Friday, October 28, 2016

Sitting Down With The Devil

Kigali is impressive. From its clean streets and new buildings to the ubiquitous sense of safety and order, it is today hailed as a model for capital cities across the continent. Similarly hailed is the Rwandan government, which has transformed the country, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the 1994 genocide into the rising star of Africa.

Last week, a network of bloggers on the continent, of which I am a part, was invited to a brainstorming session in Kigali over how to engage in policy discourses with governments on the subject of supporting digitally-driven innovation across the continent. The Rwandan state has set itself up as a driving force in the field, with its President, Paul Kagame, chairing the board of Smart Africa, which seeks to “accelerate socio-economic development through information and communications technologies”.

Many of the young, globe-trotting, idealistic individuals I met in these sessions were passionate about the possibilities offered by ICT and the need to engage governments in the effort. However, while I did not doubt their sincerity, what I found disturbing was the seeming blindness to the dangers such engagement may pose.

At about the same time, 750km to the east, yet another State House Summit was getting underway in Nairobi. According to press reports, President Uhuru Kenyatta had invited his administration’s “harshest critics” to a televised pow-wow over corruption. Two specified critics -John Githongo and David Ndii- did not honor the summons earning themselves a Presidential rebuke and much ridicule from ruling party supporters. But I think the two experienced hands had seen something that my friends in Kigali seemed unwilling to acknowledge: that “engagement” is a two-way street. 

In Kenya, as Ndii noted in an article explaining his absence, the problem is neither that government is unaware of corruption nor that it is ignorant of the questions raised about its custody of public finances. Its own agencies have documented much of this. The real problem is the lack of will within the governing elite which perpetrates the looting to do something about it. There is no appetite not just to prosecute friends and political allies, but more fundamentally, to restructure the state to eliminate the opportunities and impunity that incentivize graft.

In such an environment, the State House “engagements” would be of limited utility for those demanding reform and accountability while gifting the government a massive propaganda opportunity to burnish its anti-corruption credentials. In the end, the absence of Githongo and Ndii forced the spotlight back on the government’s lack of action rather than on its rhetoric, which dissolved in a flurry of buck-passing led by the responsibility-ducking Commander-In-Chief, himself. #CryBabyPresident was how Kenyans on Twitter summarized it.

In Kigali, there seemed little understanding that the problems of poverty on the continent do not spring from a lack of knowledge or innovation but rather from a lack of accountability and democracy. The poor Africans my friends sought to help were largely impoverished by the very governments they sought to engage; who were stealing from them, fueling the conflicts that displaced them and denying them a say in decisions affecting their lives. Apart from Kagame, the Smart Africa Board is peopled by such luminaries as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Gabon’s Ali Bongo, South Sudan’s Salva Kiir, Chad’s Idriss Deby, and, of course, Kenya’s Uhuru.

Engagement with such a gang risks affording them an opportunity to hide their sins under the carpet of innovation and broadband access. It risks moving the spotlight away from what they are actually doing to their own citizens and focusing it on their rhetoric of progress and inclusion. It is why, when addressing the meeting in Kigali, Jean Nsengimana, Rwanda’s Minister for Youth and ICT, could bemoan the fact that the continent was not creating billion-dollar “Unicorns” while ignoring that it was very proficient at creating billion-dollar politicians.

In fact, all the talk of transforming communities and making them smarter and more innovative seems to completely elide the fact that it is governments and the states they serve that require transformation. There is little talk of who actually benefits from the ICT Hubs and events established and held across the continent, most in the wealthier parts of capital cities.

And speaking of capital cities, with all its impressive progressive, it is easy to miss what Kigali hides. The unspoken conversations, the disappearances and assassinations, the rounding up of street families so visiting potentates can enjoy a view unblemished by evidence of failure. Yes, Kigali is safe, but safe for whom? Yes, it is clean, but clean for whom? Yes, it works, but works for whom?

These are questions any who purport to be interested in the welfare of the continent’s people, rather than that of “Africa” must be willing to engage with. And while the answers may not necessarily preclude engagement with governments, they will certainly allow us to choose forums that are more likely to deliver real action and change for the people rather than a megaphone for their governments.   

Friday, October 14, 2016

Did Operation Linda Nchi Secure Kenya?

This Sunday will mark the fifth anniversary of the start of Operation Linda Nchi, Kenya’s surprise invasion of Somalia. By the government’s own admission, the October 2011 deployment of the Kenya Defence Forces across the porous border had been long in the planning. A spate of kidnappings of tourists and aid workers in the preceding months by armed gangs based in Somalia, which the state subsequently blamed on the Al Shabaab terror group and which laid waste to the lucrative tourism industry, provided the pretext to launch the first ever major cross-border military operation in the country’s history.

Five years since that fateful decision, and with the Kenyan forces now ensconced within the African Union Mission in Somalia, there has been little public discussion of the wisdom of the incursion and even less of whether the operation achieved its stated objectives.

The Kenyan government had invoked Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which recognizes member nations’ right to self defence as a justification for its actions. And while no one would dispute that Kenya was indeed threatened -and had been severally attacked- by the gangs and extremists on its border, the lingering question was whether sending troops into Somalia was the best way to guarantee domestic safety.

In the short term at least, the decision to invade appears to have backfired spectacularly. Rather than reducing attacks on the homeland, the invasion appears to have opened the floodgates. In the four years following Operation Linda Nchi, terrorist attacks went up nine fold, compared to the four years preceding it. They increased, not just in number, but in ferocity as well. 3 of the 4 worst attacks in terms of lives lost happened after the Somalia invasion. And consistently, the invasion itself was cited as justification for the atrocities.

The aim of creating a buffer zone ad push the militants away from the border similarly remains unachieved. The Al Shabaab are still able to enter Kenyan territory regularly and with relative ease. Attacks on and kidnappings of citizens and security personnel in isolated outposts continue unabated and with impunity.

Neither has the invasion proven particularly decisive in helping to restore order in war-torn Somalia. The government in Mogadishu is as unpopular, riven and ineffectual as ever, popular elections remain a dream and the feckless Somali National Army, which AMISOM is meant to be training up, is little more than a hodge-podge of disparate clan militias. The security situation continues to be dire with Al Shabaab in control of vast swathes of the Somali countryside from where it is able to plan and launch devastating attacks in Somalia and in Kenya.

Nearly a year after the invasion, the Kenyan contingent, now at least nominally directed by the AMISOM Force Commander in Mogadishu rather than the the Ministry of Defence in Nairobi, rolled into the strategic Al Shabaab stronghold at the sea port of Kismayo, to date its most significant achievement.

But even this did not turn out to be the fatal blow many had predicted. Allegations soon surfaced of the KDF engaging in the illegal export of charcoal through the port, a trade that directly benefitted the terror group they were supposed to be fighting. A report by the UN Monitoring Group indicated that Al Shabaab was actually making more money from charcoal after the KDF took over the port.

If anything, the legacy of the operation has been felt much more within Kenya than across the border.  Under the rubric of a country at war, oppressive laws have been enacted which seemed to target internal dissent rather than external aggression. As the Al Shabaab have mercilessly exploited Kenya’s vulnerabilities and exposed security and intelligence failures, “national security” has become a catch-all phrase for the government to avoid accountability. Within the media and the largely silenced civil society, patriotic jingoism has been preferred to sustained scrutiny of the government’s record.

By providing justification for continued attacks on Kenya as well as a cover for government to hide its malfeasance and incompetence, Operation Linda Nchi did little to live up to its billing. On that score, it must be considered a failure.

Friday, October 07, 2016

It's All Fine On Kenyan Roads And Why That's A Bad Thing

This week, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, James Macharia, unveiled the latest government weapon in the war to, in the hackneyed words beloved by our media, “bring sanity to our roads” -instant fines. He gazetted a new list of list of “minor traffic violations” and the corresponding penalties to be paid on the spot without subjecting the motorist to the horror that are Kenyan courts.

For many motorists, any chance to avoid spending interminable hours at the traffic courts for a 30-second ritual where one gets to either admit guilt and be fined an outrageous amount, or deny charge and still get to pay a similar amount as bail, is welcome. In fact, if one was to deliberately design a system to incentivize corruption, it would be hard to beat the combination of our lumbering court system coupled with the humongous penalties prescribed by the traffic act.

But it would be a mistake to take it for granted that the government’s attempt to bypass it is designed to or will actually either ameliorate the dangers on our roads or eliminate the opportunities for graft. History teaches us otherwise. This is in fact not the first time government is using a public uproar over the road carnage as a pretext to institute a new system of fines.

Four years ago, following yet another series of nasty accidents, Parliament passed amendments to the Traffic Act saw a tenfold increase in fines (the very fines the latest regulations are meant to bypass). The bill was signed into law by then President Mwai Kibaki in November and within four months, police were hailing it as a “success”.

Nearly a quarter of a million arrests had been effected and the government had collected half a billion shillings in fines. The number of deaths on the road, however, had barely budged. Kenyans continued dying at a rate of 300 per month even as the state inflated its coffers -such was the definition of success. Perhaps it was the fact that there were expensive election campaigns to be funded rather than the deaths on the roads that was at the forefront of our politicians’ minds when they passed the 2012 amendments. And as another election looms, we cannot discount the possibility that instant fines are just another money grab.

In a statement laying out the case for instant fines, the Director-General of the National Transport and Safety Authority, Francis Meja, noted that one of the challenges the system would inevitably face was in collection of the fines promising the NTSA would push for electronic and mobile payment platforms.

His concerns are borne out by the proceedings of the police vetting exercise conducted by the National Police Service Commissions. The comical attempts by traffic police officers to explain away their astounding wealth and numerous MPESA transactions have been the source of much public merriment and outrage. However, it is unclear how the instant fines will do much more than cap the bribes which will inevitably be demanded – with the unintended consequence of making it cheaper for rougue operators to stay in business.  In 2012, the matatu industry opposed the draconian fines saying they would only result in higher bribes. It is not difficult to see why they are now supporting the new system.

The fate that befell the cashless transit payment system is illustrative. Launched with much fanfare and backed by the best companies in Kenya, it came a cropper, as ably described by Ken Griffith in a 2014 piece, at the junction of crews who must pay matatu owners a fixed amount per day before they get paid and cops under pressure from superiors to hit their MPESA targets. Thus the crews, who are incentivized to do as many laps as possible, need to have ready cash to bribe cops and so would sabotage the cashless system. A similar dynamic was at work when cops insist on manning city roundabouts already governed by traffic lights.

Because instant fines do little to address the structural and systemic roots of the bad behavior on the roads, we can safely predict that they will do little to ease the carnage but will make money for the government. After all, there’s an election coming, remember?