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Shopping Mall Economics: A note on the value of the Kenya shilling

What does a recent spat between the IMF and the Central Bank’s Prof Patrick Njoroge, himself a veteran of the Fund, tell us about the state of the Kenya shilling? By DAVID NDII.

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Shopping Mall Economics: A note on the value of the Kenya shilling

Is the Kenya shilling overvalued or not? According to the IMF it is currently overvalued by 17 percent. In an unusually combative response to his former employer the Central Bank governor says that is only off-kilter by 5 percent and accuses the IMF of making Kenya a “guinea pig in its new approach.” The offensive claim, contained in the IMF’s latest report on the country dated October 2018, states as follows:

“The EBA-lite methodology for the exchange rate suggests that the external position is weaker than fundamentals. The current account approach shows that the current account deficit (both actual and cyclically adjusted) are above the norm (the CA gap is -2.5 percent), suggesting an overvaluation of about 17.5 percent of the real exchange rate. This can only marginally be explained by the policy gap. The REER approach also shows a similar-size of overvaluation, equivalent to about 18.0 percent. Again, the policy gap is marginal. Given the continued appreciation of the real exchange rate, the external position is assessed to be weaker than fundamentals. Regarding the last approach, the external sustainability approach, it was not possible to use it as the international investment position data is not yet produced by the authorities.”

This needs a fair amount of disambiguation. EBA is a needless acronym that stands for external balance approach for exchange rate assessment. The methodology is described in an IMF paper published in 2013 as an update of a previous methodology known as CGER. CGER is another needless acronym for consultative group for exchange rate assessment. This EBA thing appears to be what the CBK governor is referring to as a new approach.

The methodological spat is a red herring. Economic models are tools, not oracles. What we have here is workmen quarrelling over tools. Our top three economic mandarins are former IMF staffers. Surely, as former colleagues, they can sit together with their colleagues and their models and converge on an assessment as to whether the shilling is overvalued or not?

The IMF refers to three methodologies: the Real Effective Exchange Rate (REER), the current account and external sustainability approach. Of the three, the REER is the most intuitively understandable and also the one for which we have data. But what is this animal the REER?

The methodological spat is a red herring. Economic models are tools, not oracles. What we have here is workmen quarrelling over tools. Our top three economic mandarins are former IMF staffers. Surely, they can sit together with their colleagues and their models and converge on an assessment as to whether the shilling is overvalued or not?

Suppose bananas are retailing at KSh 100 shillings a bunch in Kenya. The Kenya/Uganda shilling exchange rate is one to ten. At this exchange rate and banana price, 20 percent of bananas are coming from Uganda. Suppose price of Kenyan bananas goes up to KSh 125 a bunch (e.g. because of increase in taxes), and exchange rate remains the same. Ugandans can continue to sell bananas in Kenya profitably at KSh 100 while many Kenyan producers cannot. In fact, Ugandans are likely to hike their price to let us say KSh.110 making Kenya an even more profitable market than their home market. Uganda bananas will flood the market and put Kenyan producers who are not profitable at Ksh. 110 out of the banana business. For the market to remain at the old equilibrium (i.e. 20/80 Uganda/Kenya market share) requires Kenya shilling to fetch USh. 8.00 so that to get USh. 1000 as before, the Ugandans will also have to sell their bananas at KSh125.

Its readily apparent that if our domestic prices go up faster than those of our trading partners, then foreign goods will keep becoming cheaper. But you cannot tell by just looking at the dollar shilling exchange rate. We need to factor in the price movements with every trading partner. The REER is an index that combines the relative exchange rate and price movements of all our trading partners.

If the REER is rising, our goods are becoming more expensive. We can expect to import more and export less. If this happens our trade deficit will widen. If the trade deficit continues to widen, we run the risk of defaulting on our international obligations in particular debt service and repatriation of profits and capital. This is where the IMF comes in. The IMF’s mandate is to maintain international financial stability. The IMF is a financial cooperative whose job it is to ensure members do not run into external payments difficulties, and to bail them out when they do, in order to keep global finance and commerce going.

The spat between the IMF and the CBK is therefore about our external creditworthiness. The key indicator for this is the current account balance. The current account balance has two components: trade and income. The trade account I have already mentioned. The income account consists of payments for “factor services” such as interest (use of capital), labour (e.g. for services of Kenyan troops abroad) and another component we call unrequited transfers (meaning money we have not earned) such as diaspora remittances, grant aid and such like. The external account in turn, has a third component, the capital account where, as the name suggest, we record investment transactions.

The spat between the IMF and the CBK is…about our external creditworthiness. The key indicator for this is the current account balance.

This is how it works. Kenya Airways buys an aircraft using a foreign loan. The aircraft is entered in the trade account as an import and simultaneously in the capital account as a capital inflow. The following day it ferries passengers from Lagos to Dubai. The income is recorded in the trade account as a service export. At the end of the month it remits repayment on the loan. The interest is recorded in the income account as a factor service payment and the principal is in the capital account as a capital outflow.

The net of the current account and the capital account are added together to give the overall balance. An increasing overall deficit depletes foreign reserves, while a surplus leads to a build up of reserves. Current account surpluses mean that a country’s savings exceed its investment; it can, therefore, export capital, like China. A current account deficit means that a country is investing more than its savings, in other words, it is importing capital (either debt, FDI, remittances, grants etc).

Chart 1

The country’s creditworthiness thus depends not just on trade but also on other financial flows, that are determined by factors other than trade competitiveness, both economic and non-economic. Complicated stuff.

Both the IMF and CBK agree that the shilling has appreciated, but they disagree on the magnitude. The IMF also implies that the appreciation is a reflection of policy action while the CBK maintains that it is a reflection of market forces. The IMF view translates to accusing the CBK of misleading the public by espousing a monetary policy that claims to target inflation, while in practice it is actually targeting the exchange rate. The IMF’s “smoking gun” is the fact that the NEER has flatlined for the past six years (see Chart).

Recently the IMF re-classified the Kenya shilling from a “floating” (meaning market determined) to “other managed arrangement.” This means the IMF is convinced that the Central Bank is propping up the shilling. What reason would the Central Bank prop up the shilling especially if it undermines the country’s competitiveness and solvency?

Foreign currency debt exposure is one reason. The interest payments on the first Eurobonds issued in 2015 ($185 million a year) has increased by KSh 3 billion, KSh 16 billion to KSh 19 billion on account of the depreciation of the shilling. Translate that to the total interest payments this year which are in the order of $1.4 billion dollars. The shilling has weakened by about three shillings to the dollar since the beginning of the financial year. The total interest payments this year which are in the order of $1.4 billion. This translates to a KSh 4 billion squeeze on a government that is already living way beyond its means. The last thing the Treasury wants to hear is that the shilling should be trading at about 120 to the dollar.

Recently the IMF re-classified the Kenya shilling from a “floating” (meaning market determined) to “other managed arrangement.” This means the IMF is convinced that the Central Bank is propping up the shilling. What reason would the Central Bank prop up the shilling especially if it undermines the country’s competitiveness and solvency?

Another reason is pressure to keep low interest rates. Interest rate is the policy instrument in an inflation-targeting monetary policy regime such as we claim to have. Central Banks are given statutory independence over the conduct of monetary policy to insulate them from such pressure so that they can raise interest rates when they need to, even when it is politically costly for the government of the dayParliament’s capping of interest rates two years ago is ample demonstration that political pressure on Central Banks is real.

Keeping interest rates artificially low puts pressure on the exchange rate. A weakening currency creates inflationary pressures, which is what the Central Banks are mandated to control in the first place. The Central Banks end up trying to meet incompatible objectives, low interest rates, low inflation and a stable currency.

This is precisely what happened from mid-2009 to September 2011. The Central Bank bent over backwards to accommodate the government’s economic stimulus meant to respond to both the post-election violence and the global financial crisis. Interests rate were driven to the floor. From mid-2010 to mid-2011 the benchmark 90-day Treasury bill rate was kept below 3 percent. The IMF’s charts show how this ended— with a very hard landing. The shilling which had been propped up at about 80 to the dollar, started unravelling in April peaking at KSh100 to the dollar in September. The Central Bank was forced to jack up interest rates in a hurry. By the end of 2011, the T-bill rate was heading to 20 percent.

The IMF seems to believe that, left to market forces, the shilling will depreciate in real terms. The IMF’s REER chart covers eight years, from 2010 to 2017. A longer timespan does not necessarily support this contention (see Chart). My chart goes back to the beginning of the liberalized regime in 1994. What do we see? The shilling has been appreciating in real terms since it was liberalized. Overall it has appreciated 157 percent, by 9 percent per year on average. This could mean that the Government has been propping up the shilling all these years, or that market forces are not working the way the IMF expects.

Chart 2

Many Kenyans have observed that we have become an importing country. One also hears policymakers lamenting that we are losing our markets in the region and blaming all manner of things. There is no mystery to it.

My [assessment is that] the shilling has been appreciating in real terms since it was liberalized. Overall it has appreciated 157 percent – by 9 percent per year on average. This could mean that the Government has been propping up the shilling all these years, or that market forces are not working the way the IMF expects.

But is the Central Bank propping up the shilling? That we cannot be able to tell that easily. There are lots of moving parts. It can also be on account of some trading partners manipulating their currencies: China, for example, is regularly accused of maintaining an artificially weak currency. China has a big weight in our REER and it’s been growing over time.

The ultimate question is whether it is sustainable. There are two parts to this, financial and economic. The widening trade deficit has been plugged by remittances and portfolio inflows (money flowing into the stock exchange and government securities), not all of it honest money, and lately, government commercial borrowing, the ubiquitous eurobonds and syndicated loans. As long as these keep flowing, the show can go on.

Why are we told the economy is growing and yet we cannot feel it? This is the shopping mall economy. How long can we keep that going?

The economics is a different story. This is the shopping mall economy. It is not good for employment and equity. It is not good for employment, or equity, or sustainable growth. It is part of the answer to the question that Kenyans keep asking: why they are told the economy is growing and they are not feeling it. This is the shopping mall economy. How long can we keep that going? Your guess is as good as mine. Governments are known to manipulate currencies and to distort financial markets generally. The IMF is known to (a) have more faith in market forces than warranted and (b) get the workings of those market forces wrong. What to do?

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David Ndii

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

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THE SIZE OF NATIONS: How the break-up of Sudan ruined the economy, and other observations on politico-economic geography

Facing the biggest threat to his 30-year old monopoly on power, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir finds his regime entangled in a crisis entirely of its own making: the economic meltdown triggered by Western sanctions for the Darfur atrocities, and the loss of South Sudan, itself the result of the Islamisation of the state. The bigger question for the continent is: why do small states fare better than big ones? Here’s a clue: centralising power, especially in politically fractious Africa, is always a bad idea. By DAVID NDII.

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THE SIZE OF NATIONS: How the break-up of Sudan ruined the economy, and other observations on politico-economic geography

Sudan is on the brink, and not a day too soon. The independence of South Sudan a decade ago took with it 90 percent of total oil reserves. Even though Sudan got a good deal for the use of the pipeline including securing a compensation of $2.6 billion for future lost oil earnings, easily the biggest aid transfer from one African country to another, production disruptions in South Sudan have hit revenues hard. This shock was compounded by the effect of international sanctions and the Darfur insurgency. Sudan needed fundamental economic restructuring that it has not pursued, partly because it was also hamstrung by these two factors.

The independence of South Sudan a decade ago took with it 90 percent of total oil reserves. Even though Sudan got a good deal for the use of the pipeline, production disruptions in South Sudan have hit revenues hard.

A severe hard currency shortage has taken its toll on the country’s production capacity. Shortages stoked inflation. The government compounded the problem by tightening monetary policy, starving the economy of credit. Nowhere is this more evident than in agriculture, plagued by lack of credit, fuel shortages and deterioration of the capital stock. Data published by the FAO show food insecurity rising sharply (see chart).

Chart 1Late last year, President Omar el Bashir dissolved government and appointed a leaner one that he said would respond to the economic crisis—too little, too late. Inflation is now running at 70 percent. Demand management of supply shock inflation was never going to work. One of the new government’s first actions was to devalue the Sudanese Pound; it slid from 28 to 47 pounds to the dollar. A year and a half ago, it was exchanging at 6.7 pounds to the dollar. With an economy in meltdown, a hungry population, few friends and powerful foes, Khartoum has very limited options and nowhere to turn.

Sudan’s problems are patently political. In a nutshell, it is the failure to find a political formula to hold together a huge, culturally and geographically diverse country. For whatever reason, the ruling elite in Khartoum has pursued Islamist hegemony. This is what ultimately led to the break up with South Sudan.

Before its break up, Sudan was Africa’s biggest country at 2.5 million square kilometres. At 1.86m square kilometres it is still the third largest, behind Algeria (2.4m) and the DR Congo (2.34m). The old Sudan is about the size of the five biggest EU countries (France, Spain, Sweden, Norway Germany plus the UK), and if we start from the other end, Sudan would have fitted 36 of Europe’s 50 countries starting with the Vatican (0.44 sq. km) all the way to the UK (249,000 sq. km).

Sudan’s problems are patently political…the failure to find a political formula to hold together a huge, culturally and geographically diverse country.

Neighbouring Ethiopia is also experiencing political convulsions. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country after Nigeria, with a population of 100 million people. Though never colonised, Ethiopia is a fractious nation that struggles to hold itself together, with secessionist movements in Ogaden and Oromia regions. Eritrea managed to break away. DR Congo, Africa’s second largest country now, has just held a very African presidential election two years late. The war that has raged there for the last two decades ranks as the most deadly conflict since the Second World War.

At the other end of the scale, and as this column has previously observed, Africa’s smallest countries are also its most successful. The Freedom House Index 2018 ranks ten African countries as fully free/democratic (Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Sao Tome & Principe, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia) of which only one, South Africa is a big country. The average population of the ten countries is 13 million – 8 million when excluding South Afric – less than half the continental average of 21 million. Geographically, Botswana (pop. 2.3m) and Namibia (pop. 2.5m) are peculiar in that they are physically large countries with small populations. Excluding South Africa and these two, the average size of the other seven is 100,000 sq. km, against a continental average of 536,000 sq. km.

The old Sudan is about the size of the five biggest EU countries (France, Spain, Sweden, Norway Germany plus the UK), and if we start from the other end, Sudan would have fitted 36 of Europe’s 50 countries…

Countries rated as “partly free” average 354,000 sq. km and 26 million people. Those ranked “not free” average 800,000 sq. km. and 24 million people. Of eight countries that are over a million square kilometres (Algeria, DR Congo, Libya, Angola, Chad, Mauritania, Sudan, Niger) seven are ranked “not free”— Niger is the exception. There are five small countries ranked as unfree, i.e. less than 100,000 sq. km (Burundi, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Swaziland), six if you include Eritrea, which is just over the 100,000 sq. km threshold, out of a total of 22. Well governed African countries are almost invariably small, while badly governed ones are predominantly large.

Chart 2When it comes to governability, size does seem to matter. And as it turns out, governability has considerable economic payoffs. Africa’s “free” countries have increased income per person by three times more than the rest of the continent since 1990 (see chart).

Nation-states like to project themselves as sacrosanct, immutable entities. Few political principles are proclaimed with as much fervour and fury as territorial integrity. It is an illusion. The United Nation membership of sovereign nation-states stands at 193, up from 51 founding members in 1945. The number of nations has increased 3.8 times, faster than the world population (2.9 times) Nation formation was at its height during decolonization (1950-80) growing from 60 to 154. (see chart). There was another surge after the collapse of the Soviet empire (1990 – 2000) when another 30 nations emerged. Since then only Eritrea and South Sudan have joined the ranks. But there is a pipeline of close to 70 dependent territories with nationhood potential and aspiration as well as pesky secessionist movements on every continent. Brexit could beget an independent Scotland.

Nation-states like to project themselves as sacrosanct, immutable entities. Few political principles are proclaimed with as much fervour and fury as territorial integrity.

In a 1995 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper On the Number and Size of Nations (expanded into a book The Size of Nations), political economists Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore develop an economic model of nation formation. The core question they ask is: what is the optimal size of a nation, or put another way, how big should nations be?

Chart 3

They postulate that the essence of nations is the provision of a “public good” called government.

Government is a fixed cost which is financed by taxing people. Fixed cost means that there are economies of scale—the larger the country the less the cost per citizen. But people are also diverse. Different communities will have different preferences. A community in a dryland will value water; a coastal fishing community, maritime security; a trading community roads throughout the territory, and so on. In this scheme of things, the calculus of nation building entails balancing the economies and diseconomies of scale.

Alesina and Spolaore consider two political orders by which nations could come about, namely democracy and autocracy.

In democratic nation building, communities would be free to choose. If they are unhappy in a particular nation, they can call a referendum. To illustrate, think of the world as consisting of 1000 communities of interest – let’s call them nationalities, ethnic groups if you like – with a population of 100,000 each. The cost of setting up government is a trillion shillings. Further still, government can only be at one location, let’s call it the centre, and the benefits of government are directly proportional to proximity to the centre. You can think of the centre as geographical or cultural distance, or both.

It stands to reason that people would be happiest if each nationality had its own government, but this would come with a price tag of Sh.10 million per citizen. It would also be immensely inefficient, as the total cost of government would be a thousand trillion shillings. Conversely, a world government would cost each citizen only Sh.10,000. As per our closeness to government assumption, the communities farthest from centre of the world government would be obliged to pay the same tax and receive very little benefits. They would be marginalized.

Let’s begin with a configuration: take 10 nations of 100 communities. Think of the political geography as a circle with governments located at intervals of 50 communities i.e. governments located in the middle of 100 communities. The communities closest to governments get 1.5 times what they put in. Benefits decline by 2 percent of the tax (so that community number 25 on the line gets exactly what it put in. Those farther along the line get progressively less until the 50th community, which gets only half what it put in.

If the neighbouring border communities would persuade the other “losers” to secede they end up being at the centre of a new circle of countries, resulting in double the countries with half the population. But this would mean paying double the tax, but because they are smaller countries there are fewer communities that are marginalized overall. We can surmise that under democratic order, this political calculus would continue until the benefits of proximity to government balance out with the higher tax per citizen.

The other political regime is autocracy, which Alesina and Spolaore call a Leviathan order a la Hobbes. In this order, the state is a protection racket, where residents of a territory agree to pay tribute to a warlord in exchange for protection from predation by other warlords, along the lines of Mancur Olson’s “roving” and “stationary” bandit model. A Leviathan has two objectives. First, to extract as much tribute as it can without triggering revolt and second, to expand territory – market share, if you like. Territory can be gained by conquest or offering neighbouring communities a better deal than the resident warlord.

It turns out that Leviathan’s problem is analogous to an oligopolistic industry (a market with a small number of players) As with oligopolistic markets, the first best solution is a cartel. The logic is as follows. War is expensive. So is predatory pricing whose most likely consequence is to trigger price wars which hurt every player. Leviathans would do best by sitting round a table and carving out territories amongst themselves. This logic seems to accord with the 1885 Berlin Africa conference and the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

The Alesina-Spolaore model yields three propositions on nation formation:

First, neither the democratic order or autocracy achieves the ideal number of states. Democracy leads to too many small states and autocratic order leads to too few.

The second has to do with the impact of free trade. Consider the case when there is no trade between countries. Without trade it is economically advantageous to be a big country on account of a bigger market. This will add to the disadvantage of being a small country over and above the high overhead of governing itself. But with free trade, borders lose economic relevance. Small countries get to have their cake and eat it, like Switzerland, which trades freely with the EU, and has the highest average income in Europe despite not being a member of the EU. It should not surprise that it is Britain, long accustomed to having its cake and eating it, that finds itself in the Brexit predicament.

The third proposition is that decentralization can mitigate the fragmentation dynamic inherent in the democratic order. Decentralization mitigates the complexity of diversity. With decentralization, the centre provides those public goods where economies of scale are significant, while the local governments take care of those whose prioritising will vary widely across the different constituent parts.

…With free trade, borders lose economic relevance. Small countries get to have their cake and eat it, like Switzerland, which trades freely with the EU, and has the highest average income in Europe despite not being a member of the EU.

What to make of all this? Let’s do the math.

The modern nation state is a European invention. In this regard, Europe provides as good a benchmark of organic nation-formation as there is. The United States is a natural experiment of self-forming nations. The European countries average at 164,000 sq. km including Russia and 126,000 excluding Russia with average populations at 15m and 12 million respectively.

However, the typical European country is between 40,000 and 100,000 sq. km with populations between two and ten million people. American states are not that different, averaging 146,000 sq. km and 6.3 million people, with only three states with populations over 20 million (California, Texas and Florida).

The “natural” nation-state it seems is of the same order of magnitude as Africa’s small successful states. The governable African country would seem to be in the eSwatini (17.000 sq. km)- Ghana/Guinea (240,000 sq. km) ballpark.

How to hold onto and sustain plunder of such massive territories in the face of expanding political freedom, globalization, huge diverse populations and ecological pressure? Leviathans have their work cut out.

Africa. Average size of country: 607,000 sq. km including the Sahara desert, 423,400 excluding the Sahara desert—3.4 times and 2.6 times the European and US respectively—consistent with the handiwork of a plunder-maximizing Leviathan cartel. Average population currently is 24 million, but Africa’s population is projected to reach 2.5 billion in 2050, which works out to 50m per country.

How to hold onto and sustain plunder of such massive territories in the face of expanding political freedom, globalization, huge diverse populations and ecological pressure? Leviathans have their work cut out.

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DISASTER PORN AND THE WHITE GAZE: Why the New York Times Just Won’t Respect the Dusit Attack Victims

In the wake of the US newspaper’s refusal to withdraw that gruesome Dusit photograph, RASNA WARAH reflects on the logic of Western media’s enduring application of racist double standards.

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DISASTER PORN AND THE WHITE GAZE: Why the New York Times Just Won’t Respect the Dusit Attack Victims

As the story of the terror attack on the Dusit D2 building on Nairobi’s Riverside Drive was unfolding, the New York Times carried an article that infuriated a lot of Kenyans who were still coming to terms with the fact that Al Shabaab terrorists had – once again – made Kenya’s capital city a target. The article by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, titled “Shabaab Claim Responsibility for Deadly Assault on Nairobi Hotel-Office Complex”, carried a disturbing photo of dead bodies slumped over tables in a restaurant in the building.

Kenyans on Twitter (KOT), quick to respond to such errors in judgement on the part of the local and international media, reacted furiously. Under the hashtag #SomeoneTell NY Times, many Kenyans argued that the newspaper had employed double standards – that if the images were of dead Americans, they would not have been published. (Indeed, to this day no one has seen bodies or body parts of the more than 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 attack in New York, nor does the American press show images of the many children and adults who have been killed in school shootings and other mass killing sprees in the United States.)

The article by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, titled “Shabaab Claim Responsibility for Deadly Assault on Nairobi Hotel-Office Complex”, carried a disturbing photo of dead bodies slumped over tables in a restaurant in the building.

Despite the protests, the New York Times refused to pull down the offending photo. Instead, it issued an unapologetic and defensive statement that said that the newspaper believed “it is important to give our readers a clear picture of the horror of an attack like this”, which “includes showing pictures that are not sensationalized but that give a real sense of the situation”. The statement further said that the newspaper takes “the same approach wherever in the world something like this happens – balancing the need for sensitivity and respect with our mission of showing the reality of events”.

The self-righteousness reflected in this statement belies a racism that is not immediately apparent, and which is often couched in the language of compassion. It reminded me of a photo essay published by TIME magazine in June 2010 that showed the dying moments of an 18-year-old Sierra Leonean woman called Mamma Sessay who had just given birth to twins in a rural clinic. Ten images captured Sessay’s slow and painful death as she struggled to give birth to the second twin, nearly 24 hours after giving birth to the first. It was as if the photographer anticipated her death, and decided to voyeuristically watch it happen before their eyes.

If the images were of dead Americans, they would not have been published…to this day no one has seen bodies or body parts of the more than 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 attack in New York.

The first image showed Sessay lying naked on a bloody surgical bed, her eyes wild and bewildered as a nurse tended to her. This image was followed by several others showing her steady decline: heavy bleeding followed by shallow breaths, falling blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and finally, death.

Why is death considered a private, sombre affair when the person dying or who has died is American but a public event if the person who is dying or is dead is African? As one Kenyan female blogger commented on the Mamma Sessay photos: “Here, the author and the photographer strip Mamma of all dignity, parading her in her very desperate moments for the world to see. Would these pictures have been published if she was white?”

Why the double standards? Perhaps it is because, as Jurgen Kronig pointed out in a March 2000 journal article, “Foreign correspondents have a better chance of getting airtime or space in their papers if they play to stereotypical expectations at home.”

The self-righteousness reflected in the NYT’s statement belies a racism that is not immediately apparent, and which is often couched in the language of compassion.

Perhaps the magazine’s intention was to highlight the high maternal mortality rates in many parts of Africa and to focus the world’s attention on this preventable tragedy. This is the same argument used by newspaper editors to show images of starving women and children in Somalia or Yemen. (One image I distinctly remember is that of a skeletal Somali infant lying in a foetal position, which was used on the front page of the New York Times at the height of 2011 famine in Somalia.)

Most editors and journalists in the West do not understand why such images offend so many Africans. They claim that these images sensitise their readers about an evolving tragedy and help to raise funds. After seeing such images, the argument goes, readers and policymakers might be prompted to do more for Africa or to give more to charity, thereby helping to prevent a calamity.

The phenomenon of media coverage resulting in a humanitarian response has been referred to as the “the CNN Effect”, which musicians such as Bob Geldof and Bono have become adept at exploiting. Those who are old enough to remember Band Aid will recall how the 1984 famine in Ethiopia – filmed in gritty detail by the Kenyan cameraman, Mohamed Amin – led Geldof and his fellow musicians to release an album titled “We Are the World” that catapulted the relief effort for Ethiopia.

Humanitarian organisations also exploit these situations by painting a bleak portrait of victims of famine and other disasters. Disseminating these images through the media helps them to raise funds for their organisations. As Alex de Waal notes in his book Famine Crimes, “Relief agency guides take visitors to the worst places…and are keen to stress the hunger and dependence of the people and the importance of relief. This leads to exaggerated, dire predictions and stereotypes of pathetic dependency.”

Michael Maren, author of The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, says that it helps if the Africans being portrayed are both helpless and brave. “Journalists write about the quiet dignity of the hopelessly dying,” he wrote. “If the Africans were merely hungry and poor, begging or conning coins on the streets of Nairobi or Addis Ababa, we might become annoyed and brush them aside. When they steal tape decks from our Land Cruisers, we feel anger and disgust. It is only in their weakness, when their death is inevitable, that we are touched.”

Disseminating these images helps raise funds […] it helps if the Africans being portrayed are both helpless and brave.

Journalists, photographers and editors have a moral responsibility towards the dead, the dying and their families, a lesson that the photojournalist Kevin Carter learnt too late. In the early 1990s, the charity Save the Children used a photo by Carter that showed a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture. Many Africans and people working for relief organisations were understandably disgusted by the image; the head of one NGO even referred to it as “hunger porn”. Carter committed suicide a few weeks after receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his photo. He is reported to have said that he managed to scare off the waiting vulture but did not know the outcome of the famished child’s desperate efforts to crawl to a feeding station near the village of Ayod in Sudan. It is believed that not knowing the fate of the child was something that haunted him, and could have contributed to his decision to end his own life.

Following up on the fate of those whose images are published is good journalistic practice and a lesson that the Nation’s editors learnt quickly after the newspaper carried an image on its front page of a woman screaming in pain during the Westgate mall terror attack in Nairobi in September 2013. Apparently, the family of the woman – who apparently died as a result of her injuries– objected to the image being published. It is rumoured that the editors on duty on the night when the decision to use the photo was made were severely reprimanded by the newspaper’s management; the Nation’s editors have since been more cautious about the images the newspaper publishes, especially those taken during terror attacks.

Journalists, photographers and editors have a moral responsibility towards the dead, the dying and their families, a lesson that the photojournalist Kevin Carter learnt too late.

All people – including Africans – deserve dignity, especially in their dying moments. Western journalists cannot claim to be neutral and impartial when they employ double standards in their coverage of disasters taking place in far-off places. They cannot make a moral or ethical case for not showing the bodies of dead Americans and Europeans while at the same time arguing that they are morally or professionally obligated to show “the reality of events” when the dead people happen to be Africans or Arabs. Famished children in Yemen or Somalia, Iraqis killed in bomb attacks, dying African mothers and Kenyan terror attack victims must be accorded the same respect as the victims of tragedies taking place in their own countries.

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The Rwandan Genocide, and the Sins that Can and Can’t Be Forgiven

Did the shooting down of a plane on 6 April 1994 trigger the Rwandan genocide? In this article, CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO shows that, far from being a spontaneous act of retaliation, the genocide in Rwanda was a premeditated strategy that was linked to events that took place at least four years earlier.

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The Rwandan Genocide, and the Sins that Can and Can’t Be Forgiven

As 2018 closed, news came from Paris that France had abandoned a probe into the shooting down of a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents and its French crew on April 6, 1994 – an event that is said to have sparked the genocide in Rwanda.

However, one cannot talk of the Rwandan genocide without referring to an attack four years earlier, on October 1, 1990, when rebels belonging to the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army (RPF/A), comprising mostly refugees, launched an attack from Uganda in a campaign to reclaim statehood. Their campaign turned to disaster very quickly, with feuding within their ranks, and the killing in the first hours of the attack of their charismatic leader, Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigyema. He, like several RPA combatants, had been an officer in the Uganda army.

Weeks later, Paul Kagame, who was an officer in Uganda’s military intelligence and on a military training course in the USA, returned and took over the leadership of an RPA in disarray.

There are two principal accounts of how Rwigyema was killed. The official one in Rwanda is that he was shot by an enemy sniper in the head as he stood on a hill talking on military radio near the Uganda-Rwanda Kagitumba border through which the RPA had launched their attack. The other, more popular in Uganda and internationally, no less because of its rich conspiratorial flavour, is that Rwigyema was killed by one of his deputies, Peter Baingana, following an argument.

Baingana, a medical doctor and accomplished boxer while he was at Makerere University, was also an officer in the Uganda army, having joined Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) guerrillas in the early 1980s, like many Rwandan refugees. He represented an arcane, but deep, philosophical divide in the RPA: he was a leading critic of what the Rwandans disparaged as “integrationists”. Integrationists were the Rwandan (mainly Tutsi) diaspora and refugees, who were seen to have become too comfortable in their host countries, and who favoured either a negotiated return home, or were too deferential to Museveni’s views on how they should time their fight to return to Rwanda.

Rwigyema was a hugely popular figure in Uganda, and had been nicknamed “James Bond” for his exploits in the counter-insurgency that the Museveni government was carrying in northern and eastern Uganda against various rebel groups. He was Deputy Army Commander, and later Minister of State for Defence.

He was also into football. As a kind of patron of Villa FC. Weeks before the October 1990 attack, I went to Nakivubo Stadium to watch a Villa FC encounter. Rwigyema drove into the stadium just as the match was about to start, and a quite unnerving hysterical applause erupted as he walked to the pavilion. The spectators simply worshipped him.

In October 1990, Museveni was the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and didn’t want the attack to happen on his watch. In fact, when it happened, he was giving a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and he got egg on his face for it.

Baingana had led the invasion, while Rwigyema was at the (today South) Sudan border, as Uganda propped up the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) that was facing a new onslaught from Khartoum. He had to rush to catch up with the RPA, entering hours after Baingana had let them in. It’s also widely believed that an infuriated Uganda sent soldiers into Rwanda, arrested Baingana and his confederates, and executed them. To this day, one still gets stonewalled on these matters, as they would have been 24 years ago.

In October 1990, Museveni was the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and didn’t want the attack to happen on his watch. In fact, when it happened, he was giving a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and he got egg on his face for it.

Kagame gathered up the debris of the RPA, and undertook a seemingly insane expedition. He led his soldiers to the Muhabura Mountains, far away from the safety of the Uganda border, and closer to the stronghold of then President Juvenal Habyarimana’s regime, and so called “Hutu power”.

However, there was a method to his madness. Once up in Muhabura, it was easy for the rebels to secure themselves more easily. But learning to survive in the cold mountains, and mastering how to get to and from there through dangerous territory, was an unforgiving ordeal of Darwinian selection; it meant that only the most hardened and disciplined soldiers remained in the RPA ranks. In addition, for people who had been refugees for nearly 40 years, getting to Muhabura forced them to re-learn a country that they had been away from for a long time, or had never been to, having been born in exile.

This and the events in October 1990 form an important undercurrent to the narrative of what happened on April 6, 1994, and the French case. It goes to the question of when, after reckoning with earlier massacres and pogroms, did what has become known as the Rwandan Genocide begin?

On the evening of April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down near Kigali airport, killing everyone on board, including its French crew.

This and the events in October 1990 form an important undercurrent to the narrative of what happened on April 6, 1994, and the French case. It goes to the question of when, after reckoning with earlier massacres and pogroms, did what has become known as the Rwandan Genocide begin?

At that point, RPA guerrilla units had arrived in Kigali as an advance contingent, as the warring parties moved to implement the Arusha Peace Accord of August 1993, ending the war and establishing a Broad-Based Transitional Government (BBTG), with the RPF/A as part of it.

Within hours of the plane being brought down, extremist Hutu soldiers in the regular military and the Interahamwe militias fanned out in a 100 days frenzy of slaughter that left anything between 800,000 and one million people, mostly Tutsis, but also moderate and opposition Hutus, dead.

The RPF accuses France, a Habyarimana ally, of complicity in the killings, as it not only armed the regime, but allegedly also trained – and directed – the Interahamwe. The extremists, it holds, didn’t want the Arusha Accord, viewing it as a surrender by Habyarimana. Killing him not just got him out of the way, but also enabled them to settle the “Tutsi question” once and for all by eliminating them.

The French case, on the other hand, arose from the death of the crew, although the RPF saw it is as a cover-up for its role in the genocide. France made the political argument that the RPA didn’t want to share power, and sought to reassert Tutsi hegemony by taking a wrecking ball to it, so it shot down the plane.

But how could the extremists have been so organised and their militias so well-armed with machetes that enabled them to immediately spring into action as news of Habyarimana’s death spread?

The answers are to be found way back in Rwanda’s history, and in some of the events that played out after the RPA were beaten back in late October 1990.

Belgian colonialists took what was primarily an economic and class stratification and hardened it into an ethnic divide between the Tutsi (wealthier cattle owners who formed the elite because cattle was prized) and Hutus (mostly farmers). To do that, they had to come up with a profile. The Kigali Genocide Memorial shows videos of Rwandan peasants squatting in line in the sun as Belgian colonial officials walk through measuring their faces and body parts. Long nose? Tutsi. Short, big nose? Hutu, and so on.

Until then, there was the possibility of class mobility. A Hutu who acquired a large cattle herd and wealth could move up the economic class and become Tutsi. And a Tutsi who fell upon hard times could fall down the class ranks and be regarded as Hutu.

In 1926, the Belgians introduced ethnic identity cards differentiating Hutus from Tutsis, which enabled the Tutsi to consolidate as the ruling class. This ended in a bloody orgy with the “Rwanda Revolution”, which between 1959 and 1961 saw the Hutu majority overthrew the monarchy. Up to 20,000 Tutsi were killed, and over 300,000 – including Paul Kagame, who was barely two-years-old then – fled to neighbouring countries, mostly to Uganda.

Subsequent regimes refined the ID system into a Rwandan version of apartheid that sharply marginalised the Tutsi. As the Tutsi refugees in Uganda used the organisation and leverage they had got from the Museveni war and victory to mobilise their return, the regime in Kigali started to prepare.

The timing of the October 1990 attack was not fortuitous. Beside Museveni and his apparatus being out of town, he had been in power for four years already and the rot had started to seep into the revolution.

A worldly operator, Habyarimana – who in the twisted realties of African politics had helped the Museveni rebels – enjoyed links to some of them now that they were in power in Kampala. He is thought to have infiltrated the Ugandan security system so heavily by bribing senior officers, that by late 1990 he had all but neared a tipping point, and would have been able to get his bought network to prevent an RPF/A attack.

The trigger for his operation had happened two years earlier when the RPF had held a convention in Kampala where Rwandan exiles and their offspring from all over the world had converged in record numbers. If Kigali then had been under any illusions of the RPF threat, they were banished then. Habyarimana went into the trenches.

This preparation was evident in October 1990. As the first RPF/A attack disintegrated, the Rwanda military struck back, including attacking suspected rebel sympathisers, mainly Tutsi peasant families, in the northeast. Those who could get away fled in their thousands across the border into Uganda.

In mid-October, with William Pike (now a director with The Star in Nairobi, but then heading the government-owned New Vision in Kampala) and the BBC Swahili correspondent in Uganda, Hussein Abdi, we went to the Kagitumba area to cover the war.

We were told that there was a large refugee camp “nearby” on the Uganda side. We were to spend hours getting lost in the bushes as we were misled by cattle herders who kept telling us, “Ah, you have reached, drive ahead it’s at the corner”, and kilometres later, there was nothing in sight.

Eventually we did find the camp. It was raining, and the place was miserable. However, the most striking thing was how many people had wounds inflicted, we were told, by machetes and axes. The significance of it was to hit home much later: by the time the RPF/A attacked, the machetes were ready.

On the other hand, the excruciating Darwinian selection, and monolithic discipline (still evident in the RPF today after 24 years in power), which enabled it to survive and win, means it was unlikely to gamble on shooting down Habyarimana’s plane and set off events it couldn’t control. (France has in the past accused the RPF of shooting down the plane.)

Eventually we did find the camp. It was raining, and the place was miserable. However, the most striking thing was how many people had wounds inflicted, we were told, by machetes and axes. The significance of it was to hit home much later: by the time the RPF/A attacked, the machetes were ready.

It remains important to establish with some finality who shot down Habyarimana’s plane. But the shooting down of the plane did not spark the genocide, as many accounts like to tell it. Pegging the genocide to April 6, 1994, is to cleverly deny that there was premeditation and planning. It also wipes out a complicated and messy 82 years of Rwandan history – although perhaps it is what those who are here today can live with.

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