Prince Salman is widely believed to have overseen the murder but is not among those being prosecuted. Callamard says she received no cooperation from Riyadh when she conducted her investigations, and that Saudi officials have been largely opaque about the case.

It is possible that Callamard is unaware of the limitations of the UN or how international diplomacy works? Or maybe she believes that in her role as an impartial UN rapporteur she can push the international community to do the right thing.

What most people don’t realise is that the UN may appear to be a neutral, independent body, but its decisions have always been influenced by its most powerful and influential member states, who almost always have their way when it comes to handling international crises. For instance, the United States did not seek UN Security Council approval before invading Iraq in 2003, nor did the UN reprimand the US for taking this illegal action.

People also forget that a sizeable number of the UN’s 193 member states are dictatorships or repressive regimes that do not care much for human rights. Freedom of expression is not on top of the agenda of influential member states like China and Russia, for instance. So, as the setter or moral or ethical international standards, the UN is hardly the place to go.

It is possible that Callamard is unaware of the limitations of the UN or how international diplomacy works? Or maybe she believes that in her role as an impartial UN rapporteur she can push the international community to do the right thing.

In the Khashoggi case, Saudi Arabia, a big donor to the UN and a key ally of the UN’s biggest contributor, the United States, will do all it can to prevent an international criminal investigation. Saudi Arabia has already said that it will reject any attempt to undertake an international inquiry. The kingdom’s main allies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, have also rejected Callamard’s 101-page report, which does not mince words when naming those who were most culpable for the murder of Khashoggi.

Hush money

Why have the UN and the US remained silent on this issue? Well, partly because Saudi Arabia has bought their silence. The US is keen to keep its relationship with one of the biggest buyers of US-made arms and military hardware, hence the lukewarm response to the murder. And the fact is that the UN Security Council’s five veto-holding permanent members have never really been committed to world peace because wars keep their military industrial complexes going. These countries are the largest manufacturers and suppliers of arms. When wars occur in far-off places, arms manufacturers in these countries have a field day. Wars in former French colonies in Africa keep France’s military industrial complex well-oiled. Wars in the Middle East are viewed by British and American arms manufacturers as a boon for their arms industries.

If there were no wars in the world, the arms industry would have fewer or no customers. It is no surprise then that Donald Trump’s first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia, which has been buying billions dollars-worth of arms from the United States for decades. Arms from the US have fuelled Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war in Yemen. Thus Saudi officials were neither embarrassed nor dismayed when Trump held up a placard showing the newest weapons his Saudi clients could get their hands on and use in their campaign in Yemen. The connection between military sales and silence on human rights violations became acutely visible in that particular photo opportunity.

In a world where nuclear disarmarmament deals are casually broken by the President of the United States because he has a feud with Iran, the UN remains a paralysed specatator. It has nothing to say, nothing to contribute. No pressure is placed on the United States – which contributes up to a quarter of the UN’s budget – to rethink its policies. There are no press releases issued on the dangers that the cancellation of the deal will pose to world peace.

On the contrary, wars and other disasters provide the UN an opportunity to fund-raise. The UN’s campaign in Yemen, for example, is not about ending the war, but raising donations for the millions who are suffering as a result of the Saudi-led war. Wars and other calamities fuel various United Nations agencies, including the refugee agency UNHCR and the World Food Programme, whose coffers get quickly filled when disaster strikes, which enable their employees to continue earning hefty tax-free salaries.

The UN is also not keen not to upset a key US ally and a big contributor to its coffers. Saudi Arabia uses its vast oil wealth to cover up its crimes. In March 2018, for example, the UN received nearly $1 billion from the Saudi prince as a donation towards the UN’s efforts at alleviating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen – a crisis that would not have occurred if the Saudis had not bombed Yemen in the first place. The war in Yemen has killed several thousands of people and created a humanitarian crisis in which more than 20 million people are in need of basic supplies.

Saudi Arabia – the perpetrator of this war crime – is now trying to be the face of compassion in Yemen. The donation was a great photo opportunity for the prince, who was seen giving the money to a smiling UN Secretary-General at the UN’s headquarters in New York. Antonio Guterres did not use the opportunity to urge the prince to stop the onslaught against the Yemenese people. In fact, the UN has remained rather muted throughout the crisis in Yemen, and only speaks out when soliciting for donations for the traumatised Yemenese population.

And in 2016, after a leaked UN report on children’s rights violations became public, the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted to removing Saudi Arabia from a list of countries that had violated children’s rights. This admission shocked the world but did not result in the resignation of the Secretary General.

Hush money has bought the UN’s silence on human rights violations that the Saudi state has committed against the people of Yemen and against its own citizens, including women who are jailed for breaking Saudi Arabia’s draconian laws that punish female car drivers and torture those who dare defy the regime. Ironically, Saudi Arabia even has a seat at the UN Human Rights Council, which has left many human rights defenders equally amazed and disgusted.

That is how international diplomacy works at the UN. Keep quiet when big donors violate human rights, but be vocal about violations committed by small, insignificant countries whose voices are drowned out at the UN Security Council and other UN bodies. Talk about women’s rights in Afghanistan but keep quiet about torture chambers in Saudi Arabia. Scold a poor country like Liberia for not doing enough for children’s education, but ignore the plight of children who are sexually abused or trafficked in the United States. Castigate former child soldiers from Uganda or the Congo for crimes against humanity but ignore the war crimes and mass murders ordered by President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair in Iraq.

If anyone still has any doubt that the UN is fair and impartial, its response to Khassoggi’s murder should lay to rest any such illusions.

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War Games: The Truth behind the Government’s Sudden Attack on the Sports Betting Industry

It thus appears that the assault on the betting companies, far from being a general money-laundering investigation, is actually part of the weaponisation of anti-corruption to take down the said well-moneyed senior politician.

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War Games: The Truth behind the Government’s Sudden Attack on the Sports Betting Industry
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For a government that has earned a reputation for its lackadaisical approach to matters corruption—other than those of its political enemies, that is—the resolute assault it has launched on the sports betting companies is intriguing. According to media reports, it was triggered by the Betting and Licensing Control Board writing to the Financial Reporting Centre asking for an investigation into money laundering in the industry. The Financial Reporting Centre is the unit of the Central Bank responsible for money laundering surveillance.

This sequence of events is suspect. Kenya’s reputation as a money-laundering hotspot is well documented, and the government has been under considerable pressure from the United States government to clean up for a long time. One of the deals underpinning the Jubilee government’s rapprochement with President Obama was a commitment to join the Egmont Group, a multinational collaborative platform for combating money laundering and terrorism financing. The 2019 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report submitted to the United States Congress by the country’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs notes that “despite some progress, Kenya has not fulfilled all of its commitments to join the Egmont Group.”

For a government that has earned a reputation for its lackadaisical approach to matters corruption—other than those of its political enemies, that is—the resolute assault it has launched on the sports betting companies is intriguing. According to media reports, it was triggered by the Betting and Licensing Control Board writing to the Financial Reporting Centre asking for an investigation into money laundering in the industry.

The point here is that it is difficult to believe—given America’s intense interest in this matter—that the betting industry has not been on the government’s anti-money laundering radar all along, especially because some of the industry’s foreign investors have been cited in connection with money laundering by the American government. This being the case, it stands to reason that the government could have opened an anti-money laundering investigation on the betting companies without much ado. Few would have been surprised. And it is quite unusual for sanctions to be meted out as part of an investigation, because as far as we know, there is as yet no determination that individual betting companies have been found culpable. Even money-launderers who are operating legally are entitled to due process.

It becomes even more confounding when the government speaks from both sides of the mouth. President Uhuru Kenyatta has been quoted maintaining that the investigation is purely a tax compliance matter: “Some betting firms have been hoarding taxes but we have managed to push them to pay and we will continue doing so. Those in the betting companies are our friends but we have to agree the government must get its rightful share to build cultural centres and other developments.” It is noteworthy that among the local investors profiled since the onslaught began are prominent establishment figures who featured prominently in Jubilee election campaign financing.

First, just how big is this industry? A government investigation reported the industry turnover at Sh200 billion a year. It is also reported that there are 12 million mobile phone-based betting accounts. But according to the Finaccess 2019 survey report, 1.9 per cent of adult Kenyans participate in sports betting. The Finaccess survey tracks financial inclusion, and is conducted once every two years by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in partnership with the Central Bank of Kenya and the Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Trust. The 2019 survey was administered on a nationally representative sample of 11,000 households.

The figure of 1.9 per cent of adult Kenyans translates to 500,000 people. This in turn suggests that on average, punters spend Sh400,000 per year, or Sh33,300 per month on betting. The average annual wage in 2018, as reported in the Economic Survey, was Sh730,000. If we assume that the punters are spread across the income spectrum, that is, they are not concentrated in the high income groups, it would suggest that punters are spending more than half their income on gambling. This does not seem plausible.

It becomes even more confounding when the government speaks from both sides of the mouth. President Uhuru Kenyatta has been quoted maintaining that the investigation is purely a tax compliance matter

The Sh200 billion turnover is also inconsistent with the national economic data. The turnover of an industry corresponds to the gross output of a sector in the production accounts. A gross output of Sh200 billion would be significant considering that it is larger than that of “accommodation and food services” which captures the entire tourism, domestic, hospitality and restaurant services. As per the International Standard Industrial Classification (ISIC) the betting economy falls under the “arts, recreation and entertainment” sector. However, in the production accounts published in the Economic Survey, it is lumped together in a residual category (“other service activities”) although it is reported separately in the GDP figures (GDP is obtained by deducting intermediate inputs and indirect taxes from gross output). The gross output of “other service activities” in 2018 was Sh154 billion, less than the claimed turnover of betting alone, while the GDP for the “arts, recreation and entertainment” economy is only Sh10 billion. Either the statisticians have missed it altogether, or the Sh200 billion turnover figure is wrong.

SportPesa, reportedly the dominant firm in the industry, has published a statement disclosing its 2018 turnover as Sh20 billion. The only market share figure I could find is reported by the financial market information blog, The Kenya Wall Street, which puts SportPesa’s market share in 2016 at 76 per cent, and a small online survey of 300 respondents conducted by Linet Kwamboka of Data Science Ltd. in January 2019, in which two-thirds of the respondents gave SportPesa as their main betting platform (Betting In Kenya, a Menace or an Income?) These figures suggest an industry turnover in the Sh25 billion to Sh30 billion range.

Even this lower figure does not reconcile with the national economic data. As observed, using the “value-added” approach, the GDP is obtained by deducting intermediate inputs from gross output. In aggregate, these add up to about 45 per cent of gross output meaning that GDP is 55 per cent of gross output. That said, intermediate outputs vary a lot by sector, from 20 per cent in financial services to 70 per cent in manufacturing.

We do not know where the industry falls, but according to a data visualisation published in the Daily Nation titled A Gambling Nation: Betting dominates Kenya’s online searches, the betting industry spent Sh22 billion on advertising in 2018. Advertising expenditure would go into intermediate inputs. This outlay alone would reduce the industry’s GDP to no more than Sh8 billion, about three-quarters of the entertainment economy’s GDP. Still not credible. The advertising figures are a likely source of this inconsistency. According to the source, the total amount of spending on advertising in the country was Sh132 billion, and the main media on which it was spent were television, print and radio. But the turnover of the entire mainstream media industry in Kenya is no more than Sh25 billion, which begs the question where the Sh100 billion-plus was spent.

There is also another anomaly. Betting is said to have grown very rapidly; for instance, the Kenyan Wall Street blog reports a 2016 turnover of Sh56 billion which has supposedly grown to Sh200 billion, fourfold growth in two years. The rapid growth should reflect in the GDP. It does not. The gross output of “other services” increased by only Sh29 billion over the two years, and the entertainment sector GDP by only Sh2 billion. It does look like the statisticians are not capturing this growth in the national economic data.

An industry turnover of Sh25 billion-Sh30 billion together with the figure of 500,000 bettors estimated by Finaccess, translates to an average gambling expenditure of between Sh4,000 and Sh5,000 per month. This is a more plausible figure, and it is also in line with the figures reported by the respondents of Linet Kwamboka’s online survey. These figures are telling us that most punters spend between Sh500 and Sh1500 on betting a week—beer money, literary; the Managing Director of Kenya Breweries recently lamented that sports betting has become a serious competitor. By and large, the much-lamented gambling epidemic appears to be no more than substitution of one vice for another. No doubt there are gambling addicts, there always were, just as there are alcoholics.

SportPesa, reportedly the dominant firm in the industry, has published a statement disclosing its 2018 turnover as Sh20 billion. The only market share figure I could find is reported by the financial market information blog

We are still left with the Sh200 billion figure though. Where does it come from? The authorities have not been forthcoming on how the figure was arrived at. I see two possibilities: a purely technical accounting issue, and the money laundering dimension. The accounting issue is well illustrated by this account of The Broker, a punter who contributed to this discussion on twitter:

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Although The Broker gets the gist of it, his math is actually incorrect. His outlay of Sh10,000 generated three betting transactions totalling Sh22,000 (two Sh10,000 bets and one Sh2,000 bet) and he lost Sh7,000 not Sh8,000. The Sh7,000 is the betting company’s total revenue from his betting activity. Let us extrapolate: if we work with the Finaccess figure of 500,000 punters, the Sh. 200 billion turnover figure requires an average of Sh33,000 of betting transactions per person per month, which is within striking distance of The Broker’s figure of Sh22,000.

The Sh200 billion turnover is being buttressed by another figure, that of the 12 million betting accounts held with the mobile phone companies. If each account represented a unique customer, then those 12 million accounts would be held by half the adult population. We also know that the vast majority of bettors are the youth. The 12 million accounts figure is about the same as the total population of the 20-35 age group, which would suggest that virtually every young person has a betting account. That is a stretch and it stands to reason that some punters will have betting accounts with different companies. Still if we assume that each bettor has four accounts on average, this still translates to three million unique accounts, six times the Finaccess figure of 500,000. In its statement, SportPesa gives a figure of 700,000 visitors during the first half of 2019.

Img.2Part of this conundrum may be explained by another contribution to this debate on Twitter by one Jerry, who claims to have opened over 10,000 phantom betting accounts. Pressed to explain why, Jerry said that it was paid work. Why would betting companies pay people to open phantom accounts? The readily apparent reason is to inflate the size of the business and by so doing be able to pass off laundered monies as revenue, as would massive advertising and high profile sports sponsorships. It turns out that the betting epidemic may not be as big as it is made out to be and indeed, the Finaccess findings may be a more accurate reflection of the size of the industry.

According to a source quoted in the media, the Interior Ministry has “established that three politicians are involved in the business through proxies in the firms suspended on suspicion of money laundering”. The article goes on to report one of the issues under investigation as “whether a well-moneyed senior politician is among the shareholders of one of the big suspended firms through a company registered in a tax haven which is being used to launder money stolen from public coffers”.

No prizes for guessing who the well-moneyed senior politician is.

It thus appears that the assault on the betting companies, far from being a general money-laundering investigation, is actually part of the weaponisation of anti-corruption to take down the said well-moneyed senior politician. The vitriolic, lawless modus operandi accords with the manner in which this political warfare is being prosecuted generally. As is Uhuru Kenyatta’s statement—for the betting companies are indeed his friends who, unfortunately for them, have become collateral damage.

It is also telling, I think, that the onslaught on the betting companies has coincided with the high profile arrests and opening of prosecutions in the Arror and Kimwarer dams corruption case. Among the revelations from the investigation is that the money laundering trail led to London and Dubai—both are members of the Egmont Group.

From this we can infer that the Government was quite happy to cozy up to the industry until the William Ruto takedown opened a Pandora’s box. Hitherto, it mattered not whether the betting business is a Sh20 billion or Sh200 billion business, whether it was evading taxes, fuelling a gambling epidemic, or even laundering money for drug lords, human and wildlife traffickers and terrorist networks. You can get away with all that, and even buy protection for all of that, just as long as you steer clear of the struggle for power.

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In Memory of Chris Msando: Murder Most Foul

Mr Christopher Msando was the slain Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission ICT manager, who was assassinated days before the disputed August 8 2017 elections.

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Dear Chris,

It has been two years since we last spoke. A lot has happened, while you have been away. Eva, Allan, Alvin and Allison miss you a lot. The agony of your mother continues to haunt us. The sorrow of your sisters, brothers and friends weighs heavily on many. But the hope of a better tomorrow still beckons. Hope that your death and that of many others was not in vain.

Let me tell you what happened after your brutal torture and murder. Your assassination was roundly condemned. Announcements made on investigations went nowhere. The 8 August 2017 elections proceeded. You remember the concerns you always raised about the electronic transmission of results? It played out in exactly the way you and others feared it would. The system froze at 8:30 pm on Election Day and what happened thereafter, remains a mystery.

The Chairman of the IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) could not confirm or deny if the system had been manipulated. He gave the Glomar response. The one that brings chills down the spine, reminding one on why you paid the ultimate sacrifice. Why they permanently got rid of you. They knew you would have detected and made known the manipulation of the transmission of the presidential result. The games you had alerted the Commission to. The “tunnel” created to the servers. Those servers, which like your murderers, continue to be kept in secrecy.

I will spare you, my brother, the details of what happened thereafter. Baby Samantha Pendo is too young, to tell you of her ordeal under the security forces. Unfortunately, there are more than 100 young men and women lying closer to you with more credible testimonies than I could ever deliver. The lives lost in the pursuit of political interests. In the struggle for electoral justice. The collateral damage in the quest for political and economic control by a tiny elite – the sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President, respectively. The reign of the dynasties and the clamor of the so-called Hustlers to find a place in the ruling class.

My brother, I know how much you cared about your work at the IEBC. So, indulge me in a bit of gossip that I know you disliked. Do you know that your position is still vacant at the IEBC? Your shoes are seemingly too big to fit. Oh, and the rest of the Commission is in shambles. I am sure you remember the Commissioner with long dreadlocks. The one you often appeared on television with to explain how the KIEMS (Kenya Integrated Election Management System) gadgets worked. Naively thinking that your honesty was enough to change a path the powers had destined years before you started your jobs. Thinking that you could out-manoeuvre ‘the system.’ The real owners of the country. She resigned before the October election.

And that young man who was hired to manage the Secretariat? That one with previous zero management experience. The one who pleaded for your director to be brought back to the Commission after he had been suspended. The one who feared that with you in charge, their plot would be foiled. The one who was among the last people you had a meeting within the office shortly before you disappeared. The one who asked you to return to the office after your television presentation. Yes, the one who was always close to the powers that be. The political class abandoned him. And do you know what happened next? Three Commissioners resigned in solidarity with the young man. I know it will come as a surprise to you that the fluent Swahili-speaking Commissioner was among those three. But your Chairman is still hanging in there, with two unlikely allies. Those two Commissioners who disrespected him the most. The ones who openly defied him all the time.

My brother, I digressed. I know you are curious to know what happened in 2018. Dr. Miguna Miguna swore in the People’s President Raila Odinga on 30 January 2018. It was one of the shortest terms in office. It lasted one month, for he voluntarily gave it up on 9 March 2018. The country was perplexed to see him shaking hands with “his brother” President Uhuru Kenyatta at Harambee House. In the Kenyan style of avoidance disorder, we resorted to humor and labelled it a Handcheque. The country was told that the journey to Canaan was still on. The crocodiles had disrupted it but that their team of experts would build bridges to deliver Kenyans to Canaan. Only if they knew how black people are currently ill-treated in Canaan, they would not dare promise us that! Millions of shillings have been spent on “collecting views” from wananchi. And yet, the report of the experts was probably finalized before they even started their rendezvous. It is the usual elite bargain. The dynasty ganging up to change the constitution to perpetuate their hold on power and the economy.

Speaking of the economy, Chris, it is in peril. According to data from the Central Bank of Kenya, as of January our total debt stood at 5.2 trillion, one of the highest in Africa giving us a debt ratio to GDP of 56%.

If it were not for the remittances from the Diaspora averaging Ksh 24 billion per month, the recently floated kachumbari bond, the bailout by the World Bank among other fiscal policies, the situation would have been worse. Corruption is at its highest peak. According to the Corruption Tracker website, the total amount of money stolen from public coffers stands at a staggering KES 8,061,872,800,000 since 2014. The intra-Jubilee Party fights have one silver lining as the different factions are competing to expose each other. Each day they wash their dirty linen in public, allowing us to have a glimpse of the extent of their theft.

Chris, I know you do not have much time to read all this. You have better company. I can imagine what it must be to listen to the Kenyan heroines and heroes of the democratic struggle who rest in peace with you. The numerous men and women murdered by the Kenyatta I and Moi regimes. Those who lost their lives in the various post-election violence episodes. Those who paid the ultimate price in the liberation struggle. But spare me a few more minutes to tell you about the latest in our political machinations.

I will invoke the name of the love of your life to get your attention. Do you remember Eva’s speech at your funeral service? It was moving and powerful. Her words, “may you not have peace”, continue to haunt us each day. Collectively as a country, we have found peace elusive. Those high-ranking politicians who tried to malign you, to cover up your assassination, many of them are now claiming that their lives are in danger. It is as if the hunter has become the hunted. Remember those who refused the services of foreign intelligence services to unravel your murder? They are now busy visiting those foreign countries in the name of capacity building to undertake investigations. Oh, my friend, Chris, I can hear your quintessential booming laughter.

You must be saddened to see the hopelessness among the youth. The unemployment rate is unsustainably high. There is a sustained gutting down of our education sector with a Cabinet Secretary who de-emphasizes university education. The running down of the health services with no respect for the nurses and doctors. The pain of farmers who have no competitive prices for their maize and yet the cartels are bringing in imports. The extra-judicial killings of young men in marginalised neighbourhoods. The depression of a nation, the devasting mental illness with the associated spike in suicides, femicides and homicides. The plunder of our environment in the race for resource extraction.

Knowing you, I must stop enumerating the problems. You were always the ultimate optimist, pragmatist and problem solver. There is no challenge that was insurmountable to you. You always defined the challenge and provided options, even on what appeared to be impossible tasks like protecting the servers!

Chris, I will finish on a rather positive note. That despite the gloom, there is hope. Young men and women are organizing on social media in ways unimaginable to those of our age. They have initiated social justice centres throughout the country to push back on extra-judicial killings. The #SwitchOffKPLC and The DeCoalonize movements are leading on fighting off the energy cartels and for environmental justice. The fledging Kenya Tuitakayo Movement, continues to unify Kenyans around common objectives. The Limuru III meeting on 7 July re-energized the calls for a grass-root based leadership to secure the leadership of the State and defend the 2010 Constitution. New political parties such as the United Green Movement, Ukweli Party, among others promise alternative leadership to the country. There is hope that the struggle for social, political and economic liberation is not in vain.

Let me stop here for now, for I know that on this second anniversary of your murder, there are many others waiting in line for your attention.

Rest in peace my brother.

My very best regards,

Miriam

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