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Between the hammer of the markets and the anvil of politics: Mr Kenyatta, in debt distress

Recently released Treasury figures paint a frightening picture: not only is the government broke and struggling with declining revenues, it is now spending the equivalent of 90 percent of the wage bill on interest repayments and in July, failed to remit any monies to the Counties. Interest payments on debt are eating into recurrent expenditure, threatening to grind daily government operations to a halt. The low-down: big projects – including Uhuru Kenyatta’s legacy projects, the ‘Big Four’ Agenda and the Standard Gauge Railway – are off the table. And for Jubilee, the prospect of collapse is very real. By DAVID NDII.  

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Between the hammer of the markets and the anvil of politics: Mr Kenyatta, in debt distress
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A few weeks ago the CS Treasury was kind enough to publish and gazette the government’s income and expenditure statement for July, the first month of the current financial year.  They are only a few numbers, but they are quite revealing.

Government Income and Expenditure Statement, July 2018

Government Income and Expenditure Statement, July 2018

The government opened the year with KSh 102.8 billion in the bank. It raised KSh 99 billion from taxes, and borrowed KSh 30 billion locally, that is, total inflows of KSh 129 billion during the month. How was the money spent? Debt took KSh 68 billion, just under 70 percent of the tax raised.  The counties and development budget got no money at all. The Treasury closed the month with KSh 110.7 billion, KSh 8 billion more than the opening balance.  Why did the Treasury hoard money when the counties and development projects were starved of cash? I will come back to that question shortly.

It is tempting to think that this was only the first month of the financial year, and things will look up. Not quite. Treasury puts revenue for the full financial year at KSh 1.34 trillion which translated to a KSh 112 billion monthly average, so the July revenue figure is low but not far off the mark.  The debt service budget for the year is KSh 870 billion, which works out to KSh 72.5 billion per month so the July figure of KSh 68bn is also consistent. The domestic borrowing target for the year in the budget is KSh 270 billion, which works out to KSh 23 billion per month, so the July borrowing of KSh 30 billion is well above target. 

In essence, the July statement is a good snapshot of the state of government finances. Unless revenue increases dramatically, the only way the government will be able to stay afloat is by excessive domestic borrowing.  Borrowing more than it is doing already will put paid to any chances of recovery of credit to the private sector, which stalled three years go.  And one does not have to be an economist or finance expert to appreciate that a person, business or government spending 70 percent of income to service debt is distressed.

How did we get here? Binge borrowing.

KENYA: FOREIGN PUBLIC DEBT AND INTEREST PAYMENTS, FY 2017/18

Kenya Public Debt 2013 - 2018 KShBillion

Kenya Public Debt 2013 - 2018 KShBillion

KENYA: Average Interest Rate on Foreign Public Debt FY2017/18

As at end of June 2018, our total public debt was KSh 5.2 trillion, up from KSh 1.8 trillion five years ago, an increase of KSh 3.3 trillion. Jubilee has borrowed close to double the debt it inherited. The debt has increased more or less equally between domestic and foreign borrowing.  The second is cost of debt.

Unless revenue increases dramatically, the only way the government will be able to stay afloat is by excessive domestic borrowing.  Borrowing more than it is doing already will put paid to any chances of recovery of credit to the private sector, which stalled three years go.  And one does not have to be an economist or finance expert to appreciate that a person, business or government spending 70 percent of income to service debt is distressed.

The stock of debt has increased 187 percent but debt service outlays are up 230 percent, from KSh 264 billion to KSh 870 billion. The standout figure here is foreign interest, which has increased sevenfold from KSh 14 billion to KSh 114 billion. This in turn, is explained by two factors, foreign commercial and China debt.  Five years ago, foreign commercial debt was inconsequential— we owed only one syndicated loan and that was an exception. We were not in the habit of taking on foreign commercial debt. Five years on, commercial debt is the single largest item on foreign debt accounting for 36 percent of it.  We owed China KSh 63 billion accounting for seven percent of foreign debt. Debt to China is now up to KSh 550 billion accounting for close to 30 percent.  Commercial debt and China combined account for 80 percent of the increase in foreign debt.

We, of course, expect commercial debt to be more expensive than the soft loans from bilateral and multilateral development institutions. But Chinese debt is not cheap either.  Last year’s debt service figures show that we owed China 21 percent of foreign debt, but we paid them 32 percent of the interest. Multilateral lenders account for 33 percent of the debt but only 15 percent of the interest payments (See chart). The interest rates implied by these payments, although only a rough approximation, show that China’s debt is the most expensive at 4.8 percent, followed by commercial debt at 3.9 percent, other bilateral lenders at 2.4 percent and multilateral lenders are the cheapest at 1.4 percent. But as I said, these are implied rates, not the actual ones, as they do not reflect the debt movements within the year.

Jubilee has borrowed close to double the debt it inherited. The debt has increased more or less equally between domestic and foreign borrowing. The stock of debt has increased 187 percent but debt service outlays are up 230 percent, from KSh 264 billion to KSh 870 billion. The standout figure here is foreign interest, which has increased seven fold from KSh 14 billion to KSh 114 billion. This in turn, is explained by two factors, foreign commercial and China debt.

Different components of debt affect the budget differently. Interest comes out of the recurrent budget, and in effect from revenue. Working with a realistic figure of KSh 1.4 trillion revenue, the interest burden this year takes 29 percent of revenue up from 14 percent five years ago. In fact, interest cost is now equivalent to 90 percent of the wage bill as compared to 40 percent five years ago.  Interest on debt is crowding out the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) budget. O&M is what makes government work. It is the money that enables the police to move around, and health facilities to treat patients, government laboratories to test food and drugs and so on.

On this trajectory, it will not take long for the recurrent budget to consist of only salaries and interest

The foreign debt consists of market debt (the Eurobonds), syndicated loans and term loans.

Eurobonds and syndicated loans are similar. The key difference is that syndicated loans are short-term notes, typically sold in two-year cycles, which banks typically hold to maturity. Amortization of bonds and syndicated loans (i.e. repayment of principal) is financed by new market debt, and is known as re-financing. The principal on bank debt has to be repaid. The key concern with market debt is the refinancing risk. The government has to be able to sell new bonds as old ones mature.  The market conditions can change, or the investors risk-perceptions can change to the extent that the government is unable to sell enough bonds in which case it defaults. Alternately, it may have to offer such high returns that sooner or later, it cannot afford the interest, which amounts to the same thing— default.

Which brings me to the  KSh102 billion shilling cash hoard— the money that government had but did not spend in July. This is half the money that the government raised in the second Eurobond six months ago. It was not spent because it was raised to refinance the maturing debt, KSh 250 billion this year.  The balance has to be raised. 

The key concern with market debt is the refinancing risk. The government has to be able to sell new bonds as old ones mature.  The market conditions can change, or the investors risk-perceptions can change to the extent that the government is unable to sell enough bonds in which case it defaults. Alternately, it may have to offer such high returns that sooner or later, it cannot afford the interest, which amounts to the same thing— default.

The preferred option is to float another Eurobond, preferably a long dated one that does not come up for refinancing soon. The alternative is more syndicated loans which will cost more and come up for refinancing in two years. The market environment that they will be doing this is not favourable.  When we raised the first Eurobond in 2014, the market was awash with “Quantitative Easing” (QE) money the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank were “printing” in order to shore up their banking systems following the 2007 financial crisis, as well as “petrodollars” accumulated by oil exporters—recall that oil was selling at over $100 a barrel). The returns on financial assets in advanced markets were close to zero or negative.

Money managers were looking for higher returns wherever they could find them. Emerging markets were growing fast, and news out of Africa was dominated by the “Africa Rising” story.

Zambia was one of the first countries to jump onto the Eurobond bandwagon.  Zambia floated a debut bond, looking to borrow US$500 million. It was heavily oversubscribed, attracting offers in excess of US$ 12 billion. Zambia accepted $750 million.  Kenya’s stated objective was to issue a US$500 million “benchmarking” bond and use the proceeds to offset a syndicated loan that was due. How this turned to a US$ 2.8 billion is a story for another day— where it went is already the stuff of legend.

Our political class seems not to have understood the paradigm shift that becoming a sovereign borrower in international markets entails. Going to the market is analogous to a business going public. When a company is private, its affairs are dealt with behind closed doors. The only way unhappy investors can express their views is with their voices, or voting out directors during the annual general meetings, and this is usually quite difficult as typically, the insiders usually have more shares than outsiders. When a company gets listed on the stock exchange, investors don’t have to wait for AGMs. They communicate with the company every day by either buying or dumping the stock. Facebook’s share price fell 11 percent (US$134 billion) in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal—and that’s all the shareholders needed to say.   

Prior to “listing” in the international sovereign bond market, our financial affairs were discussed behind closed doors between the government and its external financiers led by the IMF, and enforced through “conditionalities.” Sanctions for non-performance were flexible and negotiable, and influenced by political considerations. We call this programme discipline.  After “listing”, the bond yields work the same way as share price, punishing or rewarding the country for good or bad economic management as the case maybe. We call this market discipline. The IMF continues to have a role, but a different one— providing a form of credit enhancement to the markets.

Our political class seems not to have understood the paradigm shift that becoming a sovereign borrower in international markets entails. Going to the market is analogous to a business going public. When a company is private, its affairs are dealt with behind closed doors…When a company gets listed on the stock exchange, investors don’t have to wait for AGMs. They communicate with the company every day by either buying or dumping the stock.

But Zambia’s government does not seem to have gotten that memo. Sometime ago it organized national prayers for the Kwacha, hardly a confidence building measure.  A quarrelsome negotiation with the IMF broke down in February. Last week, the government kicked the IMF out of the country for “spreading negative talk”.  The markets responded accordingly. Zambia’s bonds are trading at a bigger discount than Mozambique which has already defaulted.

As of last week, Zambia’s bonds were trading at a yield of 15 percent.  An increase in the yield corresponds to a decline in value of a bond, and vice versa. Zambia’s debut Eurobond carries a coupon of 5.375%, and was issued at a yield at 5.625%, meaning that investors paid $93.50 for $100 of face value.  A yield of 15 percent means that the bond is now trading at $36, a 60 percent fall in value.  As summed up by an investor in Zambian Eurobonds: “It’s not a place that investors would rush into even if emerging markets become popular again. People will be cautious about Zambia until it produces better numbers or gets an IMF deal.”

Why our Treasury mandarins have been bending over backwards for a deal with the IMF is now readily apparent.  IMF deal or no-deal, the government will have to produce better numbers. Healthy foreign exchange reserves are good, but reserves don’t service debt; revenues do. The markets want to see fiscal consolidation. The markets do not send missions. They dump your bonds. 

The low-down: Mega projects are off the table, as is the “Big Four.”  The SGR is not going past Naivasha anytime soon. The only order of business is crisis management – that is, if the government survives. Looking around, the odds are not good.  The Greek crisis consumed five governments. Argentina went through five presidents in two weeks following imposition of the “corralito” (small enclosure) austerity measures in December 2001. The EPRDF autocracy in Ethiopia, erstwhile poster child of Africa’s new breed of authoritarian developmental regimes, did not run out of bullets or prisons. It ran out of money, and unravelled. Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Malaysia have ejected the mega-project mega-corruption governments that corralled them into China’s debt trap. Earlier this week Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir dissolved his government and appointed a new prime minister tasked to form a leaner government “as part of austerity measures to tackle economic difficulties.”

Mega projects are off the table, as is the “Big Four.”  The SGR is not going past Naivasha anytime soon. The only order of business is crisis management – that is, if the government survives. Looking around, the odds are not good.  The Greek crisis consumed five governments. Argentina went through five presidents in two weeks following the imposition of austerity measures in December 2001. The EPRDF autocracy in Ethiopia, erstwhile poster child of Africa’s new breed of authoritarian developmental regimes, did not run out of bullets or prisons. It ran out of money, and unravelled…It is fair to say that Mr. Kenyatta is now caught between the hammer of the markets, and the anvil of politics.

It is fair to say that Mr. Kenyatta is now caught between the hammer of the markets, and the anvil of politics. That comes with the territory.

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David Ndii

David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Africa and Palestine: A Noble Legacy That Must Never Be Forgotten

Today’s generation of African leaders should not deviate from that the solidarity between Africa and Palestine. Indeed, writes RAMZY BAROUD If they betray it, they betray themselves, along with the righteous struggles of their own peoples.

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Africa and Palestine: A Noble Legacy That Must Never Be Forgotten
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Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” began in earnest in 1881 but never ended. The attempt at dominating the continent using old and new strategies continues to define the Western relationship with this rich continent. This reality was very apparent when I arrived in Nairobi on June 23. Although I had come to address various Kenyan audiences at universities, public forums and the media, I had also to learn. Kenya, like the rest of Africa, is a source of inspiration for all anti-colonial liberation movements around the world. We Palestinians can learn a great deal from the Kenyan struggle.

Although African countries have fought valiant battles for their freedom against their Western colonisers, neocolonialism now defines the relationship between many independent African countries and their former occupiers. Political meddling, economic control and, at times, military interventions – as in the recent cases of Libya and Mali – point to the unfortunate reality that Africa remains, in myriad ways, hostage to Western priorities, interests and dictates.

In the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884, Western colonial regimes attempted to mediate between the various powers that were competing over Africa’s riches. It apportioned to each a share of the African continent, as if Africa were the property of the West and its white colonists. Millions of Africans died in that protracted, bloody episode unleashed by the West, which shamelessly promoted its genocidal oppression as a civilisational project.

Like most colonised peoples in the southern hemisphere, Africans fought disproportionate battles to gain their precious freedom. Here in Kenya, which became an official British colony in the 1920s, Kenya’s freedom fighters rose in rebellion against the brutality of their oppressors. Most notable among the various resistance campaigns, the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s remains a stark example of the courage of Kenyans and the cruelty of colonial Britain. Thousands of people were killed, wounded, disappeared or were imprisoned under the harshest of conditions.

Palestine fell under British occupation, the so-called British Mandate, around the same period that Kenya also became a British colony. Palestinians, too, fought and fell in their thousands as they employed various methods of collective resistance, including the legendary strike and rebellion of 1936. The same British killing machine that operated in Palestine and Kenya around that time, also operated, with the same degree of senseless violence, against numerous other nations around the world.

While Palestine was handed over to the Zionist movement to establish the state of Israel in May 1948, Kenya achieved its independence in December 1963.

At one of my recent talks in Nairobi, I was asked by a young participant about “Palestinian terrorism”. I told her that Palestinian fighters of today are Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of yesteryear. That if we allow Western and Israeli propaganda to define Paestine’s national liberation discourse, then we condemn all national liberation movements throughout the southern hemisphere, including Kenya’s own freedom fighters.

We Palestinians must however shoulder part of the blame that our narrative as an oppressed, colonised and resisting nation is now misunderstood in parts of Africa.

When the Palestine Liberation Organisation committed its historical blunder by signing off Palestinian rights in Oslo in 1993, it abandoned a decades-long Palestinian discourse of resistance and liberation. Instead, it subscribed to a whole new discourse, riddled with carefully-worded language sanctioned by Washington and its European allies. Whenever Palestinians dared to deviate from their assigned role, the West would decree that they must return to the negotiating table, as the latter became a metaphor of obedience and submission.

Throughout these years, Palestinians mostly abandoned their far more meaningful alliances in Africa. Instead, they endlessly appealed to the goodwill of the West, hoping that the very colonial powers that have primarily created, sustained and armed Israel, would miraculously become more balanced and humane.

When the Palestine Liberation Organisation committed its historical blunder by signing off Palestinian rights in Oslo in 1993, it abandoned a decades-long Palestinian discourse of resistance and liberation.

However, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, etc., remained committed to Israel and, despite occasional polite criticism of the Israeli government, continued to channel their weapons, warplanes and submarines to every Israeli government that has ruled over Palestinians for the last seven decades. Alas, while Palestinians were learning their painful lesson, betrayed repeatedly by those who had vowed to respect democracy and human rights, many African nations began seeing in Israel a possible ally. Kenya is, sadly, one of those countries.

Understanding the significance of Africa in terms of its economic and political potential, and its support for Israel at the UN General Assembly, right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched his own “Scramble for Africa”. Netanyahu’s diplomatic conquests on the continent have been celebrated by Israeli media as “historic”, while the Palestinian leadership remains oblivious to the rapidly changing political landscape.

Kenya is one of Israel’s success stories. In November 2017, Netanyahu attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Netanyahu was seen embracing Kenyatta as a dear friend and ally even as Kenyans rose in rebellion against their corrupt ruling classes. Tel Aviv had hoped that the first-ever Israel-Africa summit in Togo would usher in a complete paradigm shift in Israeli-African relations. However, the October 2017 conference never took place due to pressure by various African countries, including South Africa. There is still enough support for Palestine on the continent to defeat the Israeli stratagem. But that could change soon in favour of Israel if Palestinians and their allies do not wake up to the alarming reality.

The Palestinian leadership, intellectuals, artists and civil society ambassadors must shift their attention back to the southern hemisphere, to Africa in particular, rediscovering the untapped wealth of true, unconditional human solidarity offered by the peoples of this ever-generous continent.

Kenya is one of Israel’s success stories. In November 2017, Netanyahu attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Netanyahu was seen embracing Kenyatta as a dear friend and ally even as Kenyans rose in rebellion against their corrupt ruling classes

The legendary Tanzanian freedom fighter, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who is also celebrated in Kenya, knew very well where his solidarity lay. “We have never hesitated in our support for the right of the people of Palestine to have their own land,” he once said, a sentiment that was repeated by the iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela, and by many other African liberation leaders. Today’s generation of African leaders should not deviate from that noble legacy. If they betray it, they betray themselves, along with the righteous struggles of their own peoples.

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When Numbers Lie: Public Trust, Political Legitimacy and the 2019 Census

The one thing we are sure about, however, is that regardless of the outcome, our confidence in these state-captured institutions is at a historic low. They will have to perform miracles to convince us of the veracity and legitimacy of the population numbers they shall announce, the constituencies they shall demarcate and the voters they shall register.

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When Numbers Lie: Public Trust, Political Legitimacy and the 2019 Census
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There is an uncanny resemblance between elections and population censuses in Kenya. The premise is often that elections and population censuses are purely technical exercises. The processes are handled in a purely technical manner at inception and then they become highly politicised once the results are out. Yet elections and population censuses are highly political-technical operations and should be treated as such from their commencement. This is critical as the institutions undertaking the exercises must be able to build public trust to ensure the acceptability of the results.

However, typical of Kenya, we pretend that the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) conducts population and housing censuses in a political vacuum. We ignore the fact that a census is not just a planning tool; the results of a census form the basis for decisions on representation (electoral boundaries), identity and resource allocation. In any society, these three issues are highly political and very sensitive. It is no wonder then that there are many countries in Africa that avoid conducting censuses and rely on projections instead, as evidenced by the latest list published by the United Nations.

We also bury our heads in the sand and project the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) as an autonomous institution functioning with utmost impartiality and professionalism yet the evidence over the years points to the contrary. The selection of the Commissioners overseeing elections has all the pretences of an open and transparent process, complete with televised interviews. In reality, however, it is political horse-trading with the sole aim of selecting the most politically pliable persons who have never held any serious management positions. The appointments are considered favours to be returned rather than a public service.

However, typical of Kenya, we pretend that the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) conducts population and housing censuses in a political vacuum. We ignore the fact that a census is not just a planning tool; the results of a census form the basis for decisions on representation (electoral boundaries), identity and resource allocation. In any society, these three issues are highly political and very sensitive

It is no wonder then that these two institutions—which are clearly mandated to count—have continually failed to perform their core functions. The disputes surrounding the results of the 2009 census were resolved by the courts. Similarly, the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections were decided by the Supreme Court.

Which begs the question of why these two institutions are unable to perform the one job given to them. Is it a matter of incompetence? Are they unable to do simple additions or are they accomplices in State Capture?

Public records indicate that the core staff of the KNBS are highly qualified demographers and statisticians. Kenya is one of the most active members of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development. It regularly sends highly qualified experts to support other countries in developing their skills in undertaking censuses.

This is also the case for the core staff of the IEBC. While the Chairman and Commissioners have continuously and publicly proved their incompetence in electoral and boundary demarcation matters, the staff, especially at the constituency level, are highly skilled. The issue is therefore not so much one of incompetence among those charged with the technical aspect—the counting of votes or people. To a large extent, the staff know exactly what their tasks are and how to carry them out and it would be inaccurate to label the actions of the KNBS and IEBC as incompetence. Rather, it is a matter of blatant collusion between the senior managers of these institutions and the political class to subvert the will of the people and manipulate the results of the population census.

Public records indicate that the core staff of the KNBS are highly qualified demographers and statisticians. Kenya is one of the most active members of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development. It regularly sends highly qualified experts to support other countries in developing their skills in undertaking censuses.

It is not by coincidence that both the IEBC and KNBS have resorted to using technology in the transmission of the results of the election and the census, respectively. It is also not coincidental that the KNBS is using the same company that bungled the 2017 election despite parliamentary censure of the company.

While there are positive aspects to technology, there are many more worrying aspects to it. Many pundits have focused on the question of data privacy in the 2019 electronic census process. In the absence of regulations on data protection, data privacy is a valid concern. Statements from senior government officials to the effect that data is the new oil suggests possible collusion with companies trading in Big Data and instinctively increases the level of doubt in the government’s intentions. Some of the questions in the population census further confirm that the data collected could be used for commercial purposes by corporations.

In addition to data privacy, we should also be concerned about two other issues: the transparency of the results and cybersecurity. Unfortunately, these issues have not been at the forefront of the national debate on the population census.

On the first issue, the traceability, accountability and transparency of the census, there are lessons from the 2017 General Election that are worth recalling. The Supreme Court decision to annul the presidential result was primarily because of its concerns regarding the transparency and accountability of the electronic transmission of results. This year’s paperless census raises similar concerns. Moreover, unlike the IEBC which had the (albeit unreliable) Forms 34 (a) and (b), there is no similar back-up for the census. The implication is that an audit of the process would be limited to only the electronic files available.

In addition, there is ample evidence from all over the world showing that it is much easier to manipulate technology than it is to manipulate a paper-based census or a paper-based transmission of election results. Several studies have shown how—in the age of artificial intelligence—algorithms can be introduced into the system to produce the desired result. I recall two years ago when the then opposition leader, Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga, was dismissed for claiming that an algorithm had been introduced into the IEBC system to ensure the victory of his now bosom buddy. The fact that the IEBC failed to submit its servers to court-appointed experts to refute the veracity of the accusations should be taken as confirmation that the system was indeed manipulated. What prevents the KNBS from doing the same? The motivation to introduce an algorithm to steer the population census towards a desired result is not any less now than it was during the 2017 election.

In addition to data privacy, we should also be concerned about two other issues: the transparency of the results and cybersecurity. Unfortunately, these issues have not been at the forefront of the national debate on the population census.

Second, cybersecurity should be of concern in the context of a paperless census. Cyberattacks can take various forms including denial-of-service (DoS) where computer systems are interrupted or slowed down; introduction of malicious software (Malware) through worms, spyware, viruses and ransomware; or persons obtaining passwords or user-names and pretending to be trustworthy entities to breach servers. In the past, the country has had its infrastructure attacked by hackers and it is not clear what measures the KNBS has put in place to counter cyberattacks. Certainly, the IEBC had not put in place such measures in 2017.

One may wonder why we should be concerned about the manipulation of the census results and possible cyberattacks. Obviously, accuracy is fundamental given the importance of the data for economic and social planning. But in addition, the 2019 census is crucial to two processes to be undertaken by the IEBC in the coming year.

Firstly, the Commission is required to undertake a boundary demarcation exercise shortly after the census. The 2010 boundary demarcation process exceptionally allowed for the establishment of 27 constituencies which had not met the population quota provisions laid out in the Constitution. This means that politicians in these 27 constituencies will attempt to ensure that, this time round, they meet the provisions by hook or by crook. Politicians all over the world are keen to be involved in gerrymandering to ensure that their “strongholds” have more electoral units. It appears that the electronic census system has been put in place precisely to give the IEBC room to get involved in gerrymandering. In the absence of a paper trail the lack of traceability of the census process gives the IEBC room to do what the Commission does best, play to the tune of its benefactors.

Secondly, the Election Act requires the establishment of a new register of voters before the next election. A lot has been written about the defects in the 2017 register of voters and the inflated numbers in certain regions. It is expected that the IEBC will use the population figures to project the target number of voters to be registered. This is when the “tyranny of numbers” narrative will begin to play out; depending on what the political affiliations will be in 2020 and 2021, certain regions will likely have more “registered” voters than others. The likely manipulated KNBS ethnic numbers will then be replicated in the register of voters as was the case in 2017. I am always amused to see how the basic concepts of the ratio between the birth rate and the death rate are never applicable in the voters’ register; regions with a historically low birth rate and high death rate were often the ones with the largest number of new voters registered, thus defeating science.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the era of “dynasties and hustlers”. Are we likely to see the KNBS and later on the IEBC report higher populations and voters in the so-called dynasty strongholds? In the last voter registration exercise, there was ease of access to identification cards in the supposed UhuRuto zones. Will this switch in favour of the UhuRaila strongholds? Will we see the counties in the northern part of the country having more numbers and thus playing a swing-vote role in the 2022 election? Will the ongoing economic marginalisation of the coastal region be reflected in lower population and voter numbers? There are many political questions hanging in the air as we await what the KNBS and the IEBC have in store for us.

The one thing we are sure about, however, is that regardless of the outcome, our confidence in these state-captured institutions is at a historic low. They will have to perform miracles to convince us of the veracity and legitimacy of the population numbers they shall announce, the constituencies they shall demarcate and the voters they shall register.

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I Am Now Officially a Taita: How the 2019 Census Made Me Lose My Identity

Was the 2019 census conducted on behalf of certain commercial/political interests as a tool that could be used for marketing goods or to determine a household’s credit-worthiness?

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I Am Now Officially a Taita: How the 2019 Census Made Me Lose My Identity
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I know most people are not going to believe me when I say this but, haki ya mungu, I was recorded as a Taita in the 2019 census. On the night of 24 August, a young female enumerator who identified herself as a Taita arrived at my house in Kilifi County alongside an elder of the community/area and unilaterally decided that I belonged to a tribe called Taita.

You might wonder how this came about but I can only explain it as interviewer bias—when an interviewer injects his or her prejudices and preconceived ideas into an interview, thereby distorting the results.

This is how this bizarre situation unfolded. Upon establishing that my husband was a Taveta, the enumerator, who appeared friendly and nice, told me without flinching that a woman belongs to her husband’s tribe and so I would be listed as Taita-Taveta. Now, I have spent a lot of my life campaigning for Kenya’s Asian community to be recognised as bona fide citizens like the rest of Kenyans who are born in this country or who have roots here, but to be forcefully adopted into a Kenyan tribe in this manner was not what I expected. (Note: I was not asked if I wanted to be listed as a Kenyan, which apparently was one of the options alongside tribe.)

As the interview proceeded, at some point the word Taveta dropped out of the enumerator’s vocabulary and she began referring to both of us as Taita. I told her I had no tribe and if there was a category called “Asian” or “Other”, I would be happy to be listed under it. She said there was no such category, which made me wonder what the hullaballoo about Asians being officially declared the “44th tribe” of Kenya was all about. Was it just a gimmick or a political ploy to gain votes? If indeed Asians are now recognised as a Kenyan tribe, then why did the designers of the census questionnaire not reflect this?

So, not only were Asians as an ethnic or racial group ignored by the census, but some ethnic groups got special treatment. A Kenyan Somali friend informed me that while the majority of indigenous tribes were treated as a homogenous group (for instance, there was no distinction made between a Maragoli and a Bukusu, both of which belong to the Luhya tribe), Kenyan Somalis were treated as a heterogeneous group of clans. My friend was asked by an enumerator to declare his Somali clan.

While I was still recovering from the fact that I had been categorised in a Kenyan tribe with which I had no biological or filial ties, the enumerator proceeded to inform me that my husband, by virtue of being male, was, according to the census criteria, the de facto head of the household and that all questions would be addressed to him. I told her that the head of the household could be anyone, male or female, who is the breadwinner of the family, but she insisted that in Christianity, the head of the household is always the husband, the only exception to this rule being if the husband has died or has abandoned his family. I told her I was not a Christian, but that did not deter her. (I shudder to think what she might have recorded if she had encountered a homosexual couple where both “husband” and “wife” belong to the same sex.)

A Kenyan Somali friend informed me that while the majority of indigenous tribes were treated as a homogenous group (for instance, there was no distinction made between a Maragoli and a Bukusu, both of which belong to the Luhya tribe), Kenyan Somalis were treated as a heterogeneous group of clans. My friend was asked by an enumerator to declare his Somali clan.

Anyway, I decided to let that pass as patriarchal biases probably determine most censuses, but there were more surprises to follow. I was completely taken aback when she asked me and my husband if we had purchased anything online in the last six months. With the threat of a Sh500,000 fine hanging over our heads for giving false information (which country threatens to fine people for giving the wrong answers during a census?) I admitted to her that I had bought a book on Amazon recently.

Now as far as I know, the primary purpose of a national census is to collect data on the number of people residing in a country, not their shopping preferences. (Data on the latter is usually collected by marketing companies.) These people should be counted regardless of their citizenship. The people being counted could be refugees, tourists or even illegal aliens from Mars. That is why the ID number or passport question was completely irrelevant, and in fact, as many Kenyans learnt rather belatedly, it was also contrary to the Official Statistics Act and international norms and standards pertaining to censuses, which guarantee anonymity.

My question is: if this question is contrary to the country’s own laws and to international norms and standards, why was it included in the census questionnaire? The census question about citizenship and ID number would have definitely put off undocumented people, like the many urban refugees who live in Nairobi and other urban areas outside refugee camps, who I am sure found a way to disappear from the radar of the enumerators on the night of the census.

While I was still recovering from the fact that I had been categorised in a Kenyan tribe with which I had no biological or filial ties, the enumerator proceeded to inform me that my husband, by virtue of being male, was, according to the census criteria, the de facto head of the household and that all questions would be addressed to him.

Imagine being a refugee or an undocumented person in Kenya, and then being asked to produce an ID. The fear of deportation or arrest probably saw a lot of people not sleep in their homes during the week of the census—and so they were not counted. So, the census results are already inaccurate because someone at the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics was misled into believing that this was not an enumeration exercise, but an opportunity to intimidate people and to collect data on their legal status and consumption habits.

Tyranny of numbers

As for the question on tribe, in a politically volatile country like ours, where the “tyranny of numbers” is used to oppress or marginalise people, this question, in my opinion, should have been left out altogether.

I did not always feel this way. When the 2009 census was conducted, many argued that ethnicity should be left out of the census questionnaire because it would lead to further polarisation in a country that was becoming increasingly tribalistic (and which had just been through a violent election in 2007) and because the data on ethnicity would be manipulated by politicians to promote their own interests. These arguments have been made in other countries as well, notably in India, where there has been an ongoing debate about whether or not to undertake a census on caste. Those opposing the census say that it would promote casteism in the country, while those supporting it argue that a caste census would be an invaluable planning tool to promote equity.

But I was not convinced. In 2009 I felt that the question was relevant. I argued that enumerating ethnicity was not a statistical problem, but a political one, and that the exercise of gathering data on the ethnic makeup of a country was desirable for planning purposes and also for the purpose of research. An anthropologist or historian studying migration patterns might want to know how many people of Indian origin have settled here, for example. I was particularly keen to know how many people of Indian/Pakistani origin resided in the country, as the only authoritative figure I had was one that was published over 50 years ago.

I was completely taken aback when she asked me and my husband if we had purchased anything online in the last six months. With the threat of a Sh500,000 fine hanging over our heads for giving false information (which country threatens to fine people for giving the wrong answers during a census?) I admitted to her that I had bought a book on Amazon recently

Unfortunately, the figures on Asians released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in 2010 seemed a little suspect. According to an official text message that I received from the bureau, there were 35,009 people belonging to the “Asian tribe” in the country, who accounted for 0.09 per cent of the total population. This figure was questionable because, according to the bureau, there were also 53,393 Hindus in Kenya.

Now unless there had been a mass conversion of nearly 20,000 indigenous Africans to Hinduism in the years preceding the census, it was impossible to reconcile these two figures. How could there be more Hindus than Asians in the country? And what about the many Asians who were Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs or atheists? Were they counted as Asians?

These anomalies may appear minor, but they severely impact the credibility of an entire census data set.   If the data on Asians appeared to be questionable, then what other data was also suspect? This question became apparent when the 2009 census showed that there were 2.38 million ethnic Somalis residing in the country, a figure that was later refuted by the government because it appeared to be too large.

The 2009 census did, however, put to rest the widespread belief that Kibera was the largest slum in Africa, with a population of one million. The 2009 Kenya census showed that Kibera was, in fact, home to slightly less than 200,000 people. So Kenya’s most famous informal settlement lost its “celebrity” status as the biggest slum in Africa (though several articles I have read since the 2009 Kenya census results were published still claim that Kibera has one million residents, which goes to show that figures are like viruses —they can spread even after the medicine has been administered).

Devolution and urbanisation

Why is it important to have accurate census figures? Well, because when a country publishes inaccurate, misleading or unscientific statistics, national policies, priorities and programmes become skewed. Millions of people’s lives can be affected by a single misleading or erroneous statistic. So, for instance, if a census shows that the majority of people living in a particular area are over the age of 35 when, in fact, the majority are under the age of 18, then this could impact the number of schools built in the area.

I understand that devolution has complicated matters, and so numbers are used to justify resource allocation, but surely we cannot in the 21st century’s rapidly urbanising world be thinking that all counties are ethnically homogenous and will remain so in the next 30 years. When Kalonzo Musyoka asked “his people” to go to their villages to be counted, he was implying that resource allocation is dependent on the number of people in a county. This kind of convoluted thinking is what has made planning in this country a political exercise, a tyranny of numbers. This kind of thinking assumes that people don’t move from their ancestral lands to settle in cities and towns. Yet many rural-to-urban migrants never return to their villages and eventually become permanent urban residents. Maybe our cities and towns are in such a pathetic state because county and national government officials assume that people who live there don’t actually belong there, and will eventually go “back home”.

Why is it important to have accurate census figures? Well, because when a country publishes inaccurate, misleading or unscientific statistics, national policies, priorities and programmes become skewed.

On the other hand, urban poverty has become an income-generating cause for many, which was why the one million population figure for Kibera was not challenged for many years. Many NGOs exaggerate numbers because that is how they remain relevant, how they push forward their agenda on the international stage, and how they attract donor funding. Many national and international NGOs working in Kibera probably used the one million population figure (which was, as I found out, completely made up) to solicit funds from donors. Meanwhile, the Kibera MP at the time of the 2009 census, Raila Odinga, didn’t challenge the figure either, probably because he didn’t want anyone to know that his constituency was actually much smaller than people believed.

But the use or manipulation of data to create certain outcomes is not confined to NGOs. Last year, a documentary on Al Jazeera showed how Big Pharma influences the way the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) senior management makes decisions about global public health crises. The documentary suggested that the 2009 swine flu pandemic might have been fabricated or exaggerated to benefit pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the swine flu vaccine. One former delegate to the European Council stated: “The WHO officials have no idea about such things [pandemics]. They depend on scientists. And the scientists are allocated to them by the countries and by the organisations that finance the WHO. And many of them gave advice and made decisions that benefited the pharmaceutical industry.”

Was the 2019 census conducted on behalf of certain commercial/political interests as a tool that could be used for marketing goods or to determine a household’s credit-worthiness? (One Kenyan on Twitter quipped, “For this government, Kenyans are not citizens, they are customers.”) Or was it a form of surveillance, much like the Huduma Namba?

It could be that I am reading too many sinister motives in the 2019 census. Maybe the enumerator sent to my house was not trained properly. It could also be that the statisticians and demographers at the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics who designed this census are not qualified for the job. Whatever the case, I would like the people who identify as Taita to know that one more individual has been added to their number, thanks to the 2019 census.

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