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SPEAK OF ME AS I AM: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa

Does a country create a people, or do a people create a country? KALUNDI SERUMAGA responds to Mahmood Mamdani’s recent analysis on the political situation in Ethiopia.

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The Westphalian principles, rooted in the 1648 Treaties signed in the European region of that name, have been monstrously mis-applied when it comes to the African continent, yet they established modern international relations, particularly the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built. Everything else, especially that dreaded category, ‘ethnicity’ is cast as a diversion and dangerous distraction.

This is the tone that runs through Ugandan Professor Mahmoud Mamdani’s one thousand-word opinion piece: The Trouble With Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism, published on 3rd January for the New York Times by (and patriotically reproduced in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper), bearing a total of fifty-four iterations of the word ‘ethnic’.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built.

At Independence, the Westphalia protocols were conferred on to the former colonial contraptions. The results were economic stagnation and political repression. For over five decades, these new nations have been the focus of intellectual and political agitation among Africa’s thinkers. When, after all that rumination and fulmination, our thinkers still get things horribly back to front, we all get stuck at a crossroads.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction. Current Prime Minister, the youthful Abiy Ahmed is faced with a many-sided series of demands from a deeply frustrated population. Many of these relate directly to the lack of an economic growth model that palpably raises living standards. Others reach further back to the age-old question of land ownership and reform. Naturally, the demand for greater civic rights to speech and assembly come as a prerequisite. One feature common to these demands is the tendency for the Ethiopians to speak through, and/or on behalf of the various constitutionally recognised native identities within the country. Some may have even formed militias for this purpose.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics. “Fears of Ethiopia suffering Africa’s next interethnic conflict are growing,” he warns.

Prime Minister Abiy has been quick to concede much, and roll out as many reforms as he can. Most notably, he has ended the two-decade stand-off with his northern neighbour, Eritrea.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics.

This may not be enough, Mamdani tells us. The real problem, as he sees it, is the introduction of ethnicity into Ethiopian governance, and its central position in the Ethiopian constitution. This, Professor Mamdani says, was done by former Prime Minister, the late Meles Zenawi, who served as the de facto Ethiopian strongman from 1991 to 2012. Mamdani describes this as an attempt to replicate a similar strategy of ethnic organization that, in his view, was introduced to Africa as part of the colonial method of governing:

“In most of Africa, ethnicity was politicized when the British turned the ethnic group into a unit of local administration, which they termed ‘indirect rule.’ Every bit of the colony came to be defined as an ethnic homeland, where an ethnic authority enforced an ethnically defined customary law that conferred privileges on those deemed indigenous at the expense of non-indigenous minorities.”

This analysis fails to stop itself there, which would have been bad enough.

“The move,” continues the Professor, “was a response to a perennial colonial problem: racial privilege for whites mobilized those excluded as a racialized non-white majority. By creating an additional layer of privilege, this time ethnic, indirect rule fragmented the racially conscious majority into so many ethnic minorities, in every part of the country setting ethnic majorities against ethnic minorities.”

Describing native homelands as a “fiction”, the Professor goes on to say that while such ethnic labelling and selective privileging may have served the colonial purpose, it had the effect of first, “dividing a racially conscious African population” and second, turning them into people who saw themselves as “tribes” first and foremost.

Thus, he concludes, “Wherever this system continued after independence, national belonging gave way to tribal identity as the real meaning of citizenship.”

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

These words have many meanings, none of them good for Africans, at least.

First, this is the same thing as saying that before European arrived in Africa, “ethnic” identities were not politicized, and neither were they units of administration. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is to say that there were no ‘politics’ in precolonial Africa, and neither were there forms of administration.

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

Africans seem to have been roaming the continent as a cohort of an undefined but also homogenous mass, with wholly insignificant identities, which were only solemnised, formalized, and bestowed with political meaning with the arrival of a European power amongst them.

Second, it also implies that only the European had the skill to animate these identities, without them tearing the (therefore necessary) European-planted state apart.

Third, that the tragedy of modern Africa began when the European withdrew his controlling hand. Left to their own devices, the identities he had created, mutated into a Frankenstein’s monster of tribal strife.

Fourth, that there is such a thing as ‘national identity’ that sprung to life fully formed at independence, a good by-product of the European-planted state, and that it is African ‘tribalism’ that destroys it. In other words, European-invented African tribalism spoils the one good thing (nationalism) that Europe brought to Africa.

Finally, that belonging to the European-planted nation in Africa is the only viable means of an African citizenship. But if the British were pre-occupied with “ethnicizing”, and the resultant people’s feelings and loyalties were exclusively ethnic, where then does “national belonging” come from at independence?

The entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Naming

Why are 34 million Oromo in Ethiopia an ‘ethnicity’, and 5.77 million Danes a ‘nation’?

Why are the three great wars that shaped modern Europe (Franco-Prussian, the 1914-18 and 1939-1945 great wars), not conceptualized as ethnic conflicts?

Mamdani’s entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Why are there only a handful of contemporary states in Africa whose names bear a relation to the identity of people actually living there. Everyplace else is a reference to a commodity, or an explorer’s navigational landmarks.

This frankly malevolent labelling offers the space for the linguistic demotion of entire peoples. To wit: 34 million Oromo, seven million Baganda, 43 million Igbo, 10 million Zulu will always remain ‘ethnicities’ and ‘tribes’ to be chaperoned by ‘whiteness’. 5.77 million Danes, 5.5 million Finns, and just 300,000 Icelanders can be called ‘nations’, complete with their own states with seats at the UN.

Some of these states were only formed less than two centuries ago (Italy: 1861, Germany: 1815, Belgium: 1830), while some of those ‘tribes’, and most critically for the argument, their governing institutions had already been created.

Why has the ethno-federalization of Great Britain itself, not been seen as such, and as a recipe for conflict?

This, in fact, is the real ‘fiction’, and it has led to decades of instability. But just because Westphalia does not see them, does not mean the African nations don’t exist. The denial of their existence is in fact, an act of violence.

This is what led a thus exiled Buganda’s Kabaka Edward Muteesa II to write: “I have never been able to pin down precisely the difference between a tribe and a nation and see why one is thought to be so despicable and the other so admired.”

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity. The starting point of this enterprise is to invite the African to agree to see our own identities as a liability to African progress, by labelling them “ethnic”.

When “ethnic” conflicts do flare up, those natives who have refused to jump on to this bandwagon are subjected to a big “I told you so”, as Mamdani’s essay now seeks to do.

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity.

This was the position of the OAU member states, and many African political parties, including those in opposition to their increasingly repressive post-Independence governments.

But Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism.

Since his initial assertion when introducing the issue of ‘ethnicity’, was that it was a result of European labelling leading to a “divide and rule” situation, Mamdani is then faced with the difficulty of explaining where those particular Ethiopian ‘ethnicities’ spring from if there were no Europeans creating them. Unless, to develop his assertion of homelands being a ‘fiction’, he thinks Ethiopia’s various nationalities are fictional too?

Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism

He covers up this logical gap by pre-empting a proper discussion of that history. Then changing tack, he suggests that the presence of “ethnic” problems in Ethiopia, despite the country’s lack of a European colonial history actually shows that “ethnicity” is somehow a congenital defect in the body politic of all Africa.

“The country today resembles a quintessential African system marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains.”

Of course the correct answer to all the above questions is that Africa’s Africans had their ‘ethnic’ identities well known and in place long before the arrival of any European explorer or conqueror. And these were not anodyne proto-identities, but actual political institutions and methods of organization and governance. But this is an inconvenient truth, because then it forces the proper naming of these alleged ‘ethnicities’: nations.

All told, deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations. It serves to fetishize the colonial project as the godsend device to rescue the African ethnic strife and predestined mayhem.

But if the 34 million Oromo are an ethnicity, then so are the 5.77 million Danes. More so for our situation so are the English, Scots and Welsh who field national teams during the World Cup and the Commonwealth games. We need consistency, people must be spoken of as they are.

Deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations.

Naturally, the emergent Independence-era African middle class was more than happy to go along with this erasure, in what Basil Davidson called an attempt at “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”, and even fine-tuned it. Where some concessions had been made to the existence of the old nations, these were quickly, often violently, dispensed with.

In British Africa, the politics of trying to dispense with this reality is what dominated virtually all the politics of pre-independence constitutional negotiations. The question informed even the political alliances that emerged at independence.

In Zambia it required a special constitutional pact between the new head of state, Kenneth Kaunda and the ruling council of the Barotse people – they have recently sought to repudiate it and return to their pre-colonial status.

Ghana’s Asante kings were against the British handing power to Nkrumah’s government. They argued that since they had ceded power to the British via treaty, then the departure of the British meant a termination of those treaties. Logically, therefore, that power should be re-invested in the ones it had been taken from under treaty.

In Kenya, the Maasai and the Coastal peoples used the same argument during the decolonisation conferences at Lancaster House. Significantly, the Somali rejected inclusion in the independence Kenyan state, insisting that they wanted to be integrated into independent Somalia. Unable to resolve the ‘Three Questions’ the Foreign and Colonial Office cynically kicked them into the not-very-long grass for the incoming leadership to deal with. The Mombasa Republican Council of today draws its political legitimacy from the updated colonial-era Witu Agreement of 1906, signed between their ancestors and the independence government.

Histories

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

It is a two-stage challenge. First: to understand Ethiopia’s history. To do that, one must first recognise and accept the possibilities of an African history not shaped, defined and animated by European imperatives. Africans, like all people, have been making their own history. And like people elsewhere, this has as much narration of the good as it does the bad.

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

As his title implies, this was not a nation, but an Empire: a territory consisting of many nations, brought into his ambit by one means or another.

Menelik’s motives and method can, and should be debated, but the fact is that Europe met its match in the Ethiopian Highlands, and were forced to leave Menelik to it.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

Yes. Africans also produce momentous historical events. It is not an exclusive trait of white people.

We must get into the habit of discussing our own non-European driven history as a real thing with real meanings. Just as we may talk about the continuing long-term effects of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the European Balkan region, so can we talk about how the demise of Menelik’s empire continues to impact on the greater Horn region.

If that sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that since Menelik’s passing 120 years ago, Ethiopia has had only six substantive rulers: Zewditu/Selassie, Mengistu, Zenawi, Dessalegn and now Abiy.

On his passing, Menelik left a region covering more than three times the area he inherited. Prince Tafari, upon eventually inheriting the throne as Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 simply sought to consolidate it.

In his 2002 biography: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood, the Ethiopian author Nega Mezlekia tells the story of him and his family, as one of many Amhara families that migrate to Jijiiga, a region in the far east of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Selassie. This was part of a government programme of Amhara settlement to many parts of the Ethiopian countryside. Jijiiga is home to ethnic Somalis. Amhara expansion, one of several factors, eventually provokes an armed revolt. Ironically, the author in his youth joined the insurgents.

Emperor Selassie can be said to have made some errors, but the context is critical: his reign spanned a period that saw immense changes in global politics, and social ideas.

Consider his life and times:

He witnessed the two great inter-European wars, the fall of its empires (Italian, German, Ottoman, Japanese) and the end of direct European occupation of Africa. He suffered two European invasions of his realm, and lived in exile. He was a regent during the Bolshevic Revolution in 1917, and saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world superpower and the Cold War that followed. He may have been one of only a handful of world leaders to have been a member of both the United Nations, and the League of Nations that preceded it.

This sweep of history also had its impact on the Ethiopian peoples. One response was a growing demand for social, economic and political reform, including loosening the bonds of Selassie’s empire.

By the time of the 1975 coup against him, the world was a fundamentally different one than the one he had met when he took the throne. He was, in fact, so “old school” that his captors were taken aback when he calmly informed them that he had no personal income or savings to look after himself.

He took a hard line on Eritrea, which had settled into an uneasy federation, provoking a war of secession; continued Amhara settler expansion into Oromo and elsewhere; and he failed to manage Tigrayan nationalism, rooted partly in their dynastic loss of the imperial throne to that of Menelik’s Shewa kingdom. Critically, he did not effectively address agrarian land reform, one of the roots of the country’s political and agricultural crises.

So, to sum up Emperor Selassie: ultimately, he neither succeeds to fully consolidate his empire, nor does he re-order the empire’s boundaries and strictures, which he had inherited in a fundamentally different era. He found himself fighting the more conservative elements of his aristocracy opposed to his reforms; the modernist republicans concerned that he was not reforming fast enough; and the increasingly radical nationalists in the regions demanding self-determination.

Enter Colonel Mengistu, something of a zealot, but who, for all his violent tendencies, was more of the “social reform” persuasion, and sympathetic to the “land to the tiller” demands of the early radical youth movements. Having overthrown a monarch, he saw himself in the image of the Soviet Union’s Communist party in Russia which had deposed the Russian King Tsar Nicholas II. His task, as he saw it, was to create a socialist state.

However, Mengistu had basically taken over the same state that Selassie inherited and he was still wedded to it. His modernist concept of history and the world prevented him from understanding that he was dealing with a home-grown imperial history, and that he was in effect therefore, running an empire.

This blinds him to the “nationalities question”, and only intensifies the agitations among the various indigenous nations trapped in his now secular empire.

So, he basically tries to kill everybody opposed to him.

This is the reality Mamdani fails to see, and mistakenly calls Mengistu’s state a ‘unified republic’; interestingly, he does not offer any of the gruesome details of how Mengistu ‘instituted’ this so-called unification. The only places where Ethiopia was unified and a republic was in Mengistu’s mind (and in his armory). What the various territories wanted was recognition of their separate identities, and an unchallenged say over the land of their ancestors.

Mengistu’s response was to raise even higher the levels of violence needed to keep these rebellions in check, simultaneously fighting Tigrayan, Eritrean, Somali and Oromo insurgencies.

Theory and practice.

Ideologically, the leaderships of the Ethiopian insurgencies were taken over by persons claiming to be as Marxist as Lenin was. Eventually, all the belligerents, including the regime, claimed to be Marxist organisations, yet they were in conflict with each other. What intensified the crisis was the conflicting understandings of what Marxist practice should therefore be, in their context. It was at this point that a number of left-ideological debates came into play, and where a lot of left-ideologues lost their way.

Marxist theory, which mobilized millions of people worldwide, and its practical implications, should be examined with some care. History on this point is necessary.

These nationalist struggles based their arguments on the Leninist principle of “The Right of Small Nations to Self-Determination”, which had been partially applied in the Soviet Union from its formation in 1917. After Lenin’s death in 1924, his successor, Josef Stalin, found less time for it, and, in the face of sustained Western European aggression seemed to see it as a liability to the security of the revolution.

The 1975 coup that brought Mengistu to power (or, more accurately, the coup that Mengistu then subsequently violently hijacked) was a response to widespread unrest, particularly among youth and student movements. This led to a number of practical problems on the ground, in relation to ideology.

At the heart of both the Dergue and the later Tigrayan movements was the issue of land reform. Mamdani does note that the initial upheavals of the 1970s were driven by this, but then fails to make the correct links.

For the vast majority of Africans, especially back then, land is not just a place to live, but also a place of work. To be without land is to be without a secure job. Subsistence peasant agriculture is back-breaking, often precarious, and not financially lucrative. It is also – and many progressives fail to recognize this – autonomous. To a very great extent, the subsistence peasant is not dependent on the state or the global economy. If anything, those entities depend on the farmer whose austere lifestyle acts as a hidden subsidy in providing the market with cheaply-grown food at no investment risk to the consumer or the state. Clearly, one thing that can transform and undergird this existence is sensible reforms to the way the farmer secures tenure of the land they work.

But what happens when land rights encounter cultural rights based on land? A “homeland” is certainly not the “fiction” of Mamdani’s assertion. It hosts the identity and worldview of the people that occupy it. It holds their sacred sites, and places marking their cultural consciousness. More so, that culture underpins their ability to keep producing autonomously. To suggest that it does not exist or does not matter, actually shows a complete failure to grasp who black African people are and how they live, and think. It is a fundamentally anti-African statement implying, as it does, that black Africans do not have an internal intellectual and spiritual logic, developed indigenously, and augmented by physical spaces and objects within them, that informs a worldview. Africans, the suggestion is, are inherently transposable, as they are not tied to any thing or any place.

The captains of the old transatlantic slave ships could not have theorized it better.

Coming from someone who lives in Africa, this is a bit surprising. Coming from a professor heading an institute within one of Africa’s new universities, designed to bolster the colonial state’s mission of deracinating the African, perhaps less so.

However, the current crisis in Ethiopia is very real, and failure to finally resolve it holds huge implications for the entire region. That is precisely why a correct analysis is needed. Not a comfortable one rooted in essentially racist tropes.

The allegedly ‘ethnic demands’ were demands for a different type of guarantee to land rights than those being promoted by Mengistu. For example, would an Amhara family like Nega Mezlekia’s, originally settled by Emperor Selassie in Jijiiga, have a legally equal claim to land against the ethnic Somali communities native to the area, just because they now happen to be the ‘tillers’ there? Would there be a hierarchy of claims? In any event, who should decide? A central authority in Addis Ababa, or a federated unit representing the historic native community?

There are no easy answers. But the regime’s (and other ‘progressives’) complete refusal to even consider the issue, is what led to the conclusion that for there to be justice in Ethiopia, the issue of native nationalities, and their land-based cultural rights, would have to be physically resolved first. In short, it became clear that the land reform question could not be effectively addressed without also addressing the underlying question of productive cultural identities and the historical land claims that arise from that.

This was particularly sharp in those areas of the country –such as Oromo and Tigray- that are dominated by pastoralist communities. Historically, much of Africa’s land grabs have taken place against pastoralist communities, the great city of Nairobi being a prime example.

This is the basis of the ‘ethnic’ movements that have so perturbed Professor Mamdani. It was, in fact, a debate of the Left, and not some right-wing atavist distraction.

So, the great irony is that Ethiopia, home to that great bastion of mis-applied Westphalian thinking, the Organisation of African Unity, becomes ground zero for the great unresolved National Question as it applies to Independent Africa: what is an African nation, and is it the same thing as a given African state (or, more accurately, a state located in Africa)?

The armed struggle began in Eritrea, after Selassie’s unilateral abrogation of the federal arrangement. The original fighting group, called the Eritrean Liberation Front was soon violently displaced from the field by a more radical Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front of Isias Afwerki, espousing those aspects of Leninism and Maoism that enabled it to mobilise a broad front of all classes affected by the feeling of Occupation.

The rebels’ demands were clear: a federation of Ethiopia or separation from it; control of their own lands, and an equal recognition of cultures.

For his part, Mengistu, now fighting five separate militant groups, including a very militant hard-line the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front based in urban Ethiopia, placed all his faith in military might. He ended up building the largest armed force in Sub-Saharan Africa (if not Africa as a whole) of some half- a million soldiers, and being heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, which saw him as a vital foothold in Africa, for war materiel and other supplies. He also received military support from Cuba. It again may not be widely known that at the height of the fighting, these different forces which had grown in to wholesale armies, were fighting some of the largest engagements (including tank battles) since the 1939-1945 European inter-ethnic conflict called the Second World War.

The fight progressively turned in favour of the rebels. With Mengistu’s main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, finally capitulating against the US in the Superpower contest in 1989, his forces were routed and he was driven from the capital in 1991.

The Eritrean armed struggle started in 1961, the Tigrayan one in 1975 and Oromo’s in 1973. All end with Mengistu’s fall.

If Mamdani genuinely believes these nationalities are just “ethnicities”, and that Ethiopia is now running the risk of hosting “Africa’s next inter-ethnic conflict”, then this history shows that Ethiopia has in fact already had the “next inter-ethnic” conflict. Mamdani’s fears, this is to say, are 30 or 40 years late.

To sum up Mengistu: he seized power in response to a severe political crisis, and then, misreading his position, sought to impose his concept of “socialism” on the various peoples still caught in the net of Menelik’s Empire state. This led to a situation of mounting violence, in which he saw just about everyone as an enemy to be physically crushed. His regime eventually succumbed to the overwhelming resistance.

Enter Meles Zenawi, who came out of that generation of student activists who took up the nationalities and land reform demands during the time of the Emperor. To many of them, Mengistu’s high-handedness in dealing with the matter was a disappointment. Tigrayans today do not easily recall that when Meles led the the youth to start the war, they sought refuge in Eritrea, and were nurtured and trained there by Isias Afwerki’s EPLF forces already at war against the Ethiopian state.

The issue of identity does not therefore mean that Africans are perennially and illogically at each others throats in some kind of primordial frenzy. They do politics, and are fully capable of defining their interests and maintaining relations, or breaking them off, as needs may dictate.

Zenawi (to an extent like Daniel Ortega on the other side of the world, and even Yoweri Museveni, in his own way), found himself in charge of a state now encountering a new, neo-liberal global world order being enforced by the only super power left standing. Like Selassie, the circumstances around them had changed greatly from when they had begun their political journeys.

Far from simply “introducing” a federal constitution whose “ethnic” nature Mamdani is problematizing, Zenawi’s regime was finally having the Ethiopian state recognise the long-standing historical realities that had emerged from decades of political and armed struggle.

To reduce the product of all that sweeping history to a notion of “fictions”, is a dangerous over-simplification.

In this quest for erasure, Mamdani applies the same misleading thinking backwards by calling the 1994 Ethiopian constitution a “Sovietificaton” of Ethiopia. The Russian nationalities were no more an invention of Lenin than the Ethiopian ones are of Meles Zenawi’s creation. The various units that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were based on nationalities long in place before the 1917 communist revolution took place there. The responsible thing to do, as a starting point, was acknowledge that fact, which the communists did (and Stalin to a greater extent than Lenin before him).

Yes, Meles was a dictator. And yes, the constitution is based on indigenous nations. That does not automatically suggest causality: Meles Zenawi did not “turn Ethiopia to ‘ethnic’ federalism”. Its long history did.

In fact, events show that Zenawi and the dominant faction he governed with, were no longer in support of the “rights of small nations” by the time they took power.

With the exception of holding the pre-agreed referendum on Eritrean independence (he may have had little choice in the matter: friends in Addis used to like to tell the story of how Meles’ own stepmother, who happens to be Eritrean, and who raised him, left him in his official Addis residence to go and vote for independence in Eritrea, then returned after), he fails to implement the spirit and the letter of the new arrangements that were based on principles forged in the course of the long war.

The best example is found in the very incident that sparked the current uprising: if the regime knew that – as Mamdani points out – the 1994 federal constitution guaranteed the nationalities concerned authority over their land, why then did it try to expand the boundaries of the Federal capital Addis further into Oromo territory over the objections of people there?

In other words, the problem in Ethiopia is the exact opposite of what Professor Mamdani sees. It is not the “ethnic” constitution at fault; it is the failure by the Zenawi regime to genuinely implement it, by negating the spirit of the idea in private, while pretending to uphold it in public.

In particular, Zenawi’s “Woyane” regime repeated Mengistu’s mistake of trying to hold on to Menelik’s state. Critically, he too failed to address the historic issue of land reform that began the whole shake-up of Ethiopia with the student protests against the Emperor. In practice, land is still the property of the state, to be handed out for “developmental” purposes, upholding the Mengistu mentality, but now in the context of global neo-liberalism.

“Derg and [the TPLF] took a very similar approach to the land question. Which is why, three decades after TPLF comes to power, they have still been unable to do land reform, abandoned agrarian reform and ironically, put rural Ethiopian land on the international auction. Something like four million acres of rural farmland, mostly in southern Ethiopia has been leased out to foreign investors since the mid-2000s, ” observes journalist Parselelo Kantai, who frequents the country.

Power comes with its temptations, and a state machine comes with its own institutional imperatives. It would appear that once a group finds itself in control of the apparatus of an empire such as Menelik’s, they become very reluctant to abandon its workings. Perhaps it is only the armed forces in Portugal, having overthrown their autocratic Caetano regime in 1974, that ever went on to immediately dismantle their empire and allow the conquered to go free.

The politics of the armed coalition coming together and finally driving Mengistu out may well have been the moment for this change in attitude to begin, not least because the Meles’ TPLF was by far the militarily dominant faction of the alliance.

To sum up Meles Zenawi: he evolved into what many ‘revolutionaries” became after the Cold War era: a technocratic autocrat placing his hopes in a neo-liberal approach to solving the country’s deep economic problems through a “developmentalist” strategy. He quite literally burned himself out hoping that, by bringing rapid infrastructural development, he could perhaps outpace the historical political claims, and thus render them redundant.

This essentially meant a new form of what Mengistu and Selassie had done before him: overlook people’s ancestral claims to this or that, and simply see the whole landmass as a site for “development” projects, no matter who they may displace or inconvenience.

But “any notion of ‘progress’ or ‘modernization’ that does not start from a peoples’ culture is tantamount to genocide.” the late Professor Dan Nabudere warned us.

Meles Zenawi sought to hold on to the very imperial state he had once fought. His unwillingness to fully honour the terms of the broad alliance of all the fighting groups, and instead consolidated his armed group to take factional control of the whole state and set the course for new upheavals. His sudden death became the opening for these issues to spill out into the streets.

His immediate successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, soon found that the kind of extreme state violence that had served Zenawi, and Mengistu before him, and Selassie before them both, no longer worked, forcing Deslaegn to resign in failure.

Abiy Ahmed must finally deal with these realities. Ultimately, any attempt to do politics based on the imperatives of the Menelik-created state was, and is, going to come up against the fact that this state actually started life as an empire. If the history of Ethiopia has shown one thing, it is that this approach has always provoked rebellions.

Ethiopia, one could say, is back to the pre-war situation it was in just before Mengistu’s coup.

The problem is conceptual; the same one that confronted Selassie and Mengistu: are we running a nation, or a homegrown empire made up of several? 

Mr Abiy Ahmed would be wise not to go down that path.

His challenge is to dismantle the remnants of Meles’ personal military apparatus, genuinely re-orient the country back to its federal constitutional ethos, begin to address the land tenure question, and quickly, before the political grievances – and the economic challenges underlying them – completely boil over.

As the world becomes less secure and with fewer overlords, there will be more and more examples of Africa’s invisible nations asserting themselves to manage control of their resources.

Dismissing them as “ethnic” is simply laying a foundation to justify violence against them.

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Mr Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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#PayInterns: Further Reflections on Millennial Angst, Crony Capitalism and the Privilege Economy

As I argued in Social Mobility and the Enclave Economy, today’s university graduate is a victim of a legacy of privilege of those halcyon days of matunda ya uhuru (fruits of independence) when it was an automatic ticket to high-status public sector jobs. Every graduate was automatically employed. What Kenyans seem not to appreciate is this status was not merited, and had no relationship whatsoever with the economic value of university graduates. It was a case of replacing a white with black privilege.

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#Payinterns: Further Reflections on Millennial Angst, Crony Capitalism and the Privilege Economy
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Two weeks ago, I waded into an emotive Twitter exchange on the subject of unpaid internships for university graduates. It quickly became evident that this was not in fact a debate but the outpouring of pent-up frustrations that is all too common among the youth generally – and more so among the better educated – that was the subject of two recent eReview articles (Hustler Nation: Jobless youth, millennial angst and the political economy of underachievement; Education, Social Mobility and the Enclave Economy: Revisiting the Kenya Scenarios Project).

Having jumped into the fray, seemingly on the side of unpaid internships, I found myself on the receiving end, perhaps deservedly so. Still, I felt that the opportunity to inject some sobriety into the debate was not to be missed.

I will dispense first with a comment on why compulsory remuneration of internships is bad economics.

Hiring workers is costly, and firing is costlier still, both financially and emotionally. The human resource practice has developed various methods to minimise the risk and cost of unsuitable hires, such as screening, references, rigorous interviews, psychometric evaluations, probation, (which minimises the cost of separation), outsourcing (which shifts the transaction costs to employment agencies) and the poaching of proven performers from rivals at a considerable premium.

Internships can serve the same purpose. Consider a firm that employs university graduates and is willing to offer a salary of Sh30,000. If it employs one who turns out to be unsuitable, it incurs a month’s salary and a recruitment cost of a similar amount, a loss of Sh60,000.

Alternatively, the firm can offer three two-month internships and pay an allowance of Sh5,000 a month, at the end of which it offers the most suitable intern a job. It is not hard to see why firms would resort to this strategy in these days when the quality, and even the authenticity, of academic qualifications has become very uncertain. It is also readily apparent from this example that firms using interns as a search strategy ought to pay them. But it would be a mistake, and probably counterproductive, to generalise.

Other firms may be willing to take on interns as part of their corporate social responsibility but may not have the budget for it. And there are also graduates out there who are willing to do unpaid internships. There are also entrepreneurs who could offer valuable internships but may not be able to afford the cost. Think of an entrepreneur who is keeping her struggling technology start-up afloat by earning extra income, say by taking up a part-time teaching position that pays her Sh30,000. If, however, she could get interns willing to pay the amount, she would happily give up the part-time work and concentrate on the start-up. Compulsion to pay interns, whether through policy or through social pressure (such as the trending #payinterns), has the effect of reducing the supply of internships, which is maximised by allowing all three options – paid, unpaid and paying internships – and leaving the market to do the rest.

As I argued in Social Mobility and the Enclave Economy, today’s university graduate is a victim of a legacy of privilege from the halcyon days of matunda ya uhuru (fruits of independence) when it was an automatic ticket to high-status public sector jobs. All Bachelor of Arts graduates were automatically absorbed into the civil service as administrators. Those appointed as “Bwana DO” (District Officer) moved into a large bungalow previously occupied by a white man and were provided with a Land Rover and a bevy of “APs” (Administration Police) to do their bidding. Few university graduates joined the private sector, but those who did went straight to the top and enjoyed lifestyles that their peers in developed countries could only dream of. What Kenyans seem not to appreciate is that this status was not obtained on merit, and had no relationship whatsoever with the economic value of university graduates. It was a case of replacing white privilege with black privilege.

This transition was more or less complete by the late 70s. Since then, university graduates have simply been trickling down the system and displacing the less educated. In the 60s, a graduate was assured of a leadership role, in the 80s a professional and middle management position, in the 90s entry-level work, and, of course, today they are not guaranteed anything all. Up until the 80s, it was inconceivable that a university graduate could be a police constable, but here we are.

In short, university graduates have continued to have expectations of entering employment at a fairly high level and climbing the socio-economic ladder as rapidly as previous cohorts did.

And there is another dynamic at play; intergenerational social mobility has been quite high in Kenya. For example, my grandparents were primary school-educated (quite a high level of education in the 1920s and 30s!). Their children, born in the 1940s and 50s, are mostly high school-educated with a few being university-educated, while all my siblings and most of my cousins born in the 60s and early 70s are university-educated. This has meant that we have, by and large, become accustomed to intergenerational social mobility. But now we are getting to the point where we have a critical mass of graduates whose parents are themselves university-educated and who are finding themselves a notch or two below their parents socio-economic status. This is bound to be stressful.

I came across a new policy document the other day titled the Draft National Automotive Policy. Its goal is to revamp the local motor vehicle assembly industry by way of import protection – what we call import substitution industrialisation. In plain English, this means the strangulation of the used motor vehicle import trade. Twenty years ago, I was involved in a long-running debate in the papers with one Gavin Bennet, then an industry spokesperson, on precisely this subject. At its peak in the late 80s, the industry produced 10,000 vehicles a year. Ownership was limited to institutions and the wealthy, while others had to wait for used cars to trickle down into the market. Choice was limited to less than ten models, and they were not particularly well-made. I argued that liberalisation would broaden vehicle ownership and create more jobs, that the economic benefits would more than offset the jobs that would be lost in the assembly industry. My prognosis carried the day; the cost of motor vehicles came down, variety increased with cars available for every pocket, with the attendant increase in employment in trade and services that we see today in the industry.

According to the policy document, the industry has ramped up its installed capacity from 28,000 to 34,000 vehicles a year. Production increased from a post-liberalisation average of 5,000-6,000 vehicles to 9,000 in 2015 and 2016 but it has since fallen back to the historical 5,000-6,000 range. It is unclear why an industry operating at 20 per cent capacity would increase its capacity. More importantly, it is readily apparent that the implementation of this policy would not stimulate new investment but rather, the utilisation of the existing plants and equipment.

The document goes on to claim that full capacity would create 150,000 jobs. This is balderdash. The same document acknowledges that at its peak, the industry employed 12,000 people, 3,000 directly and 9,000 downstream. If it were proportionate, a fourfold increase in production would translate to 36,000 jobs — but in reality, it would be less than proportionate. Unsurprisingly, the document does not factor in the jobs that would be eliminated in the second-hand imports and trade sector. All said, even 25,000 jobs would be a stretch.

In the intervening period, as globalisation was proceeding, China and India were ramping up motorcycle production, and driving down the cost. Before liberalisation, the cheapest motorcycle would have cost a well-paid university graduate at least a year’s salary. Today you can check one out from the supermarket at about three times the monthly minimum wage. And, of course, the industry has exploded, with an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million boda bodas on the road, and the jobs created also being in the same range. We are informed by the document that there are already eight motorcycle assembly plants operating at 50 per cent capacity (more than double that of the car assemblers), as well as an unknown number of “makeshift/informal” assemblers. This industry has developed in a liberalised environment without the protectionism that is now being proposed for car assemblers.

It is worth noting that the makeshift/informal motorcycle assemblers are mentioned only in passing; we have jua kali operations out there assembling motorcycles, and a proposed industry policy that merely acknowledges their existence. The existence of backyard assemblers tells us that motorcycle assembly requires little capital to set up. In economic lingo, assembling cars is capital intensive, while assembling motorcycles is labour intensive. The low capital requirements that make jua kali motorcycle assembly possible also mean that it is more easily scalable. The regional market for motorcycles is in the order of a million units a year. We already know that car assemblers cannot compete while the potential of an exporting motorcycle assembly industry is readily apparent. Also readily apparent is that this automotive policy is not about jobs but about returns on capital – profits – at the expense of jobs, competitiveness, equity and growth; that is, every important economic policy objective.

First, that it takes five times more capital to create a manufacturing job in Kenya than in India, and 50 percent more than in China, in other words Kenya’s industry is the most capital intensive of the three

The contribution of the owners of capital to our economic underachievement through policy capture – such as seen here – is under-appreciated. A World Bank study, Kenya Growth and Competitiveness Study, estimated our manufacturing productivity in the early 2000s at $3,500 per worker, vis-à-vis China’s $4,400 and India’s $3,400. Our capital (i.e. investment) per worker was estimated at $11,500, China’s at $7,800 and India’s at $2,400, translating to a capital output ratio of 3.3 to India’s 0.7 and China’s 1.74. What exactly are these parameters telling us?

First, that it takes five times more capital to create a manufacturing job in Kenya than in India, and 50 per cent more than in China. In other words, Kenya’s industry is the most capital intensive of the three. Second, that it takes $3.3 dollars of investment to produce a dollar of industrial output in Kenya, less than two dollars in China and less than a dollar in India. Moreover, the same study found that our labour was also the most costly, at $100 per month for unskilled factory workers, against China’s at $85 and India’s at $50. Let us put this into perspective: the amount of investment that creates one job in Kenya would create four jobs in India, and two in China. Moreover, Kenya is the least attractive investment destination as, of the three, it has the highest labour cost, a feature of the protectionist high-profit economy that the proposed motor vehicle policy is designed to restore.

More fundamentally, with close to a million young people joining the workforce a year, should we be protecting industries that require a million shillings to create a job, while the same investment can create five or more jobs elsewhere

We are churning out 150,000 university graduates a year. Let us say that this motor vehicle policy was implemented and indeed did create 25,000 jobs. Let us assume, generously, that a fifth – 5,000 jobs that is – were new university graduate jobs. How many sectors and industries would we need to protect to absorb, say, half the annual supply of university graduates? More fundamentally, with close to a million young people joining the workforce each year, should we be protecting industries that require a million shillings to create a job while the same investment could create five or more jobs elsewhere?

Last week the President took the occasion of the State of the Nation address to announce a financial scheme fronted by his family’s bank. Fish rots from the head.

Why is this policy so fixated on waking up a corpse? Because the policy has been written by the assemblers themselves. In fact, all the industry players are listed in the document by name. This is highly unusual. Analysis of specific enterprises does inform policy, but this is usually contained in studies, memoranda and background papers, not in the final policy documents. Final policy documents of this nature should be neutral. But what does it matter? Last week the president took the occasion of the State of the Nation address to announce a financial scheme fronted by his family’s bank. Fish rots from the head.

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Huduma Namba: Another Tool to Oppress Kenyans?

Since independence the Kenyan state has decided who is an “insider” and who is an “outsider” and which territorial spaces they should occupy. This has led to the politics of exclusion and marginalization based on geographical boundaries, religion or ethnic identity. These second-class citizens are then forced to use personalised patronage networks to gain access to their rights as citizens, such as the right to an ID or a passport. Will the Huduma number foster this reality?

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When President Uhuru Kenyatta declared that the newly rolled out National Integrated Identity Management System, popularly known as Huduma Namba, would be the “single source of truth” about every Kenyan, I wondered if he understood the reality of what it means to be a citizen of a country where identity often determines destiny, and where the acquisition of documents like IDs and passports is quite often based on the whims of the state, or one’s ability to pay a bribe.

Besides, what “truth” is revealed about a person through this biometric registration system? I have a Huduma Namba, therefore I am? Do I cease to exist in the eyes of the state because I do not possess one? What truths are not – and can never be – revealed by a mere number? Can my hopes and dreams, pains and sufferings, joys and disappointments, be encapsulated in a plastic card in my possession?

The Huduma Namba form requires those registering to provide details of their national ID, National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), National Social Security Fund (NSSF), birth certificate, driver’s licence and Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) PIN numbers. I wonder how an 80-year-old Turkana woman will obtain a Huduma Namba when she doesn’t even have a birth certificate or an NSSF number.

And because the government has threatened to deny services to those who do not obtain a Huduma Namba (a cabinet secretary threatened to deny passports to people who do not have one), what happens to those Kenyans who have not been able to obtain any type of identity document because the state decides who is a bona fide citizen and who is not?

Take the case of the late Adam Hussein Adam, an activist whose ancestors were brought to Kenya from the Sudan by the British to serve in the King’s African Rifles. Adam, a Nubian, was born in and grew up in Kenya but was denied a Kenyan ID and passport for most of his life. (Which means he would also have been disqualified for a Huduma Namba.) For this reason, he failed to secure a place on the national rugby team and could not accept a scholarship to study in New Zealand. He got several offers from international organisations to work abroad, but could not take them up because he did not possess a passport.

When Adam applied for a Kenyan passport, he was told to bring his parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ birth certificates, which was impossible, as his parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations had no birth certificates.

Between 1992 and 2000 Adam unsuccessfully applied for a Kenyan passport five times. After producing 13 documents to prove his identity, he was finally invited for an interview. He was told by immigration officers that Nubians are not regarded as Kenyans. He was denied a passport, and so he remained stateless.

In 2003, he filed a case in the High Court seeking an interpretation as to whether Nubians are Kenyans. The High Court told him to collect 120,000 signatures from Nubians plus documentation proving their identities. Adam thought it was strange that a court would ask Nubians for identification documents since these were the very documents that were being denied to them, and the reason for which Adam had gone to court in the first place.

Adam eventually acquired a Kenyan passport, but the struggle was long and hard. The mind boggling hostile bureaucracy he faced was the kind of “death by a thousand small cuts” that Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda talked about in a recent article.

In 2006, he took his case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and also petitioned the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. In 2011, these bodies found that Kenya had violated the rights of Nubian children to non-discrimination, nationality and protection against statelessness.

Adam eventually acquired a Kenyan passport, but the struggle was long and hard. The mind boggling hostile bureaucracy he faced was the kind of “death by a thousand small cuts” that Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda talked about in a recent article.

Kenyan Somalis have faced similar obstacles. In 1989, President Daniel arap Moi’s government began implementing a screening exercise on ethnic Somalis to determine whether they were Kenyans or Somalis. As Kenyan human rights lawyer Gitobu Imanyara commented at the time, the exercise effectively “de-citizenised” an entire community and placed the burden of proving that they were Kenyans on their own shoulders.

Since independence the Kenyan state has decided who is an “insider” and who is an “outsider” and which territorial spaces they should occupy. This has led to the politics of exclusion and marginalisation based on geographical boundaries, religion or ethnic identity. Somalis, Nubians, coastal Muslims, Asians and other “non-indigenous” groups considered lower down the “citizenship ladder” are, therefore, viewed as “second-class citizens”, and are more vulnerable to state persecution and neglect. These second-class citizens are then forced to use personalised patronage networks to gain access to their rights as citizens, such as the right to an ID or a passport.

Will the same apply to the Huduma Namba? Will some people simply become “de-citizenised” by virtue of the fact that the Kenyan state did not recognise their existence? Will not having an ID, and therefore, a Huduma Namba, mean that a section of Kenyan society will remain permanently un-serviced and further marginalised?

The Chinese and Indian models

To be fair, the use of technology to obtain mass biometric and demographic data is not new. In recent years, both the Indian and Chinese governments have introduced unique identity numbers that they, like the Kenyan government, claim will make it easier to provide government services to citizens. (Though it must be noted that in much of the rest of the world, government services are not denied to people who cannot prove their identity. When I lived in London, for example, I could use the National Health Service simply by virtue of being a resident in the UK; my Kenyan passport did not deny me access to free healthcare. In the United States, a driving licence, Green Card or passport are sufficient proof of identity.)

The Kenyan High Court that ruled that registering for a Huduma Namba should be voluntary and not mandatory

In 2009, India introduced Aadhaar – a 12-digit unique identity number (UID), tellingly managed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, not the Ministry of Planning – in order to streamline “targeted delivery of financial and other subsidies, benefits and services” to the residents of India and to prevent leakages in service delivery.

However, since its introduction, the Indian government has been encouraging citizens to link their Aadhaar numbers to a variety of commercial services, from mobile SIM cards to bank accounts (imagine the implications of that!), which raises concerns about whether the state has the right to deny people services provided by private companies and entities. Will those who do not have the Aadhaar card be denied a SIM card, for example?

It has become virtually impossible to carry out any business in India, including admission to a private hospital, without presenting the card, which has been hailed by a World Bank economist as “the most sophisticated ID programme in the world.

The legality of Aadhaar has been challenged in Indian courts, mainly with regard to issues to do with privacy, surveillance and citizens’ rights to welfare services, especially those citizens who are marginalised. Like the Kenyan High Court that ruled that registering for a Huduma Namba should be voluntary and not mandatory, the Supreme Court of India gave an interim order stating that “no person should suffer for not getting an Aaadhar”. However, it has become virtually impossible to carry out any business in India, including admission to a private hospital, without presenting the card, which has been hailed by a World Bank economist as “the most sophisticated ID programme in the world”.

There are also lingering privacy and surveillance concerns. There have been cases where biometric data has been shared with security and other state agencies, which raises questions about whether the data is safe and confidential. Moreover, if financial or other personal information is leaked or gets into the hands of criminals or hackers what recourse is there for the victims?

China’s “social credit system” is potentially even more problematic. This system, which was introduced in 2014, essentially rates citizens for their “good behaviour”. Authorities add or subtract points from citizens through the system, depending on how they behave. Jaywalking or neglecting to pay a bill could deny you certain rights, services or privileges, such as housing benefits or access to credit. More serious “crimes” could get you blacklisted by the government, which means you are basically denied all government services, a concept that negates the very essence of citizenship.

Some have accused the social credit system of giving the Chinese Communist Party complete power and control over the Chinese people. As one commentator put it, “China’s social credit system has been compared to Black Mirror, Big Brother and every other dystopian future sci-fi writers can think up. The reality is more complicated – and in some ways, worse.”

In an authoritarian state like China, where all citizens are heavily monitored and where freedom of expression and of the media are restricted, such a system could be used to conduct mass surveillance on citizens and to punish dissidents, thereby giving more power to a government that already enjoys unrestrained authority – and further curtailing people’s freedoms.

Kenya’s poor record in the use of technology

The very idea that you could be denied a service because you cannot identify yourself through a number also negates basic constitutional freedoms and rights that both Kenya and India guarantee, the right to privacy being among these freedoms and rights. Apart from concerns that the Huduma Namba could be used to promote the private commercial interests of President Uhuru Kenyatta, whereby banks associated with the Kenyatta family could benefit from a credit scheme linked to the Huduma Namba (as claimed recently by David Ndii in an article published in the eReview), Kenyans have legitimate reasons to be worried about the government having access to so much of citizens’ personal data.

In the absence of a law protecting personal data from abuse or misuse, what guarantee do Kenyans have that their data will not be sold off to a third party for political or commercial reasons

First, in the absence of a law protecting personal data from abuse or misuse, what guarantee do Kenyans have that their data will not be sold off to a third party for political or commercial reasons? As with Facebook, which is facing allegations of making users’ data available to nefarious “social engineering” and “mind control” companies like Cambridge Analytica to benefit certain politicians and political parties during elections in the United States and in Kenya, how do we know that the data obtained by the government will not be used to manipulate elections or prevent certain voters from voting? Will the Huduma Namba now replace the voter’s card?

Secondly, the Kenyan government has proved to be completely inept (or deliberately malicious) in using technology, as demonstrated during the 2013 and 2017 elections when the biometric digital systems for voting either failed or malfunctioned, and when servers seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. Apart from questions regarding the procurement of the technology, and whether kickbacks were involved, Kenyans watched in horror as the electoral body fumbled through the election results, even claiming that several voting stations could not electronically transmit the election results. Astonished voters like myself ended up voting in stations where our details were entered in a book as fingerprint recognition technology malfunctioned. If an entire election can be bungled in this way, what fate will befall the Huduma Namba database?

Moreover, all attempts by this so-called “digital” government to introduce computerised systems in government, ostensibly to reduce corruption and to streamline service delivery, have failed miserably; on the contrary, corruption has reached unprecedented levels. It is now an accepted fact that the introduction of the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) in government procurement led to the disappearance and theft of billions of shillings from state coffers. If IFMIS can be so easily manipulated by government officials, then how easy will it be to hack or manipulate the Huduma Namba system?

The issue, I believe, is mainly about trust: How does one trust a government/state that has a reputation of criminalising citizens, where the onus of proof of citizenship falls on the citizen and not the government, and where lack of one document or another can land you in jail? If the government can use the information citizens provide against those very citizens, then what incentive do those citizens have to give the government that information?

Until Kenya reaches a stage where citizens feel protected – rather than persecuted – by the state, where being born is not a crime, there will continue to be lingering doubts about the real intentions of the Huduma Namba biometric registration scheme.

Kenya is not Norway or Sweden, where citizens are convinced that the government is working in their interest, where there are sufficient checks and balances to prevent fraud or malpractices, and where people believe that their taxes will benefit the public, not corrupt politicians. Until Kenya reaches a stage where citizens feel protected – rather than persecuted – by the state, where being born is not a crime (to paraphrase Trevor Noah), there will continue to be lingering doubts about the real intentions of the Huduma Namba biometric registration scheme.

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The Great Flying Crane Heist

As the Museveni government rolled out plans to revive Uganda Airlines, was the president’s brother-in-law caught with his hands in the cookie jar? MARY SERUMAGA celebrates a rare victory for a vigilant public.

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The Great Flying Crane Heist
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28 March 2019 was a good day for the Ugandan people. In fact, the entire week will go down in history as the one in which Government was forced to back down from an attempted fraud. There has been a whiff of scandal in the air since the President announced plans to revive Uganda Airlines last year. Created by statute in 1976 and privatised in 2001, the plan was to revive the airline through a Public Private Partnership scheme. With the public still reeling from revelations that an intended PPP for the construction of a private hospital has been transformed into a $300 million build-and-operate contract awarded to a shady Italian firm called Finasi, and wholly financed by a promissory note from Government, last week was the wrong time to attempt the flying crane heist.

The country is notorious for disastrous PPPs. In 2017 the Auditor General reviewed the functions of the PPP Unit and reported: “The position of Director (head of the PPP Unit) had not been substantively filled despite its critical importance to the functioning of the Unit and the PPP Committee. The current Head of the Unit has been in acting capacity since 2015. In addition, the key positions of the PPP unit such as communication expert, project finance expert, legal expert, technical expert, and technical specialist were also vacant. This means that the PPP unit cannot provide the technical, financial and legal expertise to the PPP Committee and project teams established by contracting authorities as required under the Act.” [Emphasis mine]

Who owns the new Uganda Airlines? It does not appear on the books of Uganda Development Corporation, the investment arm of government. The Auditor-General does not include it in his tables of State enterprises, either active or dormant.

This writer commented at the time that keeping all the key technical positions vacant enabled the junta to override the functions of the PPP Unit and implement projects over which there has been no technical, financial or legal oversight.

An old rumour has resurfaced that Sam Kutesa, the President’s brother-in-law and Minister for Foreign Affairs, acquired the brand ‘Uganda Airlines’ and required billions of shillings in compensation to surrender it to the State.

As with the contract to build Lubowa Hospital awarded to Finasi, so with the formation and financing of Uganda Airlines. No procurement procedures were apparent when aeroplanes were ordered, two of which are to be delivered this April at a cost of UGX 280 billion ($75,380,200.00). Nobody could or would answer the question: who owns the new Uganda Airlines? It did not appear on the books of Uganda Development Corporation, the investment arm of government. The Auditor-General did not include it in his tables of State enterprises, either active or dormant, loss-making or profitable.

Privatisation has generally been a massive looting exercise by the junta that rules Uganda. Various family members own or owned various assets divested by the State. Caleb Akandwanaho (aka Gen. Salim Saleh), the President’s immediate younger brother, was forced to resign his seat in parliament after fraudulently acquiring Uganda Commercial Bank.

An old rumour has resurfaced that Sam Kutesa, the President’s brother-in-law and Minister for Foreign Affairs, acquired the brand ‘Uganda Airlines’ and required billions of shillings in compensation to surrender it to the State. Kutesa’s censure by parliament in 1999 for the irregular acquisition of the once State-owned cargo and ground handling service company, the only profitable part of the privatised Uganda Airlines was still fresh in people’s minds. That same year, a parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the sale of the ground handling service to Kutesa’s Entebbe Handling Services (ENHAS) and the sovereign routes.

Privatisation has generally been a massive looting exercise by the junta that rules Uganda. Various family members own or owned various assets divested by the State. Caleb Akandwanaho (aka Gen. Salim Saleh), the President’s immediate younger brother, was forced to resign his seat in parliament after fraudulently acquiring Uganda Commercial Bank, the country’s largest commercial bank.

In a report, policy researcher, Wairagala Wakabi noted:

“At the time, the World Bank noted these and other serious flaws in the privatisation programme. It said a number of privatisation transactions had been unsuccessful and “the program has been widely criticised for non-transparency, insider dealing, conflict of interest and corruption.” Besides this, the Privatisation Unit, the agency responsible for carrying out privatisation, was unable to collect many outstanding payments for firms which were sold on a deferred payment basis, and questions had been raised about the use of the funds in the divestiture account.” Bringing affordable telecommunications services to Uganda: A policy narrative and analysis W. Wakabi, 2009.

The current re-nationalisation is proving to be just as opaque. The facts relating to the ownership of the resuscitated Uganda Airlines only began to emerge when the Ministry of Works had to submit a request for a budget supplement to complete payment for the planes. Although the order had been made months earlier, there was no provision for it after Export Development Canada pulled out of negotiations in September 2018. At the time, Canada’s action was thought to be related to the state brutality that erupted in Arua in August. Whatever the reason, the aircraft were ready for delivery this April after payment. The public maintained pressure on government via social media and two opposition MPs Joy Atim Ongom and Winnie Kiiza led the charge in the House. The Ministry tabled its request before a belligerent Parliament. The first objection was that the State had been allocated only two out of two million shares (0.0001%) in Uganda National Airlines Company Limited, (UNAC) the new entity that was going to run the airline. The 1,999,998 unallocated shares became the focus. To whom did they or would they belong? Is UNAC in fact a State Enterprise?

The first objection in Parliament was that the State had been allocated only two out of two million shares (0.0001%) in Uganda National Airlines Company Limited, (UNAC) the new entity that was going to run the airline.

The risk was that having passed UNAC off as a State enterprise thereby securing State funding, the drivers of the project – who remain unknown – could then allocate shares to ‘investors’ via the usual middlemen. The experience of Uganda Telecoms is indicative of this modus operandi.

In the beginning, the State held a 49 percent stake in UTL, selling 51 percent to investors. UTL also retained residual rights to license value added services. Currently the State holds only a 31 percent stake. Furthermore, no value-added service provider can operate without getting past MTN, a potential competitor allowed to begin operating before UTL , formerly the telecoms segment of the old state-owned Uganda Posts and Telecommunications Company, had been relaunched. With its history, infrastructure and brandname, MTN therefore holds a massive advantage in the telco market.

Minister Azuba Ntege gave an uncharacteristically embarrassed response for the NRM government and withdrew the submission to ‘correct the errors.’ The Speaker allowed her a day. The following morning the Minister arrived with fresh forms, updated to allocate 100 percent of UNAC shares to government.

“The sale of the 18 percent public holding was queried by the Public Accounts Committee not least because it flouted the requirement that the shares be valued by at least three qualified valuers (and not a mere broker) and advertised for sale to attract the best offer,” explains Wakabi in his report.

The Uganda Airline operators, whom the Ministry of Works is fronting, have been less fortunate. Minister Azuba Ntege gave an uncharacteristically embarrassed response for the NRM government and withdrew the submission to ‘correct the errors.’ The Speaker allowed her a day. The following morning the Minister attended the Budget Committee with fresh forms, updated to allocate 100 percent of UNAC shares to government. At that point the registrar of companies, Uganda Registration Service Bureau (URSB), announced that the updated articles and memo of the company were null and void. One reason for this was that the share allocation did not reflect the history of the initial allocation of two shares.

During the UNAC debate, Movement MPs pleaded that the State was days away from penalties for non-payment; an earlier deadline had been missed in December and the $27 million deposit stood to be lost.

It seems the effect was that a new entity was being formed with an initial allocation of 100 percent of the shares to the State. If so, that would have raised the question: who ordered the Bombardiers in 2018? It could not have been a company formed in March 2019. The question remains unanswered. Another mystery centres on the entity called Uganda Airlines Limited registered in 1999 and which has had no operations since. URSB even wrote to government in 2017 advising them that Uganda Airlines Ltd could be operationalised. Government preferred to register the new entity, UNAC Limited, in January 2018.

During the UNAC debate, Movement MPs pleaded that the State was days away from penalties for non-payment; an earlier deadline had been missed in December and the $27 million deposit stood to be lost. None addressed the issue that the State was in fact not liable in the event of UNAC defaulting.

A third set of papers was presented with effusive apologies from both ministers: “The registration process had gaps and I regret on behalf of myself, ministry and government. I beg to withdraw those documents,” apologised Minister Ntege. They now held all the shares in their capacities as public servants and not individuals. The government had no option but to accept radical amendments to the report of the Budget Committee that had spearheaded the defence against this latest attempt to raid the Treasury.

We are not out of the woods yet. There remains the issue of the two Airbus A330 aircraft ordered from Rolls Royce. It must be pointed out that the vendor, Rolls Royce has a long record of engaging in the kind of business practices for which Patrick Ho was convicted.

The ownership issue was sorted out with a resolution to transfer UNAC to Uganda Development Corporation. Ground handling services are to be re-nationalised regardless of the fact that Kutesa has allegedly sold ENHAS to NAS, allegedly a Kuwaiti entity. It is worth noting that there were rumours of this transaction around the same time that one Patrick Ho was being indicted in a New York court in 2017 for bribing both Kutesa and the President for oil and other business rights. (When Enhas was mentioned in parliament, Beatrice Anywar MP, who recently deserted the Opposition front bench for the NRM, was seen to leave her seat and in highly unorthodox fashion, whisper in to the ear of the Deputy Speaker. He waved her away).

We are not out of the woods yet. There remains the issue of the two Airbus A330 aircraft ordered from Aerospace and powered by a Rolls Royce engine.

In this case there should be more time to scrutinize the business case for the investment, something not done with the earlier ones because of the payment deadline. It must be pointed out that Rolls Royce, which issued a press release welcoming Uganda’s decision and looking forward to developing its relationship with Uganda Airlines, has a long record of business practices for which Patrick Ho was convicted.

Due diligence demands that Ugandans ask: Who negotiated with Rolls Royce for the Airbus aircraft? Did they receive a bribe? Having interrupted a burglary in progress, they need to be on the lookout for other attempts to milk the Treasury.

Following an investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office, it was found that Rolls Royce exchanged bribes for business with officials across the globe. The operation continued for 24 years before Rolls Royce reached a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) in 2017 under which individual officials would not be prosecuted but Rolls Royce would pay penalties of US$800 million for bribery in Angola, Nigeria and South Africa as well as Azerbaijan, Brazil, India, China, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia.

The judge found:

“v. […] substantial funds being made available to fund bribe payments.

vi) The conduct displayed elements of careful planning.”

Due diligence demands that Ugandans ask: Who negotiated with Rolls Royce for the Airbus aircraft? Did they receive a bribe? Having interrupted a burglary in progress, they need to be on the lookout for other attempts to milk the Treasury through this enterprise. The greatest weakness is that private operating capital will have to be found because Isimba and Karuma Dams are ahead of the airline in the financing queue and have not yet found the public funds needed to transmit the power they will generate. There is also the proposed oil pipeline and refinery for which investors are either not forthcoming or remain cautious. How the shares are sold and to whom is key.

Regarding any compensation for ground handling, if this service was illegally carved out of Uganda Airlines and in fact led to its collapse and sale, there should be no obligation to compensate NAS. It would be interesting to find out if in fact NAS is not Sam Kutesa in disguise.

With respect to the Airline, parliament adopted a business plan that they have not seen and whose profitability is questionable. It may have made sense for private individuals to own 99 percent of it, and operate a business for which all funding and liabilities are borne by the government, but it may not make sense for government to own 100 percent, and operate an airline when other regional airlines are struggling. Previous efforts by private entities in Uganda have not been successful, all but one failing for lack of cash, a shortage of which, incidentally, is also haunting Government.

In 2020, the grace period on 19 loans (including for the Entebbe Airport expansion and the Expressway) will expire requiring government to allocate 65 percent of her revenues to debt servicing. With 44 percent of revenues currently being devoted to debt service, the economic situation is already untenable for the majority who use neither the airport nor the expressway. The fiscal crunch is characterised by drug-stock-outs in health centres and lack of teaching materials in State schools. Feeder roads by which smallholders (80 percent of the population) transport their produce are in a dire state. Their maintenance requires UGX 800 billion ($215 million) a year but the government was only able to manage a fixed amount of UGX 417 billion for the three years up to June 2018.

In A brief chronological history of Uganda Airlines, Kikonyogo Douglas Albert gives an insight into the vicissitudes of the air transport sector. In 2001 Africa One opened and closed within the year owing to limited capitalization; East African Airlines with a single ageing Boeing 737-200 running flights within East Africa, to Dubai and South Africa lasted five years before an investment shortfall forced it to close in 2007. Royal Daisy Airlines founded in 2005 lasted five years.

Government ventured back into the industry in 2006, investing in a 20 percent share of Victoria International Airlines regular flights to South Africa, Sudan and Nairobi. This venture too suffered from inadequate capitalization and closed after only 2 months. Finally, the Aga Khan Group’s Air Uganda started regional operations in 2007 and stopped in 2014 after the International Civil Aviation Authority Organization November raised technical queries.

Signs of incompetent management have manifested sooner than expected. Although the Ministry states 12 pilots have been recruited at UGX 42m ($11,307) a month and 12 co-pilots at UGX 38 m ($10,230.17), and promised Parliament to table their professional records, on 31 March it transpired the airline may actually not have pilots. Documents were leaked to NTV Uganda investigative journalist, Raymond Mujuni, showing that owing to a dispute over pay, they have not reported to work objecting to salaries apparently lower than those of Kenya Airways and Rwandair pilots. The pilots also want permanent terms (which would make them eligible for massive pensions – Uganda has no public service pensions fund and billions are owed to Uganda Communications Employees Contributory Pensions Scheme (UCECPS) pensioners in arrears).

The airline immediately tweeted a disclaimer urging the public to ignore the report. Given the choice of R. Mujuni, a competent investigative journalist, and the shady airline company, a vigilant public might be more inclined to believe the pilots are on strike. Now that it is a public enterprise, the Auditor General and Inspector General of Government will need to pay particular attention to the Flying Crane. An important line of enquiry is whether the jobs were advertised and whether or not the recruits are beneficiaries of the controversial State House scholarship scheme, the educational arm of the junta.

As it is, the airline is to be launched in April. So far there has been no marketing of the maiden flight. The challenges ahead notwithstanding, after 33 years of fiscal abuse by Yoweri Museveni’s regime, Uganda was able to stop another heist of public funds. What made it even more beautiful was the fact that the methods used were parliament and the media.

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