Martin Shikuku is dead at 79

Veteran Kenyan politician Martin Shikuku is dead at 79. Mr. Shikuku is believed to have succumbed to cancer at a Nairobi hospital. The former Butere MP was one of the most valiant civil rights and reform activists in Kenya – going all the way back to the Kenyatta Administration. He was member of parliament for Butere from 1963-1997 and participated at the Lancaster conference that drafted Kenya’s independence constitution.

 

 

Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is dead at 57

The BBC reports:

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57, state media say, after weeks of illness. A government spokesman said Mr Meles had died in a hospital abroad – but did not say exactly where or give details of his ailment. Speculation about his health mounted when he missed an African Union summit in Addis Ababa last month.

Mr. Zenawi is believed to have died in a Belgian hospital – the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels (where he was allegedly receiving treatment for an acute case of hematologic cancer). The last time he was seen in public was on the 19th of June 2012 at the G20 summit in Mexico.

For now the leadership transition in Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country, appears to have gone smoothly. According to the BBC report, the deputy Premier – Hailemariam Desalegn – will take over.

Mr. Desalegn is from the south of Ethiopia, away from the political centre of gravity of the country, which for centuries has been to the north – in Tigray and Amhara dominated areas.  

It is not yet clear if the smooth transition will stick. As the Economist reported a couple of weeks ago:

“power [in Ethiopia] has still rested with a clutch of Mr Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, many of them once members of a Marxist-Leninist group that used to admire Albania’s long-serving Communist leader, the late Enver Hoxha. This hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style”, according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn. Were Mr Meles to leave in a hurry, relations between the young modernisers and the powerful old guard might fray.”

Under Mr. Zenawi (May 1991- Aug. 2012) Ethiopia was a mixed bag. His rule was characterized by one of the worst human rights records in the world. But he also brought some semblance of stability following the misguided and murderous Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of the Derg under Mengistu Haile Mariam; and presided over an economy with one of the fastest growth rates on the Continent.

It is also under Meles Zenawi that Ethiopia invaded Somalia to rid it of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was beginning to spread Somalia’s chaos into Ethiopia’s Ogaden region (it helped that the U.S. also wanted the ICU ousted from Mogadishu because of their alleged links of al-Qaeda).

A recent profile in the Atlantic summarizes it all:

“for every Muammar Qaddafi there’s a Meles Zenawi, the shrewd, technocratic Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Inside of the country, he’s known for imprisoning his political opponents, withholding development assistance from restive areas, stealing elections, and cracking down on civil society NGOs. In the rest of the world, he’s often praised for his impressive economic record, though not for his human rights. Zenawi has attracted Western support by being a responsible steward of aid money, a security partner in a rough region, and a G20 summit invitee.”

I remain cautiously optimistic that the Ethiopian ruling elite will pull through the rocky transition period. The next elections are due in 2015. In the current parliament the ruling party, the EPRDF, and its allies control nearly all of the 547 seats.

Beyond Ethiopia’s borders, the absence of Mr. Zenawi will certainly be felt in Somalia (which is presently struggling to get on its feet after decades of total anarchy and whose government partly depends on Ethiopian troops for security) and South Sudan (where Addis Ababa has been a broker in past conflicts between Khartoum and Juba). Ethiopia’s hostile relationship with Eritrea might also experience some change, most likely for the worse as whichever faction emerges victorious in Addis engages in sabre rattling in an attempt to prove their hold on power.

Is our children learning? (Credit to Bushism)

The Guardian reports:

More than two out of every three pupils who have finished two years of primary school in east Africa fail to pass basic tests in English, Swahili or numeracy, according to a new report, Are our children learning?.

The differences in performance vary both across and within countries:

The report found large differences in average test scores between countries in east Africa. Kenyan pupils perform best in literacy and numeracy. Ugandan children perform worst in the lower school years, but slowly overtake Tanzanian children and outperform them after six years in school.

But it is the within-country differences that are cause for a rethink of education policy in east Africa. Kids in private schools appear to do much better than those in public schools (the gap is most stark in Tanzania, 28 percentage points). The Ugandan school system appears to be the worst, with barely half of EVEN the private school kids passing.

In a finding likely to fuel the debate on public versus private schools, the report said students in private schools perform better than pupils in state schools in all three countries – a difference particularly marked inTanzania, where the pass rate among 10 to 16-year-olds for numeracy and literacy tests was 47% in state schools, compared with 75% in private schools.

“In part, the difference between Tanzania and the other countries is likely to be driven by the much smaller share of pupils attending private schools, even among the non-poor, suggesting they must be particularly selective,” said the report. In Kenya, the pass rate in private schools was 83%, compared with 75% in government schools, while in Uganda the gap was 53% to 36%.

As a product of the Kenyan public school system (and a Wazimba for life), I believe that public schools are the way to go. With some thought and innovation, public schools can be made to work – and in the process serve as the best chance for inter-generational SES mobility. The debate should be about how to improve public schools, as opposed to over the false choice of quantity vs. quality.

A possible model could be something akin to the Kenyan National Schools concept in which select schools across the country get extra resources not only to boost performance but also to act as testing grounds for new learning tools – which can then inform policy to help “Provincial Schools” catch up. Of course this would ineluctably create a multi-tier school system at the beginning, but it is arguably better than a system in which most (if not nearly all, see Uganda and Tanzania) public schools are failing.

It is important to note that in Kenya the best high schools have historically been public. With investment and openness to experimentation and innovation this tradition can be maintained.

H/T @AAA_ipregroup 

On technology, governance and development

By now many of you have perhaps seen the takedowns of TED talks (see here, highly recommended), which some think have become rather pedestrian (I still find most TED talks insightful, just for the record).

The pushback against the belief among some disciples of TED talks that technology is the answer to all of humanity’s problems (whether this depiction is accurate or not) also speaks to the issues of governance and development. As Shea, the Journal’s blogger points out:

……. Morozov also detects, besides superficiality, a distinctively TED-style attitude toward politics in which institutions and democratic debate are derided and technology is looked to as a deus ex machina that will solve such once-intractable problems as poverty and illiteracy—obviating those pesky voters and squabbling elected leaders.

The global “development sector” has recently seen a wave of tech-inspired attempts to accelerate development by bypassing politics and other socio-cultural inhibitors, with little success (development economists are also implicated here). The lesson that many have missed is that bad governance and underdevelopment are not primarily technical problems that can be fixed by experts. Many have fallen to the temptation of thinking that,

…. technology is an autonomous force with its own logic that does not bend under the wicked pressure of politics or capitalism or tribalism; all that we humans can do is find a way to harness its logic for our own purposes. Technology is the magic wand that lifts nations from poverty, cures diseases, redistributes power, and promises immortality to the human race.

The characterization of governance and development as purely technical risks abstracting too much away from the human beings that development is supposed to help. Think of how scientific communism worked out. Statements like the one below are a reminder that bad ideas die hard.

Using technology to deliberate on matters of national importance, deliver public services, and incorporate citizen feedback may ultimately be a truer form of direct participation than a system of indirect representation and infrequent elections. Democracy depends on the participation of crowds, but doesn’t guarantee their wisdom. We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens…. To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.”

The problem, of course, is that more often than not these “technocrats” in the poor countries of the world (read those with the most and biggest guns, a.k.a autocrats) are woefully incompetent (see here) and never observe their term limits (this classic on dictatorship comes to mind).

The question of what to do with the relatively more competent autocrats will be the subject of a future post.

H/T Ideas Market

Energy in East Africa

Still on my ongoing project on commodities in Africa, I came across an interesting piece on prospecting for oil in East Africa in which an industry expert had this to say:

The success rate in this region is outstanding. To provide some context, oil and gas exploration typically has a success rate just 10-20%. That’s terrible when you think about. It can cost $50 million to sink an offshore well, and the chance of making a financial return could be as low as one in ten.

But East Coast African energy exploration stands out from the crowd because in all but a few cases they hit oil or gas. To be exact — the success rate has been 87%. A strike rate of close to 9 out of 10 is almost unheard of.

Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda have commercially viable oil reserves. Tanzania has gas and, together with Kenya, has stepped up offshore prospecting in the Indian ocean.

And it is not just foreign MNCs that are in on the game. Locals, in collaboration with foreign investors, are also getting a piece of the energy bonanza in East Africa. Business Daily, a Kenyan paper, recently profiled one George Kariithi, a businessman who started off as a marketing executive and has since built multiple companies in the wider region. His latest investment is in Kenya’s emerging coal sector.

Why explore space while millions starve on earth?

As we await more tantalizing images and results from NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover it is important to ponder the real aim of research, even research that at times seems pointless and wasteful in light of other pressing concerns. Here’s a recap of an exchange from an earlier time regarding a possible exploration mission to the red planet.

In 1970, a Zambia-based nun named Sister Mary Jucunda wrote to Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then-associate director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in response to his ongoing research into a piloted mission to Mars. Specifically, she asked how he could suggest spending billions of dollars on such a project at a time when so many children were starving on Earth. 

Dr. Stuhlinger wrote back, in part saying:

…… I know that you do not expect an answer such as “Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!” In fact, I have known of famined children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible. However, I believe, like many of my friends, that travelling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now, and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.

More on this (highly recommended) here.

H/T @vkwhatt

Quick hits

HIV self-testing showing promising results in Malawi.

Kenyan legislators, who make upwards of $175,000 a year, now have $3000 chairs to snooze on.

Jina Moore on the white correspondent’s burden in “Africa.”

This sad event in Zambia adds significance to my planned fieldwork there in the coming year on Chinese-African relations.

And lastly, celebrating the informal economy on the Continent:

Give Kagame a break!

I admire Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society. That said, I disagree with the concluding paragraph in his latest post on the Rwandese military’s involvement in eastern Congo over at African Arguments:

“When a similar situation occurred in Sierra Leone, the Special Court for Sierra Leone went after the main supporters and funders of the rebel movement, in particular the President of Liberia, Charles Taylor. He was recently sentenced to 50 years in jail for his part in funding the murder and destruction of Sierra Leone. Yet the evidence of Rwanda’s support for warring groups in Congo is as strong – if not stronger – than the evidence that convicted Taylor. But because of the genocide in Rwanda and because both Uganda and Rwanda have good development programmes that western donors love to fund, they will not be criticised. Eastern Congo will continue to suffer.”

Following the damning UN report on Kigali’s adventures in the Congo and concerted campaigns by human rights activists, a number of donor countries, including the US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands, have (unwisely) stopped sending aid money to Kigali.

I am inclined to believe that there is truth to the claim that Rwanda supports the M23. But that does not necessary lead me to conclude that Rwanda should therefore be ostracized by the international community, for the following reasons:

  • Rwanda faces a real security threat from rebels in eastern Congo. Kagame is a dictator, no doubt about that (He is not your average tin pot dictator, but that’s beside the point for now). But he is also a purveyor of order in this rather volatile region of central Africa. The last thing eastern and central Africa needs is a slow motion civil war as is currently underway in Burundi. As long as Kinshasa’s incompetence continues to provide a safe launching base for rebels aiming to depose Kagame, Kigali will have no option but to (rightly so) intervene in eastern Congo. Let us not pretend otherwise.
  • The insurgencies in eastern Congo are a direct result of Kinshasa’s calculated inability to project power and control. In this instance, I think the Huntongian view that degree of government matters trumps concerns over the type of government. Eastern Congo needs order, period. Attempts at political negotiations with the numerous rebel factions must also be accompanied with strong military action to defeat all the rebel movements that refuse to come to the table. Kinshasa’s continued failure at either attempt leaves Rwanda no option but to step in in light of the observation above.

In a way the campaign to have Rwanda punished for its adventures in the DRC is emblematic of the problems associated with “mono issue activism” (Remember the danger of a single story?)

This is not a defense of Kagame’s human rights record. Everyone knows it is in the toilet. It is also not a blanket endorsement of foreign interventionism. What it is is an acknowledgement of the very complex context in which Kagame acted, and a consideration of the unintended consequences of cutting aid to Rwanda.

Rwanda’s involvement is a symptom of, and not the cause of the mess that is eastern DRC.

To those that want Kigali punished, I ask: What would it mean for Rwanda’s and the wider region’s security? What would it mean for economic growth and development for the 12 million Rwandese? What would it mean for infant and maternal mortality that have been on the decline (more rapidly than in most of the developing world) over the last decade?

Punishing Kagame (and the people of Rwanda) for Kinshasa’s ineptitude will not solve the problems in eastern Congo. That is just a fact.

UPDATE:

Please check out the comments section below for some insightful discussion on this subject. Despite the combativeness of some of the comments, they all raise some important points that I could not have incorporated in a short blog post.

The Material Value of the Kenyan Presidency

The following campaign message by Martha Karua, a presidential candidate in Kenya’s election in March of 2013, highlights the material value of the Kenyan presidency.

“Tufanye hesabu tena…Let’s count the cost and keep all of us accountable. A recent research suggested that some presidential candidates will spend as much as Ksh. 11 billion shillings ($130 million) each to try and capture the presidency. Now, at around Ksh. 3.2 million a month including allowances, the President of Kenya earns Ksh 38.4 million ($452,000) a year, much more than what President Obama, the German Chancellor and the PM of England earn, and which translates to Ksh. 192 million in a five year term. So in one five year term, the most a president can hope to earn is around Ksh. 192 million, quite a substantial sum by world standards.

My question; why would anyone spend Ksh. 11 billion to only earn Ksh. 192 million? Does this math add up to you dear Kenyans? How would that individual be hoping to recover the remaining Ksh. 10.78 billion to cover their campaign expenses including buying of votes and bribery? The answer is simple! Corruption and impunity! Inflated government tenders to well connected family and friends. These inflated tenders drive the cost of living for all Kenyans sky high, the very reason ordinary Kenyans can barely make ends meet last 49 years!
Do the Math!”