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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
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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 a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyranny of numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devolution and urbanisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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