Connect with us

Op-Eds

Fiddling, while Kenya burns

The Jubilee administration gambled on mega-infrastructure projects to expand the economy. It has borrowed heavily to finance them. Over the past five years, it has conjured up a misleading set of economic data that paints a rosier picture than the grim reality now confronting the country. What is this fantasy in aid of? By DAVID NDII

Published

on

Fiddling, while Kenya burns

After all the hullaballoo, and the brazen manipulation of the vote on Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential veto of parliaments proposal to defer VAT on fuel for another two years, you would be forgiven to think that the government scored big in the battle to shore up its terrible and rapidly deteriorating finances. It did not. Much to the contrary, the melodrama was an inconsequential sideshow.

Alongside the president’s memorandum, the Treasury tabled a supplementary (i.e. revised) budget that which elicited screaming headlines: the government had “slashed” by a whopping 55 billion shillings from Sh. 3.026 trillion to 2.971 trillion. A critical reader would immediately have noticed that a 1.8 percent reduction hardly qualifies to be a “slashing” — trimming would have been accurate. Of note, the supplementary budget the Treasury did not provide a complete budget revision, but only a high level expenditure summary with five budget lines.

But the Treasury also published its regular Budget Review and Outlook (BROP) paper that contains the detailed budget data. As is customary with our National Treasury, the numbers in the two tables are not identical. Even the numbers in different tables of the BROP are not identical, although the differences are not material— it’s mostly sloppiness, and occasionally, sleight of hand. I follow the BROP figures (See table below) as they are more comprehensive and also the more up to date of the two, if only by two days. Two things to note.

Government Fiscal Projections FY 2018/19 - 2021/22

First, the expenditure cuts are less than the revenue forecast which is revised downwards by Sh. 96 billion, while expenditure is revised downwards by Sh. 83 billion. Even though the 10 billion difference is not such a big sum, it’s unclear why the government would go to such lengths to table an austerity budget that increases the deficit.

More significantly, the revenue forecast is still unrealistic. The budget was based on revenue growth of 31 percent, comprising of 30 percent and 36 percent increase in tax and non-tax revenues respectively, which has now been scaled down to 25 percent, with tax and non-tax revenue forecast down to 24 and 28 percent respectively. These forecasts are out of touch with reality. Tax revenues increased only three percent and non-tax by 12 percent for a total revenue increase of four percent. This, as we will see shortly, is not an anomaly—it is a significant trend.

The budget was based on revenue growth of 31 percent, comprising 30 percent and 36 percent increase in tax and non-tax revenues respectively, which has now been scaled down to 25 percent, with tax and non tax revenue forecast down to 24 and 28 percent respectively. These forecasts are out of touch with reality.

In its current financial circumstances, it is not just sensible that the government be prudent, it is imperative. There will be no harm done if revenue exceeds target, but unrealistic revenue forecasts result in government spending money it does not have. This is how the government ends up accumulating pending bills, which, according to the private sector lobby KEPSA, are now in the order of Sh. 200 billion.

Trend growth gives you a revenue forecast of Sh. 1.55 billion. An optimistic one, assuming a most favorable economy and factoring in tax rises, would double the growth rate to 8 percent, still comes to Sh. 1.62 trillion. I would work with Sh.1.6 trillion.

In its current financial circumstances, it is not just sensible that the government be prudent, it is imperative…Unrealistic revenue forecasts result in government spending money it does not have…The government ends up accumulating pending bills… now in the order of KSh 200 billion.

Herein lies the problem. The Sh.1.6 trillion revenue forecast is Sh. 250 billion short of the revised recurrent budget. Interest cost (Sh. 400 billion), pensions (Sh. 90 billion) are non-discretionary (i.e. mandatory) and the wage bill (Sh. 444 billion) which does not give you much room to manoeuvre already add up to Sh. 930 billion. This leaves a balance of Ksh. 660 billion to fund counties (Sh. 367) and the national government’s operations and maintenance (O&M) outlays (Sh. 530 billion) totaling Ksh. 960 billion.

The only question here should be where the axe falls. There are only two options either the axe falls on the national government, or to share the cuts with the counties. The latter is obviously more sensible than the former. The equitable way of doing this is to net out the counties wage bill which is about Sh.140 billion, and share the balance proportionately. This math works out to 33 percent of the national governments O&M budget and the transfer to counties net of wage bill which translates to national government O&M budget of Sh. 202 and counties Sh.78 which means that the transfers to counties reduce from Sh. 376 to Sh. 218 billion. This is the reality that the government has refused to face. It should also be readily apparent that the tax measures that the government rigged through parliament are not a solution to its financial woes.

The Jubilee administration bet the farm on mega-infrastructure projects to expand the economy and has borrowed heavily to finance them. Infrastructure investments are supposed to crowd in productive private investment which in turn expands the tax base, which in turn generates the revenue to pay the debts. But far from increasing, the tax take is falling. The preliminary data treasury has published shows a sharp decline to 15.4 percent last financial year, down from 17 percent in the previous one. A 1.6 percentage-point decline in a year looks improbable— it is more likely that they have over-estimated GDP. This and the reason why, will be confirmed shortly. Still even the one percentage-point decline from 18 to 17 percent in five years is itself a serious problem. It translates to a forgone revenue of Sh. 77 billion in FY16/17 (see chart below). If we assume that the 15.4 figure is an underestimate and instead apply a revenue yield of 17 percent last year, the revenue yield gap drops to a more plausible Sh. 80 billion. Why?

Revenue to GDP ratio, % (LHS) and implied revenue gap Sh. billion (RHS)

Revenue to GDP ratio, % (LHS) and implied revenue gap Sh. billion (RHS)

First, a lot of the borrowed money was stolen outright and many, perhaps all the projects have been done at highly inflated costs. We still do not have any physical evidence of what we spent the proceeds of the first eurobond, Sh.190 billion (US$ 2.2 billion) proceeds of the first eurobond issue on. Government claims that the money was channeled into the development budget and absorbed in one financial year. Not only is it simply not possible to build things at that rate, the funding for all the projects done for that year is accounted for without the eurobond money. This is the reason that the special audit of the eurobond has never come out.

A lot of the borrowed money was stolen outright and many, perhaps all, of the projects have been done at highly inflated costs. We still do not have any physical evidence of what we spent the proceeds of the first Eurobond on…

The national investment rate has remained stagnant at about 18 percent of GDP, against a requirement of 25-30 percent of GDP. We also know that credit to the private sector collapsed suddenly three years ago, and has been comatose since. The credit market has become a pyramid scheme, where interest on government securities is re-invested in government securities. As with all pyramid schemes, this one too will come to grief.

In short, the reason why the revenue yield has declined is because the productive base of the economy has not expanded. The Jubilee administration bet the farm on a state of the art milking machine, even built a brand new shed to go with it, and now expects the cows to produce more milk. It is the same cows. And now the debt repayments and electricity bills are eating into the working capital forcing the farmer to cut back on feed. They now lament that the milkman (KRA) has a new machine but is still unable to produce more milk.

But the National Treasury’s growth projections are as panglossian as ever. In the original budget forecast, the nominal GDP expands from 7.7 trillion in FY16/17 (the latest actual data) to Sh. 12.6 trillion in FY20/21 a growth of 64 percent or 17 percent per year. Nominal GDP is the denominator used to calculate budget financial ratios. This translates to a real economic growth rate of 7.4 percent per year (this is obtained by applying an inflation adjustment known as GDP deflator. I have applied the average deflator for the last five years). Average growth rate for the last five years—5.56 percent. Growth has topped seven percent only once in the last thirty years— 2007. Now comes the remarkable part. In the revised projections, nominal GDP has been adjusted upwards to just under Sh. 13 trillion in FY20/21. It is conceivable that the mandarins are factoring higher inflation— one hopes so because otherwise it translates to a delusional eight percent per year growth rate. The reason for the sharp fall in the revenue ratio last year is now clear— GDP has been inflated on purpose.

What is this fantasy in aid of? Their purpose is to reduce the budget financial ratios without budget cuts. This way, they are able to “get away” with fiddling with the actual budget figures and still achieve “fiscal consolidation.” This year, the deficit in the revised budget is adjusted upwards by 14b from 603 to 622 billion but it as a ratio to GDP it declines from 6.3 to 6.1 percent on account of GDP being adjusted upwards by 321 billion. In FY21/22 the nominal GDP projection is jerked up 17 percent which excluding an inflation surge, brings the real growth rate for the period to 8.4 percent. This enables the mandarin to “bring down” the budget deficit 3.4 percent, even as expenditure grows by Sh.750 billion. A serious sensible projection would have projected 5 percent real growth. A 3.4 percent of GDP deficit based on this would have required expenditure to be adjusted downwards by Sh. 400 billion, or revenue to rise by similar amount or a combination of the two.

The budget, both the original and supplementary one, is best summed as “do nothing” strategy. If you are not up to changing reality, change the numbers.

We are compelled to wonder who this tomfoolery is meant for? It is not the public, they don’t get to see these numbers, let alone read and understand them. It cannot possibly be the IMF, the credit rating agencies or the markets. If anything, this is nothing short of showing the markets a middle finger. That to my mind, leaves only one constituency— their political bosses. The mandarins are telling them what they, the political bosses, want to hear.

My first column calling out the Jubilee’s administration fiscal recklessness, published in August 2014 was subtitled “Lessons from Ghana”.

Three days ago, the Ghanaian government announced that it was planning to issue $50 billion “century bonds” over the next few years, starting with a five to ten billion issue by the end of the year. A “century bond” is a bond with a hundred year maturity. Only three developing countries—China, Mexico and Argentina_ have sold century bonds. Ghana’s issue will be the biggest. A 10 billion dollar issue is a fifth of Ghana’s GDP and would cost a billion dollars in interest a year. The markets did not like the news. Immediately, the yields on Ghana’s eurobond yields shot up (which is another way of saying the value of its bonds fell) and the Cedi fell 2.6 percent. The Financial Times summed it up thus: “In capital market terms, this is no this is not just a moon shot, it’s a mission to Mars.” The FT story was headlined, “Someone tell Ghana this it isn’t 2017 anymore.”

If you are not up to changing reality, change the numbers. We are compelled to wonder who this tomfoolery is meant for? It is not the public, they don’t get to see these numbers, let alone read and understand them. It cannot possibly be the IMF, the credit rating agencies or the markets. If anything, this is nothing short of showing the markets the middle finger. That to my mind, leaves only one constituency— their political bosses. The mandarins are telling them what they, the political bosses, want to hear.

Argentina issued its century bond last May. The issue was oversubscribed four times. A year down the road, Argentina is in the grip of another financial meltdown. Inflation is raging at 3.5 percent a month, the Central Bank has raised the benchmark interest rate to 60 percent and the Peso, down 52 percent on the dollar this year, is still falling. What changed? In 2015 Argentina elected a new president who promised to impose macroeconomic discipline. Argentina’s legendary fiscal laxity has led to eight debt defaults, including the biggest sovereign default in history in 2002. The markets took the new president seriously. Earlier this year, he showed signs of backtracking — revising inflation target upwards and lowering interest rates. Market sentiment turned. Argentina had plenty of foreign exchange reserves, but within weeks it was looking for lifelines everywhere including its perpetual nemesis the IMF which it has approached for a US$ 50 billion bailout.

Someone needs to tell Jubilee this isn’t 2017 anymore.

See all comments
David Ndii

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

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

70 Years After the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights, the Struggle Continues Against Poverty, War, Disease – and Whistleblowers

The UN’s internal benchmark of success is the amount of money raised, not the successful execution of a programme. War and poverty remain necessary for the functioning of a system of phantom projects characterised by waste, mismanagement and corruption. And since the Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal of the early 2000s, in which billions went missing and the perpetrators scot-free, senior management has waged a silent war against its own whistleblowers. Who will police the world’s watchdog? By RASNA WARAH

Published

on

70 Years After the Un’s Declaration on Human Rights, the Struggle Continues Against Poverty, War, Disease - and Whistleblowers

The resignation last month of the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Erik Solheim, after an internal audit found that he had misused funds from the organisation, has been construed as a sign that the UN is serious about tackling wrongdoing within its ranks. However, this high-profile case should not distract us from the fact that waste, fraud and corruption are rarely punished in the UN system, and that the majority of offenders get away scot-free.

Solheim is accused of spending nearly half a million dollars on unnecessary travel within a period of less than two years. The audit showed that between May 2016 and March 2018 he spent 529 days travelling and only stayed in Nairobi, where UNEP has its headquarters, for about 20 per cent of the time.

Much of this travel was wasteful. For instance, in July 2016, he travelled to Paris for a one-day official meeting but decided to stay on in the French capital for a whole month (at taxpayers’ expense). In the following two months, he travelled for 42 days to 24 destinations. One official trip to Addis Ababa was routed through Oslo in his home country Norway, even though the Ethiopian capital is just a two-hour flight from Nairobi. The audit report also showed that Solheim was not the only culprit – other senior managers at UNEP have been accused of spending a whopping $58.5 million on travel alone over a two-year period – and this, from an organisation that advocates for the reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

Solheim is accused of spending nearly half a million dollars on unnecessary travel in less than two years. Between May 2016 and March 2018 he spent 529 days travelling and only stayed in Nairobi, where UNEP has its headquarters, for 20 percent of the time.

This blatant abuse of taxpayers’ money is not new at the UN and Solheim’s conduct is hardly unique. The differences between Solheim’s case and others are: one, his case managed to reach the internal investigation stage, which only happens when there is political will to carry out such an investigation; two, the findings of the investigation were made public, which is usually not the case; the case against him was strong because the trail of misused funds could be traced through flight and hotel bookings, which is not normally the case when deceptive UN managers make UN money disappear without a trace.

One common way of diverting or stealing funds in the UN is to create phantom projects. Let me give you a personal example. Sometime in 2009, my boss at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) called me into his office to tell me that he urgently needed to spend $100,000 of donor money before the end of the year because if he didn’t, he’d have to return the funds to the donor country. So he appointed me to manage a $100,000 project that would result in a book on cities for which he said he would hire consultants from abroad to research and write such a book. The consultants (some of whom were friends of the boss’s boss) were hired and a phantom book project was created.

Two months later, the book project was “closed” (without my knowledge, yet I was supposedly heading the project) even though no manuscript or book had materialised. When I realised that the project was fake and that money may have been diverted to a personal project, I reported the matter to the project/funds manager (a junior officer, essentially a bookkeeper, who had no say in how money in the organisation was spent and who only followed the instructions of her bosses). There was no response and within hours of my email, the process of eliminating me from the organisation began. I suffered retaliation, threats of non-renewal of contract and a whole range of psychological warfare tactics that eventually made me leave the organisation. I realised then that I had inadvertently become a “whistleblower”.

One common way of diverting or stealing funds in the UN is to create phantom projects. Millions of dollars have disappeared from the UN’s coffers through such opaque practices, the fiddling of books, and even downright theft, but few of the culprits are reprimanded, fired or even identified.

When I eventually took UN-Habitat to task through the UN Ethics Office – which was created in response to the Oil-for-Food debacle in Iraq, and which is mandated to look into whistleblower cases – I was enmeshed in a labyrinth of doublespeak and obfuscation that convinced me that the UN Ethics Office was created to muzzle and suppress whistleblowers so that the UN’s reputation would not be tarnished. I got no support from the office; on the contrary, I was told, both by the Ethics Office and UN-Habitat’s senior bosses, that the whole thing was a figment of my imagination. I have had to live with that “gaslighting” humiliation for the last nine years.

Millions of dollars have disappeared from the UN’s coffers through such opaque practices, the fiddling of books, and even downright theft, but few of the culprits are reprimanded, fired or even identified. (Even Solheim was allowed to quietly resign.) On the contrary, whistleblowers find themselves out of a job or demoted.

For instance, senior UN officials implicated in the scandalous UN Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq are still walking around freely, enjoying their UN perks and benefits. A 2005 investigation led by Paul Volcker – who was appointed by the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan after a series of exposés about money being diverted from the programme appeared in the media – found that billions (yes, billions!) of dollars had been lost through a network that included Saddam Hussein, dubious foreign companies and individuals who paid bribes or received kickbacks to participate in the programme and UN employees who received bribes or chose to look the other way. Not one person identified as having fraudulently benefitted from the programme – it was supposed to help the Iraqi people cope with the sanctions imposed after Saddam invaded Kuwait – has been charged with this crime in any national court. (Saddam Hussein was eventually tried and executed by a kangaroo court, not for diverting funds from the programme, but for crimes he had committed against the Iraqi people.)

Meanwhile, the UN simply noted the findings of the Volcker investigation and UN member states continued with business as usual. Besides, by the time the findings of the Volcker investigation were made public, the United States and Britain, two of the five veto-holding powers in the UN Security Council, were embroiled in an illegal war in Iraq, which diverted the public’s attention from one of the biggest scams the world has ever witnessed.

The Oil-for-Food Programme put a huge dent in the UN’s reputation because of the scale of the theft, but this particular UN-managed initiative only got exposed because there were people within the organisation, such as Michael Soussan, author of Backstabbing for Beginners, and Rehan Mullick, a database manager, who were willing to blow the whistle on wrongdoing within the programme. Many smaller-scale thefts are taking place every day under the noses of UN bosses, and sometimes with their collusion.

The reason why such thefts and cover-ups are so common in the UN is that UN agencies are often deliberately vague about how they spend their money. A NORAD-commissioned investigation in 2011 found that most of the UN agencies surveyed had difficulty explaining where their money had gone or to which specific projects, and that information about expenditure was either limited or fragmented.

The Oil-for-Food Programme put a huge dent in the UN’s reputation because of the scale of the theft, but this particular UN-managed initiative only got exposed because there were people within the organisation, who were willing to blow the whistle on wrongdoing within the programme. Many smaller-scale thefts are taking place every day under the noses of UN bosses, and sometimes with their collusion.

When internal investigations are carried out, it usually means that things have gone out of hand (or that enough people in the organisation are pissed off and are complaining), which is what happened with Solheim at UNEP and also at the UN’s refugee agency in Uganda recently. An internal audit of UNHCR’s operations in Uganda found that the agency wasted tens of millions of dollars in 2017 by overpaying for goods and services, awarding major contracts improperly and failing to prevent fraud and waste. In addition, thousands of blankets, wheelbarrows and solar lamps meant for South Sudanese refugees went missing. The UN agency also entered into inappropriate arrangements with Ugandan government officials. For instance, it paid the Office of the Prime Minister $320,000, ostensibly to buy a plot of land to expand the government’s refugee-handling capacity; yet the Office of the Prime Minister could not produce a title deed to prove ownership and the land is now being used as a parking lot.

Part of the problem is that UN agencies are expected to monitor, evaluate and audit their own programmes and projects – the poacher as game-keeper. Donors to the UN expect the global body to report on the the projects they fund. This is problematic because it means that UN agencies can easily manipulate their monitoring and evaluation reports to suit their own agendas, needs and funding requirements. Besides, success is often measured by how much money was raised and spent, not on whether the project achieved its goals. There is, therefore, a desire to spend large amounts of money in the quickest way possible – even if it means travelling first class to a vague conference in a distant part of the world.

An internal audit of UNHCR’s operations in Uganda found that the agency wasted tens of millions of dollars in 2017…Thousands of blankets, wheelbarrows and solar lamps meant for South Sudanese refugees went missing. The UN agency paid the Office of the Prime Minister $320,000 to buy a plot of land to expand the government’s refugee-handling capacity. Yet the Prime Minister’s office could not produce the title deed to prove ownership. The plot is now a parking lot.

Moreover, a project is not “closed” because it was successful (which should be the ultimate aim of any project); rather, it remains “ongoing” even when the situation on the ground has changed (which explains why there are still UN peacekeepers in Haiti even though the civil conflict there ended years ago). No one wants to know how many people’s lives improved significantly as a result of the project or why the crisis that led to the project keeps recurring.

This explains why, year after year, the UN fabricates or exaggerates a humanitarian crisis in some part of the world. A few years ago it was Somalia; today it is Yemen. No one wonders why, if the UN has been so successful in stemming the scourge of war around the world the refugee crisis today is bigger than it was when the UN was established. To avert a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, would it not have been wiser to sanction Saudi Arabia for going to war with Yemen or to sanction the United States, the main supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia?

But these are the uncomfortable questions that UN bureaucrats – and the power wielders at the UN Security Council – do not worry too much about as they travel in luxury around the world to some god-forsaken country whose people will never be lifted out of misery because the UN will not have it any other way: too many UN jobs depend on people remaining poor, hungry and homeless.

What can be done to reverse this situation? Well, for starters, as the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human rights on 10 December, there has to be an honest discussion about whether the UN has fulfilled its mandate of promoting peace, human rights and development around the world. A scorecard would indicate success in some areas (e.g. smallpox eradication and child vaccination programmes) but dismal failures in others (e.g. wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica). If the UN cannot prevent wars and suffering, then what is its purpose?

As the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human rights on 10 December, there has to be an honest discussion about whether the UN has fulfilled its mandate of promoting peace, human rights and development around the world.

Secondly, we need to democratise the UN Security Council, which is currently the bastion of only five veto-holding countries – the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia – which also happen to be the world’s leading weapons manufacturers and suppliers and who, therefore, have a vested interest in conflicts outside their borders. These countries decide which countries can go to war and which can’t (which is why no sanctions were imposed on the United States and Britain when they went to war in Iraq). All permanent members of the UN Security Council should have an equal say in matters concerning global security, and should be working towards preventing wars, not starting them.

We need to democratise the UN Security Council, which is currently the bastion of only five veto-holding countries, which also happen to be the world’s leading weapons manufacturers and suppliers and who, therefore, have a vested interest in conflicts outside their borders.

Thirdly, the UN’s internal oversight system needs to be overhauled. The UN’s internal justice systems, including the UN Ethics Office, should be abolished in favour of an external, independent mechanism that can provide the checks and balances that the UN so desperately needs. This mechanism, possibly in the form of a tribunal, would also allow UN whistleblowers to present their cases without fear of retaliation. Such a mechanism would, hopefully, also permit perpetrators of crimes committed by UN personnel to be brought to justice in national courts, rather than the current system that gives immunity to UN employees implicated in crimes and wrongdoing (which means they cannot be tried in any court, not even in their own country).

The UN cannot – and should not be allowed to – police itself. Given all the scandals at the UN, I think it is time an independent entity be entrusted with the responsibility of watching the world’s watchdog.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Fake It till You Make It Nations and Bling Bling Economics: Debt, Dictatorship and Underdevelopment

Once upon a time, financial recklessness was the preserve of resource-rich nations. Now, resource-poor African nations, their thoughtless leaders seduced into taking printed money circulated by the US Federal Reserve after the global financial crisis a decade ago, have become the new sultanates of debt distress. DAVID NDII ponders a different path.

Published

on

Fake It till You Make It Nations and Bling Bling Economics: Debt, Dictatorship and Underdevelopment

Not too long ago, Angola opened an embassy in Nairobi on a quite well-appointed address on Redhill Road in the diplomatic suburb of Gigiri, a road I use frequently. You couldn’t miss it. It had an outlandish gate and a black granite signboard with gold lettering. I was rather intrigued that Angola would need such a large embassy in Kenya. I have made a point of observing how much activity was going on there— very little. I passed there the other day and lo and behold, the outlandish gold lettered black granite signboard was gone, replaced by a more modest one announcing the Botswana High Commission. The Angolan foray would have cost no less than $10 million, and I would imagine that Kenya was not the only country that Angola had spread its diplomatic footprint. What has changed?

Angola has squandered the oil bonanza of the last decade. Angola is Africa’s second-biggest oil producer after Nigeria, with a daily output of 1.6 million barrels of crude and 18 million cubic metres of natural gas. There is an economic principle that windfall earnings should be saved. Angola did not save. Instead, it leveraged the oil boom to pile up debt. Angola is China’s biggest debtor in Africa, owing US$ 23 billion accounting for about a fifth of Africa’s debt to China.

If Angola had set a windfall benchmark at $50 per barrel, its nest egg for the five and a half year oil boom (April 2009 to May 2014) would have been in the order of $100 billion on crude oil alone ie. excluding natural gas. A conservative investment yielding 5 percent a year would be earning Angola $5 billion a year to invest in infrastructure or whatever else it chooses. This is how Norway got rich on oil. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the worlds largest, is now worth a trillion dollars. If Norway was to pay dividends from the fund to its 5.2 million citizens, each would get US$9,000 a year.

There is an economic principle that windfall earnings should be saved. Angola did not save. Instead it leveraged the oil boom to pile up debt. If Angola had set a benchmark of $50 per barrel of petroleum, its windfall for the five and a half year oil boom (April 2009 to May 2014) would have been in the order of $100 billion on crude oil alone… A conservative investment yielding 5 percent a year would be earning Angola $5 billion a year to invest in infrastructure or whatever else it chooses.

They say once bitten twice shy. Not Zambia. When I was a college student eons ago, Zambia was a case study on how not to manage an economy. Zambia rode the post independence commodity boom into middle income status by the early seventies. At $600, Zambia’s income per person was one-third higher than the Sub-sahara Africa average. In Nairobi, Zambia’s heydays are represented by its well-appointed embassy property on Nyerere Road, overlooking Uhuru Park. When commodity prices receded from the late seventies, Zambia plugged its finances by borrowing – and borrowed itself into poverty. Over the next decade, Zambia’s foreign debt increased seven-fold, from one to seven billion dollars. By the mid-90s when it got HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) debt relief, average income adjusted for inflation was half of the mid-1970s level.

Zambia rode the post independence commodity boom into middle income status by the early seventies. When commodity prices receded from the late 1970s, Zambia plugged its finances by borrowing – and borrowed itself into poverty.

Copper prices surged again in the 2000s peaking in 2011 at $4.60 a pound, about the same in inflation-adjusted terms, as at the 1970s peak. In 2012, against the backdrop of retreating copper prices, Zambia debuted in the Eurobond market, borrowing $750 million. It also borrowed heavily from China. Copper prices have fallen again and Zambia is in debt distress. The eurobonds are now trading at around15 percent yield, almost three times the debut bonds 5.6 percent yield at issue. What this means is that the bonds for which investors paid $94 are now trading at $34. It means that Zambia is now effectively locked out of any more borrowing in the sovereign bond market. Will Zambia turn around its finances before the bonds are due for re-financing? Doubtful.

Zambia is only slightly less dependent on copper now than it was in the 1970s. Copper still accounts for two-thirds of exports. Zambia has no shortage of low-hanging fruit in terms of diversification options: it has plenty of idle arable land and underexploited tourism potential. Chile was once as copper dependent as Zambia. In fact, copper still accounts for half of Chile’s exports. But Chile has diversified its economy and worked its way up to being the first Latin American country to be admitted to the OECD club of rich countries. Interestingly, Chile has become a wealthy country without following the Asian Tiger holy grail of export manufacturing, but rather by diversifying to services and agricultural exports. Its other key exports are agricultural including horticulture, wine and fish, especially farmed salmon.

Chile was once as copper dependent as Zambia. Copper still accounts for half of Chile’s exports. But Chile has diversified its economy and worked its way up to being the first Latin American country to be admitted to the OECD club of rich countries. Interestingly, Chile has become a wealthy country without following the Asian Tiger holy grail of export manufacturing, but rather by diversifying to services and agricultural exports.

Historically, financial recklessness on this scale was the preserve of resource-rich African countries. But the disease has spread all over the continent. Resource-poor countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya are now just as reckless as the resource-cursed. In the past, resource-poor countries simply did not have access to the money to steal or finance megalomania. When they tried to do so by domestic borrowing and printing money, the macroeconomic feedback loop quickly kicked in and wreaked financial havoc. Moi learned this lesson. Mugabe did not. He ended up with a hyperinflation for the ages, and the demise of the Zimbabwe dollar.

There are two reasons why resource-poor countries have also caught the disease: the 2008 global financial crisis, and China.

Since the global financial crisis, which began in 2007 and properly set in the next year, the financial markets have been awash with money churned out by the US Federal Reserve and other central banks, thereby depressing interest rates to near zero, prompting money managers to go looking for better returns in emerging markets in what is known in market lingo as “hunting for yield”. Aggressive salesmen were everywhere scouting for and massaging the egos of potential borrowers. When Kenya set out to debut in the Eurobond market it indicated that it would raise a $500m “benchmarking” bond whose proceeds were to retire a syndicated bank loan borrowed two years before, and which was the only foreign loan in Kenya’s books at the time. By the time the issue was going to the market, it had grown fourfold to $2 billion. By the time it closed, the government had borrowed $2.8 billion.

Within weeks of the successful debut, the treasury mandarins were talking of Sukuks (Islamic bonds) and Samurais (Japanese Yen denominated bonds), like children accidentally locked inside an ice cream parlour. Other than the syndicated loan repayment of $600 million there is no trace of anything financed with the money.

Since the global financial crisis, the financial markets have been awash with money churned out by the US Federal Reserve and other central banks, thereby depressing interest rates to near zero, prompting money managers to go looking for better returns in emerging markets. Aggressive salesmen were everywhere scouting for and massaging the egos of potential borrowers. Africa Rising.

China is getting more than its fair share of flak for Africa’s debt distress. The fear of the Dragon is over the top. Unlike the Western banks and markets which are embedded in the Western power structure, China will have little recourse when countries default. It cannot run them through the mill we saw “the troika” run Greece when it went into debt-distress in 2009. The head of China Export and Credit Insurance Corporation, known as Sinosure was recently quoted lamenting the poor quality of China’s infrastructure loans abroad. He went on to disclose that the agency is already a billion dollars out of pocket on Ethiopia’s new railway, whose preparation he termed “downright inadequate”. “Ethiopia’s planning capabilities are lacking, but even with the help of Sinosure and the lending Chinese bank it was still insufficient.”

It has also been reported that China may offload its infrastructure loans to the secondary market. The plan is to sell the loans to the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation which will in turn repackage them, dice them up and sell them to investors, thereby releasing liquidity back to the primary lenders such as China Exim Bank to make more loans.   This is not funny. First, the lenders admit that they have made dud loans. Then they follow this with an announcement that they will sell the same to investors. It is a scheme such as this, which mixed up low risk and high risk (a.k.a sub-prime) mortgage loans into securities known as Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) that precipitated the erstwhile mentioned global financial crisis. More poignantly, the Dragons debt trap diplomacy as it’s been called, begins to look uncannily like hunting for yield.

That is the supply side. On the demand side, you have African leaders who have no ideas of their own. From import substitution industrialization, to neoliberal orthodoxy in the 80s, to poverty reduction strategies and now infrastructure-led growth, they wander thoughtlessly from one aid paradigm to the next, all the while living up to Fanon’s prediction that they were destined to become “a transmission line between the nation and capitalism.”

The bigger problem is delusions of grandeur. Seemingly every one of these African big men has a Lee Kwan Yew complex. Even Uhuru Kenyatta, a man who couldn’t run an orderly kindergarten in a children’s park if his life depended on it, is prone to bouts of megalomania during which he comically dons military fatigues and goes around doing General Park Chung-hee skits.

On the demand side, you have African leaders who have no ideas of their own. From import substitution industrialization, to neoliberal orthodoxy in the 80s, to poverty reduction strategies and now infrastructure-led growth, they wander thoughtlessly from one aid paradigm to the next, all the while living up to Fanon’s prediction that they were destined to become “a transmission line between the nation and capitalism.

Africa has its economically successful nations: Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, Cape Verde and the Seychelles. What do these successful African nations have in common? First, they are all small. Three of them are small island nations. Namibia is large geographically, but its population is only 2.5 million people. Second, they are also successful democracies. The five are consistently the highest ranked African countries in democracy league tables such as the Economist’s Democracy Index and the Freedom House Index.

Why are Africa’s small countries more politically and economically successful than the big ones?

Size matters. It is easier to build a small nation than a big one. Small islands are natural nations, hence it should not surprise that all the small island nations are successful. Madagascar is Africa’s sole big island nation, and it is not successful at all.

The big African countries are almost invariably very ethnically diverse. Recently, someone on social media asked me why benevolent dictatorship cannot work in Africa the way it worked in South Korea. My answer was a question: what tribe will the dictator be? He has not responded. Proponents of developmental autocracies fail to recognize that the East Asian countries are old nations, not the arbitrary colonial creations that African countries are. Korea is a culturally homogenous society with unified dynastic rule going back to 900 AD, and a political history, known as the Three Kingdoms, going back another millennium. The Thai Kingdom dates back 700 years.

Proponents of developmental autocracies fail to recognize that the East Asian countries are old nations, not the arbitrary colonial creations that African countries are. Korea is a culturally homogenous society with unified dynastic rule going back to 900 AD, and a political history, known as the Three Kingdoms, going back another millennium. The Thai Kingdom dates back 700 years.

Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest nation-state, and the only one that is not a colonial creation. It is also one of the largest and most diverse(100 million people, over 80 officially recognized ethnic groups). After the Derg’s reign of terror, Ethiopians adopted a constitution based on a loose ethnic federation. But Meles Zenawi could not resist the allure of the developmental autocrat. He borrowed and built like a man possessed but the economic miracle did not materialize, and Ethiopians, tired of autocracy without prosperity, took to the streets. The edifice has unravelled. The leadership is coming to terms with a historical fact that the rest will be reckoning with sooner or later: political development precedes prosperity.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Yoweri Museveni, America’s Great Foot Soldier in East Africa, Is Desperately Seeking a Bail-Out

The conviction in New York of Patrick Ho Chi-ping, a former Hong Kong foreign minister, for allegedly bribing President Museveni and his foreign minister, Sam Kutesa, bring to light the seamy underbelly of the US-China contest over Africa. Museveni has long been the West’s man in East Africa, who jettisoned most of Uganda’s public resources to pursue regional military adventures. But 2018 was the year Ugandans shook off their docility. Confronted by debt and protest, will the old man crack? By MARY SERUMAGA.

Published

on

Yoweri Museveni, America’s Great Foot Soldier in East Africa, Is Desperately Seeking a Bail-Out

It has been a hectic couple of months for the Ministry of Finance and the IMF. Uganda is one of those countries desperately in need of a bailout and November/December saw end-to-end meetings. On the agenda were Uganda’s or President Museveni’s desire to proceed with his legacy projects and the IMF’s objections.

Gone are the days when Uganda was described as the IMF success story, “a virtual textbook of the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment program: free markets, a convertible currency, an independent central bank, selling off state-owned companies, tight budget, and downsizing the civil service and the army.” ” ~ Bill Berkeley, Atlantic Monthly

For instance, in 2018 the Central Bank cannot anymore be described as independent as the ongoing Parliamentary investigation in to the sale of four banks under supervision orders shows. The Central Bank belongs to one Justine Bagyenda, former head of Bank Supervision and her unknown handlers. According to leaked bank statements she is a dollar millionaire after 32 years in the civil service.

Gone are the days when Uganda was described as the IMF success story, “a virtual textbook of the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment program…For instance, in 2018 the Central Bank cannot anymore be described as independent as the ongoing Parliamentary investigation in to the sale of four banks under supervision orders shows.

Bagyenda is unable to explain to parliament’s Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE) why she autonomously and illegally sold a bank under supervision or the basis upon which she discounted bank assets by 93%. She insists she does not remember. Unfortunately, there are no records either because Bagyenda was caught on security cameras one night removing a sack of documents from the bank. Her accomplices (bodyguard, driver and bank security guards) were all remanded in custody but she remains a free woman.

Twenty years after divestment of state enterprises, there has been no report on profits or losses made. Fraud was detected in the sale of the national airline and other assets. The ‘cash budget’ is characterised by massive arrears and supplementary budgets are made throughout the year to overspending ministries. Finally, the civil service has ballooned from 22 ministries (after downsizing) to over 75, plus an additional twenty-nine specialist agencies causing service delivery to suffer.

The IMF and the interests they serve want to do business but also want to interrupt Chinese domination of the territory. They are seizing the moral high ground by accusing China of ‘predatory lending’, ’weaponizing’ capital and holding poor debtor countries to ransom.

20 years after divestment of state enterprises, there has been no report on profits or losses made. Fraud was detected in the sale of the national airline and other assets. The ‘cash budget’ is characterised by massive arrears and supplementary budgets are made throughout the year to overspending ministries. Finally, the civil service has ballooned from 22 ministries (after downsizing) to over 75, plus an additional twenty-nine specialist agencies…

In their letter to the Administration, the senators asked, “As the largest contributor to the IMF, how can the United States use its influence to ensure that bailout terms prevent the continuation of ongoing BRI projects, or the start of new BRI projects?”

All of this is going on over the heads of the Ugandan people who are not included in the planning and will not be involved in oversight of any transactions. They just want public resources to be used honestly and in the most efficient and effective manner possible. With an upward trend in undernourishment, the introduction of new taxes and announcements scaling back universal primary and secondary education programmes, Ugandan docility is becoming a thing of the past. Although 2018 has been plagued by persistent civil unrest, resistance to state brutality led by the People Power movement is growing.

Turning to the specifics of the various competing interests, President Museveni’s agenda includes building the planned oil pipeline and oil refinery. These require major road construction in the oilfields of Buliisa. Problem number one – there are no funds available to construct the roads and they will need to be borrowed.

The IMF and the interests they serve want to do business but also want to interrupt Chinese domination of the territory.

For the refinery, a partnership with an investor should secure 60% of the cost, but that still leaves 40% to be sourced by the government of Uganda. Similarly the only source is another loan. A proposed partnership in the pipeline would provide 85% of the cost. The remaining 15% would have to be borrowed by government.

All of this is against the background of the energy sector. Isimba and Karuma hydro-electric power plants are complete. The generated power can only be evacuated and distributed among consumers with a huge investment in the necessary infrastructure. At this stage there is no time to begin the long process of cultivating a public private partnership and the entire amount – US$ 3.5 billion – to fund transmission and distribution has to be borrowed. Note that Isimba and Karuma were built with non-concessional loans

Sources state that there are lower-interest, longer term concessional loans available from the UK and Europe, however, Uganda’s ability to repay is compromised by its being over its head in semi-concessional debt to China and domestic banks. Hence the need for an IMF bailout.

Now with the upper hand, the IMF has raised its own concerns the first of which is the sustainability of the public debt.

This is a turnaround from their Debt Sustainability Analysis (DSA) of 2016 in which they pronounced the economy healthy and debt levels manageable, “Government finances remain on a sound footing, though expenditure composition can be of concern.” That conclusion contradicted the Auditor General’s report in which he warned that interest on loans from domestic banks (much higher and repayable in much shorter periods than loans from International Financial Institutions) was approaching unsustainable levels. In 2016 and 2017 he also outlined significant failures in agricultural projects and health service delivery.

There are lower-interest, longer term concessional loans available from the UK and Europe, however, Uganda’s ability to repay is compromised by its being over its head in semi-concessional debt to China and domestic banks. Hence the need for an IMF bailout.

The IMF’s only caveat in the DSA was that for continued debt sustainability a) project selection and implementation would have to be strengthened b) commencement of oil production would have to commence on schedule in 2020. They are not keen on either the pipeline or the refinery as priorities – their priority is debt servicing.

Oil production has now been pushed back to 2023. Uganda discovered oil before Ghana but Ghana has been producing for years. During that time Uganda has been embroiled in legal battles over the sale of concessions. It is very interesting that in the recently concluded trial in which one Patrick Ho was convicted of bribing President Museveni and his foreign minister Sam Kutesa, correspondence revealed that Patrick Ho understood that after he had paid them, the sale of oil concessions would be reversed in order to sell them to China’s CEFC of which Ho was a representative.

Now the IMF is of the view that commercial debt servicing consumes resources that would otherwise be available for development.

They are also concerned about domestic arrears, payments owed to local suppliers, which continue to climb and reached an unpayable US$267 million in 2018. Suppliers of foodstuffs to the police force formed an association and suspended all supplies until their arrears were cleared.

The third barrier to a new IMF package is the high recurrent cost of public administration. Mushrooming local government entities and specialist agencies hived off from their parent ministries has meant in 2018 that many civil servants have been or are yet to be paid in arrears. Service delivery has been characterised by shortages, the most important of which is drug stock-outs. Belatedly, government has resolved to reduce the number of ministries, departments and agencies although action has yet to be taken.

In the recently concluded trial in which one Patrick Ho was convicted of bribing President Museveni and his foreign minister Sam Kutesa, correspondence revealed that Patrick Ho understood that after he had paid them, the sale of oil concessions would be reversed in order to sell them to China’s CEFC of which Ho was a representative.

Supplementary expenditure will be the toughest nut to crack. Expenditure over budget is in direct relation to the political clout of the overspending entity. Predictably State House and the Ministry of Defence are the biggest culprits. State House has been known to exhaust its annual budget in the first quarter of the year, requiring supplementaries that are carved out of the budgets of less powerful votes.

A study by the Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring (ACFIM) in 2016 showed that overexpenditure peaks during election periods, it also showed that State House is a serial offender, indications that the government diverts funds from service delivery to election campaigns and regime preservation.

These are the current barriers to a new IMF programme. It is clear that all of Uganda’s economic problems stem from poor governance, in the words of one source, “The problems are not economic but institutional failures, lack of accountability.”

However, although the IMF’s arguments may sound plausible, it would be a mistake to conclude that their interests are one and the same as those of the Ugandan people. An oil refinery would mean a break from the tradition of exporting raw materials, but it is no accident that no serious effort has been made to refine coffee, cotton or any other more easily accessible local produce despite the eternal presence of ‘development partners’. If anything IMF structural adjustment decimated the young local textile industry making the average Ugandan dependent on imported used clothing. It is therefore highly unlikely that they would support Uganda in refining oil when with a little pressure they can get the raw material more cheaply.

Official talk about corruption is diversionary. Museveni and Kutesa have been hawking public assets for three decades with the knowledge of the development partners. It was accepted while the goose continued to lay golden eggs and service already unsustainable Western debt. It is only because those repayments are threatened by Chinese extortion and the growing indignation of the Ugandan polity that the IMF and partners are putting on their ethical investor disguises.

Part of that is to rehabilitate President Museveni’s image if not his character. In December 2018, the month in which the IMF talks were concluded and during which concrete evidence was presented in a New York court proving Museveni and Kutesa had received bribes from Patrick Ho, and during which COSASE revealed the Central Bank to be as corrupt as other public institutions, Ugandans were stunned to wake up to the news that the head of Transparency International had travelled to Uganda and given Museveni an award for ‘fighting corruption’.

Museveni and Kutesa have been hawking public assets for three decades with the full knowledge of development partners. It was acceptable behaviour while the goose continued to lay golden eggs, servicing already unsustainable Western debt. It is only because those repayments are threatened by Chinese extortion and the growing indignation of the Ugandan polity that the IMF and partners are putting on their ethical investor glasses.

At the event, he announced yet another anti-corruption initiative to be unveiled on 10 December. Suspended BRI infrastructure projects and a renewed anti-corruption drive are elements of Kenya’s new SAP programme smuggled in earlier this year.

In 1994, Linda de Hoyos wrote, “In exchange for his handing Uganda back to such entities as Windsor Holdings, Museveni has been given the franchise as the marcher lord for East Africa. While the “social sector” is starved of funds, Museveni has poured millions into the military, his only political base of support.”

It seems although damaged, Museveni is still useful to the West.

Continue Reading

Trending

Copyright © 2018 The Elephant. All Rights Reserved.