Cambridge Analytica and the 2017 Presidential Election in Kenyan

The underhanded involvement of Cambridge Analytica in the 2017 presidential election in Kenya was already common knowledge among high information elites in the country. But the Channel 4 News expose will certainly make the information accessible to a wider set of Kenyans.

That said, I do not expect it to have any significant effect on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy. His recent rapprochement with Raila Odinga has massively boosted his legitimacy and (for better or worse) refocused Kenyans’ attention away from the electoral injustices and failures that occurred throughout the 2017 election cycle.

I must say that it is disappointing that the Kenyatta campaign outsourced a significant portion of their campaign messaging to a company which clearly has very little knowledge of the Kenyan context.

Such insouciance is signal evidence of Kenyan political elites’ pedestrian approach to tackling the many problems that plague the country.

Will rampant corruption jeopardize Kenya’s ability to prevent future terror attacks?

There is an interesting debate on this question over at the Guardian. Following the terror attack at Westgate Giles Foden made the following claim:

In Kenya crime and terrorism are deeply linked, not least by the failure of successive Kenyan governments to control either……… These attacks are part of a spectrum of banditry, with corruption at one end, terrorism at the other, and regular robbery in the middle. Some Kenyans will feel that the conditions in which the attacks have happened have arisen because of economic growth in a vacuum of governance. Money that should have been spent on security and other aspects of national infrastructure has been disappearing for generations.

Two days ago the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Amina Mohamed, responded to Mr. Foden with a denial of the charge that corruption in the country was in any way related to the failure of security forces to thwart the attack at Westgate. She reminded readers that:

The disasters of 9/11 or the more recent Boston marathon in the US and 7/7 in the UK – both highly developed countries – could hardly be blamed on corruption, so why Kenya? We do not recall Foden blaming corruption within the security agencies involved.

So what is the relationship between corruption and the likelihood of successful future terror attacks in Kenya?

There is no denying the fact that corruption is a huge soft underbelly in the Kenyan state’s fight against al-Shabaab. As I have pointed out before, the attack at Westgate  showed Kenyans that AK-47s are not a menace only in the hands of cattle rustlers or carjackers. They can also be weapons of mass murder. So reports of police reservists renting out their AKs to criminals or being paid by the same criminals to look the other way do not inspire confidence in the government’s ability to prevent future attacks. Indeed last Friday Reuters reported that:

security officers, diplomats and experts describe a security apparatus that may be squandering skills built with the help of U.S., British and other trainers because suspects can buy their way through police checks and poor inter-agency coordination means dots are not joined up.

Add to this the fact that the country has about 600,000 light weapons and small arms in civilian hands (pdf) – including 127,000 illicit guns in Turkana County alone – and you begin to get the picture of why lax law enforcement, partly fueled by lack of funds and poor training and pay of regular police, but also by higher-ups’ venal proclivities, does not bode well for the likelihood of future Westgate-style attacks.

That said, to put terrorism on the same scale as carjacking would be a mistake, especially with regard to how the Kenyan state is likely to react to future threats of terrorism in the wake of Westgate. Obviously, due to entrenched interests and the administrative power (pdf) of the Civil Service the president cannot simply wish away corruption with a stroke of a pen. But he will be under tremendous pressure from the business community (which, in my view, is his number one constituency) to make sure that things that are singularly bad for business – like Westgate-style terror attacks – do not happen in the future.

Regularized murderous banditry in the less governed spaces in Kenya or carjackings in Kileleshwa are different from terror attacks in that the former are often localized “micro-events” on the national stage (even when they are of Baragoi or Tana River or Bungoma proportions) that rarely ever have systemic effects. Westgate, on the other hand, did have a systemic effect. And in a big way. As such I expect that the government will follow the trail and start closing loopholes wherever they are that might be exploited by terrorists in the future. This includes reforming the Kenya Police Service, to the extent that is necessary. It is hard for me to imagine that the president would risk failing to secure reelection just to keep a few corrupt officials happy.

So on balance Westgate might actually lead to a major push to rid critical state institutions of the scourge of corruption and to strengthen them with a view of increasing state capacity.

I could also be totally wrong.

There is a scenario in which the response to Westgate is al-Shabaab-focused and purely driven by the military (which presently has a huge PR problem with the Kenyan public and would want to save face) and other security agencies with little input from the political class. Such an eventuality would be a double bad because of the risk of erosion of civilian control of the military in Kenya (at least at the policy level) as well as a failure to reform critical domestic institutions to reduce the likelihood of future attacks (or attempts to bring back the bad old days…)

All this to say that on the off chance that someone asks you the question in the title of this post, the simple answer would be probably.

On the quality of higher education (and human capital development) in Africa

This post first appeared on the African Development Bank’s Integrating Africa Blog where I am a regular contributor. 

UPDATE: I got an email from readers working with the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE), exactly the kind of collaboration that I am saying is much needed in Africa. Check them out here.

According to The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013, the highest ranked university in Africa, the University of Cape Town, is 113th in the world. The ranking system employs 13 performance indicators that take into account universities’ core functions, including “research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.” Among the leading 400 world academic institutions, there are only four from Africa, all in South Africa. As a region, Africa only has 35 scientists and engineers per million inhabitants, compared with 168 in Brazil, 2,457 in Europe and 4,103 in the United States. The region is clearly behind as far as knowledge production and dissemination is concerned, producing only 1.1 percent of the world’s scientific knowledge, despite comprising more than 13 percent of the global population.

At barely over 8 percent, Africa’s gross enrollment in tertiary institutions of learning is the lowest of any region in the world (UNESCO, 2011). The average enrollment rate for developing countries is 23 percent, and that for advanced countries is 74 percent. Africa’s poor showing in the higher education sweepstakes is both a cause and effect of the region’s poor economic environment. The massive cuts in higher education funding in the wake of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 1990s, even as enrollment more than tripled between 1991 and 2005, have had an adverse impact on quality. And in turn, the lack of high quality tertiary level education has starved the region of high skills needed for efficient allocation of factors of production thereby stunting improvement in productivity, high value addition and research and development. Africa devotes less than 1 percent of its GDP to research and development.

Data from 33 countries for which it is available show that tertiary education financing in the region has declined from a high of US $6,800 per student per year in 1980 to just about $981 in 2005. Over the same period the World Bank decreased its education lending from 17 percent in 1985-89 to just 7.5 percent currently (this is despite the fact that the World Bank nearly doubled its education lending between 2008 and 2009). The decline in public funding in the face of increasing demand for higher education has led to the proliferation of private universities of dubious standards and a bias towards perceived “soft” fields. In 2004 a meager 28 percent of students were enrolled in perceived “hard” disciplines in the sciences and engineering.

A 2008 study of 12 countries showed an increase in public universities from 113 to 188 between 1995 and 2008. Over the same period private universities ballooned from 14 to 107. This rapid increase in the number of universities in the region has not been matched by an increase in the number of trained teaching staff or facilities such as laboratories, libraries, and the like. Indeed, most of the new universities have tended to specialize in vocational subjects that require very little capital and human resource investment. To put it mildly, there is a great mismatch between the region’s development needs and the type of graduates it produces each year.

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An impression of the proposed Konza City in Kenya

The shortage of skills permeates nearly all skill levels, and could get worse as the region’s economy continues to grow over the next two decades. The case of Kenya is illustrative. The country has an ambitious plan to be the information and communication technology (ICT) hub of Eastern Africa (dubbed the “Silicon Savannah”) complete with a proposed $10 billion techno-city (Konza City) situated about 60 kilometres southeast of Nairobi. Already ICT multinationals, including IBM, Microsoft, Google and Intel, have their regional headquarters in Kenya. All this sounds good, except the lack of local skills. IBM’s research lab in Kenya has had to source for top talent among graduates in computer science, electrical engineering, mathematics, and data scientists from American universities. There is still a shortage of required skills among graduates of Kenyan universities. Quality assurance is also lacking, as recent news reports of “theses for hire” have demonstrated.

As the Kenyan case suggests, the lack of sufficient investment in high quality tertiary education has adversely impacted Africa’s ability to realize its economic potential. A 2005 study showed that a one-year increase in the higher education stock of the region could boost growth rate by about 0.63 percentage points. This adds up to an overall increase in income by about 12 percent over five years. For the region to take off economically there is need for greater investment in quality higher education that will train workers for the 21st century economy. But improving the quality of higher education in the region will be a very costly affair. On their own, the region’s countries lack both the resources (on account of their small economies) and demand (on account of their population sizes) to justify the types of investments required. This is where regional cooperation comes in.

Cross-border educational exchanges are not new in Africa, and go back to the pre-independence era. For generations non-Senegalese francophone students have studied in Senegal, seen as a cheap way of getting quality education at par with diplomas from France. Uganda, with East Africa’s top university, Makerere, hosts legions of Kenyan students, eager to avoid congestion and high costs back home. South Africa, with its many quality institutions is also a preferred destination for students from across the continent. These historical cross-border exchanges have led to the formation of regional associations of higher education – the francophone Conseil Africain et Malgache pour l’Enseignement Superieur (CAMES); Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA); Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA); and inter-university cooperation under the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). Continent-wide, the 208-member Association of African Universities (representing 45 countries) is the umbrella organization of the region’s institutions of higher learning.

These associations need to be strengthened and empowered as drivers of regional harmonization of higher education both to facilitate cross-border inter-university mobility of both teachers and students and guarantee quality assurance. As a 2007 World Bank report aptly noted, “regional quality assurance networks are particularly relevant to Africa because of human resource constraints.” On this score the European Higher Education Area provides a possible model. The just over 10 years old Bologna process is working towards ensuring inter-university mobility (in terms of courses, qualifications, and periods of study) as well as a uniform quality assurance standard. In the African context, a continent-wide area of higher education is infeasible because of language and logistical constraints. However, sub-regional areas of higher education, based on the existing associations, provide a possible avenue to invest in a few good institutions of higher learning that can have a demonstrative effect on national institutions as well set high standards of learning. The associations themselves can also serve as certification bodies to ensure a uniform quality assurance standard (see here).

The announcement in late July 2013 of the creation of a new US $154.2 million multinational science, innovation and technology Pan African University (PAU) in the next five years is therefore welcome. (The African Development Bank (AfDB) has pledged a $45 million grant towards the effort.) PAU will be structured around existing institutions of higher learning across Africa’s five sub-regions. Basic sciences, technology and innovation will be based in East Africa; earth and life sciences including health and agriculture in West Africa; governance, humanities and social sciences in Central Africa; water and energy sciences including climate change in North Africa; and space sciences in Southern Africa.

Thus far, discussions over regional integration of systems of higher education have tended to view tertiary institutions as tools for regional economic and political integration – be it in East Africa, Europe or East Asia. However, the creation of stronger regional areas of higher education – especially in a region like Africa – can also be an economically efficient way of facilitating greater investment in higher education to match the demands of a 21st century economy. It is encouraging that current trends signal a move in this direction. University systems in Africa’s sub-regions would be a good place to start.

I conclude with a caution. The rapid increase in the number of public and private universities in Africa over the last two decades has come at the expense of other post-secondary institutions of learning such as polytechnics (this shift has occurred to a lesser extent in francophone Africa than anglophone Africa). In many countries governments have simply converted polytechnics and other constituent colleges into fully-fledged universities. This trend is worrying, especially given the fact that the vast majority of high school leavers on the continent do not make it to university. The low quality of high school education in the region (as demonstrated by the recent mass student failures in Liberia and Tanzania) is yet another reason why these “bridge” tertiary institutions are needed, both to prepare students for university and to impart valuable skills for those that do not eventually make it to university.

The rush to invest in university education should not distract from the fact that vocational post-secondary institutions, such as polytechnics, are an important component of human capital development, even in advanced countries as is the case in Germany (with its impressive “dual system” of training codified in the Vocational Training Act of 1969). As African economies move from dependence on primary commodities to manufacturing and technology, there will be need for skilled workers at all occupational levels. Doing away with vocational post-secondary institutions will only serve to further inhibit the development of adequate and relevant human capital to match the increased demand for skilled workers.

And now onwards with life after fieldwork…

With findings and humility.

And now onwards with life after fieldwork...

What Obama’s re-election means for US Africa Policy

On the 14th of June this year President Obama outlined his policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in the policy statement were four key strategic objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.

In my view, of the four aspirational goals the one that will receive the most attention in the near future will be the third (especially security).

US strategic security interests in Africa mainly involve two key concerns: (1) China’s growing economic presence in the region and (2) the spread of Al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, stretching from Somalia to Mauritania (This is why Mali featured more prominently than the EU in the Presidential foreign policy debate). Before talking about China, here are my thoughts on the US campaign against  al-Qaeda in Africa.

While I don’t foresee any success in the creation of an African base for AFRICOM, the US will continue to cooperate with AU member states in fighting Islamist extremism in the region. The “successful” AU mission in Somalia could provide a blueprint for future operations against potential terror groups. The biggest lesson from Somalia is that the US cannot just pick one nation (in this case Ethiopia) to fight its wars in the region, and that a collaborative effort with the blessing of the regional umbrella organization (the AU) and others such as IGAD can deliver results.

Having helped (both directly and indirectly) in the ouster of Al-Shabaab from strategic locations in Somalia, the next big task will be dealing with the mushrooming Islamist extremism in the Sahel (especially in northern Mali but also in Niger and Nigeria).

The problem of extremism in the Sahel is further compounded by the link of some of the groups to the drug trade flowing from Latin America and into Europe. There is significant evidence that drug money has financed the activities of separatist groups in northern Mali. The fight against these groups will necessarily involve dealing with this crucial source of finance. This means that for the operation to succeed the US will have to engage in capacity building and the strengthening (and clean-up) of security institutions (especially the armies) in states like Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Kenya, among others, in which officials in the security sector have been implicated in the drug trade.

The Sahelian challenge might yet prove more formidable than Somalia. The latter case had relatively stable neighbors that served to contain the anarchy. The Sahel (Sahelistan, if you will) is much larger and includes some of the least governed spaces on the planet.

On China, the US (and for that matter, the rest of the West) has to change its present approach of total freak-out overt suspicion over Chinese involvement in Africa. Africans need protection from China only as much as they need protection from the West. China is not out to “exploit” Africa any more than the West has. Nobody should expect China to engage Africa more benevolently than the West did for the better part of the last 60 years (Mobutu and Bokassa were not that different from Bashir and Mugabe).

A constructive approach ought to include policies designed to strengthen African states so that they can engage China on their own terms. It is ultimately African leaders who mortgage their resources and sovereignty to China (or the West). Instead of focusing too much on China, a better approach might be one that creates strong regional organizations (like the SADC or the EAC) that can improve the bargaining power of African states.

The other policy objectives outlined by Obama appear to fall in the business-as-usual category. Democracy promotion will not yield much in the face of other more pressing priorities (notice how security has triumphed over democracy in Mali). And unless the US is willing to get involved in massive infrastructure projects like China has (last time I checked they were in 35 African states), I don’t see how it can help spur economic growth in the region (AGOA was great, but Africa needs something better). Plus the US continues to be hampered in its development-promotion efforts by its aversion to state industrial policy. It’s about time Foggy Bottom realized that it is really hard to have a thriving private sector and American-style free enterprise in places with bad roads, very few (and bad) schools, and governments that are run by personalist dictators. In these instances some corruption-laden developmental state policies may be the best way to go.

nairobi blasts were grenade attacks

The Daily Nation reports that the blasts at a “NO” rally in Uhuru Park, Nairobi were caused by grenades. This confirms Kenyans’ worst fear – that the explosions were not accidents but an organized attack on those opposed to the draft constitution. One hopes that Kenyan politicians will be sober-minded as the relevant authorities investigate this incident. The last thing we need is careless finger-pointing and sabre-rattling.

I hope that the president and his prime minister will follow on their promise to bring those responsible to book. This is a potentially dangerous attack on Kenya’s young and troubled democracy. Freedom of expression is one of the key pillars of civilized society. This is an attack on every Kenyan’s freedom of expression. Those opposed to the draft constitution should be allowed to do so openly and as loudly as they can, as long as they are within the limits of the law.

Politicians all over Kenya are currently on campaign mode for or against the draft constitution. The referendum on the new document will be held on the 4th of August this year. The main sources of division in the proposed constitution include land management, devolution of power from the centre, inclusion of Kadhi’s courts to adjudicate on Muslim family law and the existence of a loophole that could allow for the legalization of abortion.

jacob zuma: why crash so soon?

Update: President Jacob Zuma agrees that he fathered a child out of wedlock with the 39 year-old daughter of one of his friends. Mr. Zuma is 67. In his statement the President said that he had done the “cultural imperative” of admitting to having fathered the child. A few suggestions for Mr. Zuma and those around him:

– having three wives is bad enough. Concentrate on the job. South Africans are looking up to you

– please fire your communications director. You are really bad with PR

– you are embarrassing the entire Continent. Not just yourself and your immediate family but the entire Continent. The whole 700 million of us.

The BBC reports that Jacob Zuma may have fathered a love child last year. The South African president just recently got married for the fifth time (he has three wives). He is estimated to have about 20 children. Recently when confronted about his rather colorful matrimonial situation Mr. Zuma shot back with the claim that anybody who was against polygamy was a cultural bigot.This is total horse manure. Mr. Zuma should know that culture is not static and that an attack on his wayward habits is not an attack on Zulu culture.

Until recently Mr. Zuma had exceeded expectations. His cabinet appointments (i thought) signaled his pragmatism. He stayed clear of the incendiary demagoguery that characterizes the ANC’s youth wing leader, Julius Malema. Even the media had warmed up a bit to the man who had to wiggle out of corruption and rape charges to become president. For a moment I thought that Mr. Zuma was going to be the nice blend of populism and realistic politicking that had so much eluded the intellectually aloof Thabo Mbeki. South African land reform, a fairer redistribution and creation of wealth (through a more transparent BEE and faster job creation), a reduced crime rate, etc etc seemed somewhat doable because the core of his base was the working class. But as is fast becoming apparent, it appears that the man has decided to let his personal life interfere with his job. I hope this latest incident will embarrass the ANC enough for the party to ask Mr. Zuma to go easy on the distractions and concentrate on his job.

Update: This is the last thing that SA and its ailing economy needs. The tabloid-like headings are soiling the SA presidency.

some good news from Guinea

Abubakar  Diakite, the guy who almost assassinated Guinean dictator Moussa Camara, should be handsomely rewarded. Well, unless he was actually responsible for the massacre of more than 150 pro-civilian-rule opposition protesters last year in which case he should be tried for crimes against humanity and locked away for life. Either way his actions may have put Guinea on the path towards civilian rule. Capt. Camara has agreed to “voluntary exile” (yeah right) in Burkina Faso. His henchmen (now led by his second in command) have also agreed to hand over power to civilians after a six-moth transition period. All active members of the armed forces are barred from running in the elections to be held in six months. This is a good start, although things may yet change.

In other news, the Senegalese President (Abdoulaye Wade) is not smart. Haitians do not need Senegalese land. Haitians need to get their act together in Haiti. He is like the bleeding hearts who are willing to help strangers in foreign lands while their own relatives starve. Senegal has an income per capita of $1600. Life expectancy stands at 59 years. The country also has the 40th worst infant mortality rate in the world. Mr. Wade’s nonsensical grandstanding is an embarrassment.

please do away with the “omnipresent smells of donkey dung”

Big business and economic development in “pristine lands” is awful. Especially if you grew up with the comforts of indoor plumbing and general over-abundance of the purest hedonistic-capitalist kind. It is only when you have the choice to pop in and out of “tropical obscurity” that you would find the intellectual courage to defend a way of life that is just above that of man circa 1750 A.D. Suddenly you find yourself forgetting the basic fact that it is underdevelopment that makes infant mortality, HIV infection rates, gender inequality and a whole lot of other maladies most acute in your presumed tropical paradise.

I am beginning to read things to the effect that the development of a port in Lamu (Kenya) is bad – both for the environment and the local people and their culture. I don’t buy most of the stuff though. The likes of Gettleman want us to believe that people in places like Lamu are inherently anti-development. According to him the people of Lamu “say they are not especially well suited for the mechanized world.” Good for them. They would much rather live with the “omnipresent smells of donkey dung” than have a modern port constructed in their district. This is total horse manure.

Firstly, the environmental costs of having a modern port in Lamu will surely be outweighed by the socio-economic benefits. Oil exports from Uganda and Southern Sudan, among other trading opportunities in the wider region will surely create jobs in the area. Secondly, why should we assume that exposure of Lamu culture to the wider (albeit still not completely apparent) Kenyan Culture is necessarily bad? Aren’t cultures supposed to change with time? Plus if Lamu culture cannot keep up after such an encounter it should be allowed to go the way of the dodo. That is why we build museums.

If it can be done – as it should – the construction of Kenya’s second port in Lamu should be a foregone conclusion. The Kenyan government should make this crystal clear to all the environmentalists and anthropologists concerned.

cannibals in zimbabwe?

The economist reports…

“On one occasion, 15 armed invaders, banging on metal objects and chanting war songs, forced their way into Mr Freeth’s house, threatening to burn it to the ground, kill the two men present, rape the women and eat the three children asleep in their beds. Thanks to an earlier beating, Mr Freeth, an emaciated, soft-spoken man of 40, has never recovered his sense of smell. Mr Campbell, 76, was so badly thrashed that his memory is impaired.”

I had absolutely no idea that Zims were into eating little children. But then again it could just be a case of some air-head Economist reporter (and his/her editors) clinging to the notion of cannibalistic Africans irrationally inclined to commit rape and murder. May they soon realize that the world has moved on.

And dwelling on the issue of white farmers in Zimbabwe, I think it might be time for everyone to look at the facts and accept the truth for what it is. It is true that Robert Mugabe and his marauding thugs have committed economic and other crimes by dispossessing thousands of white Zimbabwean farmers of their land. But it is also true that a tiny section of Zimbabweans who happen to be white own(ed) a disproportionate percentage of the arable land in the country. Add into this imbalance the fact that the land may have been acquired through questionable means a few decades back by the ancestors of these farmers and you have yourself an explosive situation.

It is no wonder that even Morgan Tsvangirai (the reformist Premier of Zim) is, according to the Economist, “blowing hot and cold” on the issue. He knows that he cannot, with a clear conscience, defend the system of land ownership that exists in Zimbabwe.

I am in no way supporting violent seizure of land in Zimbabwe. All I am saying is that there is a case for radical land reform in the country. And this is not a question of race and/or ethnicity. I have seen the same tensions in Kenya – where squatters have clashed with fellow Kenyan ( indigenous) owners of large tracts of land. I am totally against illegal redistribution of land. But at the same time I cannot defend an obviously unjust system of land ownership.

It is sad that Mugabe’s illegal (and at times murderous) repossession of land in the country has overshadowed the real land problem in Zimbabwe – to the extent that even a somewhat respected newspaper like the Economist feels no shame in allowing a subliminally racist line like the one quoted above in its pages.

Ali’s exit was long overdue

In an ideal world the ranking of an institution as the most corrupt in a country is enough reason for the head of that institution to resign or initiate radical reforms to mitigate the situation. But this has never been true for the Kenya Police Force. Every year,  the Kenya Police Force has emerged as the most corrupt institution in the country without serious repercussions at Vigilance House. It therefore came as welcome news when the president announced today the replacement of Major General Ali with Mathew Iteere as Police Commissioner.

Ali tried to rein in organized crime and to tame the proscribed Mungiki sect. The executive lacked the political will to let him finish the job and Ali lacked the spine to take the fight to those who stood in his way. He was also anti-reform, which must be the main reason why the president has chosen to show him the door. His legacy will forever be tarnished by the force’s extra-judicial killings that took place on his watch. But he will also be remembered as the no-nonsense commissioner who moved the force from the backward days of the Nyayo era police state towards a force befitting a quasi-democracy. Many would agree that for a reformer he lasted for too long at the helm and therefore failed  (kind of like what will become the fate of his former boss, President Kibaki).

Mr. Iteere, from the paramilitary GSU, comes in at a time when the force needs urgent structural and operational reforms (as recommended by the Ransley report). I know nothing about the man but I hope he is strong enough to stand up to the president’s  men (and increasingly the Premier’s men too) who might stand in his way. We wish him well.

gettleman does it again

Do not get me wrong. Jeffrey Gettleman’s story on the famine in Kenya is as important as any other article on a humanitarian disaster. It is his delivery that sucks. In typical Gettleman fashion (more about his style here and here), the article is full of sensationalism that does not belong in the Times. He goes way out of his way to depict all Kenyans as hapless, passive victims of the weather and their ineffectual government.

“The aid community here has been predicting a disaster for months, saying that the rains had failed once again and that this could be the worst drought in more than a decade. But the Kenyan government, paralyzed by infighting and political maneuvering, seemed to shrug off the warnings.”

Lines such as these are meant to convey the message that ordinary Kenyans – meteorologists and even some civil society organizations or even the Kenyan media – have had nothing to say about the famine that is affecting the country. It is the do-gooder foreigners who know it all that have warned the intransigent government. It is the same foreigners who are expected to send in food aid to help the dying Kenyans. Nothing is ever said about local initiatives to mitigate the disaster. That would give agency to Kenyans, and nobody really wants to read about that.

Instead we are told that “Turkana men are abandoning families, simply vanishing into the desert because they cannot face the shame of being unable to feed their children.” And the story would not be complete without the mention of tribal conflict. So even though it is obvious, and quite rational, that in times of acute scarcity there would be conflict over resources – and even Mr. Gettleman acknowledges this – there is still subliminal hints to an irrational ethnic conflict between the Turkana and the Pokot. Again, nobody wants to hear about rational people fighting over resources. No, being in northern Kenya is like “stepping back in time.” The place is full of starving people who engage in irrational tribal wars. This is the much more sexier story.

May be I am holding Gettleman to too high a standard. After all he is an American lacking enough knowledge of local conditions to appreciate the nuances involved even in the midst of such disasters. But he is the Times’ bureau chief and because of that people take what he writes seriously. There must be a more humane way of telling the world about the problems afflicting the inhabitants of the arid and semi arid parts of Kenya.

another african big man won’t leave

Mamadou Tandja, the president of Niger, yesterday announced that he will ignore a court order against a referendum on whether to extend his rule or not after his term expires later this year, adding that he will continue to rule by decree. Mr. Tandja has been in office since 1999 and is constitutionally barred from running for a third term. His second term ends later this year. The country’s parliament was dissolved in May. It is unclear whether parliamentary elections scheduled for August 2oth will be held.

Niger, a nation of 15 million, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its per capita income is US $700 despite being a major uranium exporter. Most Nigeriens depend on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood in this mostly desert country. Ever shortening drought cycles, continued desertification in the Sahel and a rapid population growth have conspired to retard meaningful economic development.

It’s weird how things never change. We have heard this story countless times in many an African country. President Tandja belongs to the crazy bunch running the Continent who see themselves as irreplaceable demiurges entitled to rule for life. What amount of hubris would make a scarcely educated 71 year old man think that there is no one else in a country of 15 million that can fill his shoes? And given the dismal state of Niger’s economy it can’t be that hard to outdoor Mr. Tandja. He should simply go home.

rather alarming developments

I just read this article on the Economist website on the security situation in Southern Sudan. The piece reminded me of posts I made on this blog a while back about nomadic pastoralism and other supposedly “African” ways of life.

The strongly worded emails that I got over these two posts notwithstanding, I still stand by them. I think that it is time we woke up and faced the truth. Subsistence agriculture, nomadic pastoralism and the isolated rural life that characterizes most of Africa are inefficient at best and the real causes of African poverty at worst. Economic history shows that the percentage of a state’s population involved in agriculture is inversely proportional to per capita GDP. Forgive the cliche, but numbers don’t lie (at least not all the time).

Now I am not advocating for Soviet-style relocation of whole populations or anything close to that. But African governments ought to be cognizant of the above mentioned trend and so offer incentives to their nomadic communities to settle down (plus it easier to provide public goods to sedentary populations)  and encourage rural farmers to consolidate their production.

I say this with a firm belief in agriculture as a pillar of economic development. Again, the history books show us that agriculture, textiles and construction comprise the holy trinity of economic development. This was true for England during the Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th century and is still true today. Starving, unclothed and homeless people will not magically start thinking about how to land a man on Mars.

giving a voice to the voiceless

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has a piece on the plight of women in rural Africa. The story is as heartwrenching as it is evocative. Nearly one in ten women die during childbirth in rural Africa. Getting pregnant is almost a death sentence for these women. Poor nutrition, poverty (which forces pregnant women to engage in hard labor that further endanger their lives) and regressive cultural practices – like genital mutilation – make childbearing a most dangerous activity.

A while back I wrote a piece on this same issue with figures from IRIN. I am glad and encouraged that Kristof is shining an infinitely bigger spotlight on this issue. The world needs to know more about the voiceless poor in rural Africa and the rest of the Global South who are condemned to live short and brutish lives dictated by their dire economic situations and formidable structural factors (poor governance, gender bias, dependency etc etc) that forever condemn them to live like it is still 20,000 BC.

As Kristof notes in his piece, it does not take much to make a difference. Four dollars can save a woman’s life. But such measures should be seen as band aid. The real cure for the healthcare mess that persists in rural Africa is education of women (and men). Statistics have proven again and again that educated women have fewer, healthier children. Education also serves to delay the onset of childbearing, therefore avoding the dangers associated with teenage motherhood.

The right to life is the most sacred human right. The poor women of the Global South deserve better than they are getting from both their governments and the international community at large.