Xi’s power grab in China is a big deal

Regularized and predictable change of leadership is perhaps the most important indicator of political development. It doesn’t matter if such changes occur through popular elections (as in electoral democracies), boardroom meetings (in party dictatorships), or through inheritance (as in monarchies). Predictability provides stability and allows for the cultivation of elite consensus over a system of rule. It also provides the background conditions necessary for the rule of law to emerge. A situation in which rules change with rulers is hostile to constitutionalism.

jinpingThis is precisely why life presidencies are sub-optimal. Long tenures eventually convince even the most democratic of leaders that they are above the law. They freeze specific groups of elites out of power. And remove incentives for those in power to be accountable and to innovate.

For a while China seemed to have turned this corner, having imposed term limits on its state presidents. But President Xi Jinping has thrown that consensus out the window with the announcement that he plans to scrap term limits and presumably stay on as president indefinitely. 

This is a big deal. Xi has revealed to us that he is no different than Yoweri Museveni.

Who would have guessed that in the 21st century we would be back to a situation in which the world’s biggest economy has life presidents, and occasionally goes through unpredictable transfers of power? Certainly, the coup risk in China is likely to go up under a life presidency. And the demonstration effect to other autocracies will be huge. Remember that even Vladimir Putin had to engage in questionable institutional jujitsu by allowing his wingman to be president in order not to flout the Russian constitution.

global_tenuremean.pngXi’s China is a reminder of that political development is not uni-directional. It is also a caution against trust that elites’ material interests are a bulwark against would-be personalist dictators. China’s economy is booming (albeit at a slower rate of growth), and continues to mint dollar billionaires. Yet the country’s political and economic elites appear helpless in the face of a single man who is bent on amassing unchecked power (the same happens in democracies with “strong western institutions”, too).

Globally, the annual average of the number of years in office for heads of governments has been on decline since the mid-1980s (see graph). Perhaps we were due for a correction, like happened in the mid-1920s. May be this time we will be lucky enough to avoid the messes that followed in the subsequent two decades (the fact that China appears to be a revisionist world power is not a great sign).

Finally, it is remarkable that even after being around for thousands of years China hasn’t figured a system of stable, regularized transfer of power that lasts for centuries. May be it is the curse of being a big country. Or may be this is just how politics works. It really does put in perspective the achievements of a number of African countries that appear to have consolidated term limits within a few decades of existence.

Hydropolitics of the Nile Basin

I just finished reading John Waterbury’s The Nile Basin: National Determinants of Collective Action. The book offers a concise introduction to the politics of international water basins as well as the various points of contention among the riparian states in the wider Nile Basin.

Here’s an excerpt:

All upstream riparians in the Nile basin, including the Sudan share varying degrees of suspicion towards Egypt and Egyptian motives in seeking cooperative understandings. It seemingly follows that Ethiopia could mobilize these fears and occasional resentments into an alliance of upper basin riparians. The British in fact tried to do just that from 1959 to 1961, as Egypt and the Soviet Union jointly pursued the Aswan High Dam project at the expense of the upper basin (p. 86).

Why would upper basin riparians care about how Egypt uses water that flows up north?

As Waterbury explains, this is because of the international norm of Master Principle of appropriation — “whoever uses the water first thereby establishes a claim or right to it” (p. 28). Therefore, Egypt has an incentive to use as much of the Nile waters as possible in order to establish a future right to high volumes of downstream flows. Increasing domestic water consumption makes it easy for Cairo to demonstrate “appreciable harm” if any of the upper riparian states were to divert significant volumes of the Nile’s flows.

This is principle is in direct conflict with the principle of equitable use that also underpins riparian regimes (which are legion, apparently. Read the book). And that is where inter-state power politics come in.

Waterbury accurately predicted the current problem bothering Cairo:

The ultimate nightmare for Egypt would be if Ethiopia and the Sudan overcame their domestic obstacles to development and to examine coolly their shared interests in joint development of their shared watershed in the Blue Nile, Atbara, and Sobat basins. Given Ethiopian and Sudanese regional behavior in the 1990s, Egypt need not lose sleep yet (p. 149).

Well, it is time for Egypt to lose sleep. Big time.

A resurgent Ethiopia is damming the Abbay (Blue Nile) and is likely to divert more of its waters in the future for agricultural projects.

What’s puzzling to me is why Egypt is not interested in cutting a deal right now. Given that Ethiopia is only likely to get economically and militarily stronger with time, why wouldn’t Cairo want to cut a deal under conditions of a favorable balance of power?

An obvious explanation is that Egyptian domestic political concerns make it harder for the government to sign a deal that diminishes claims to the Nile (Sisi doesn’t want to be the one that signed away water rights!) But this problem will only get worse for Egyptian elites, assuming that Egypt will get more democratic with time.

I am not surprised that Ethiopia is playing hardball.

Rwanda’s Kagame on the Social Construction of Ethnicity

This is from an interesting interview with the FT:

During the interview, Mr Kagame says it matters little whether there are real physical differences between Hutus and Tutsis or whether these were arbitrary distinctions codified by race-obsessed imperialists. “We are trying to reconcile our society and talk people out of this nonsense of division,” he says. “Some are short, others are tall, others are thin, others are stocky. But we are all human beings. Can we not live together and happily within one border?” Mr Kagame has taken a DNA test that, he says, reveals him to be of particularly complex genetic mix. The implication, he says, is that he, the ultimate symbol of Tutsi authority, has some Hutu in his genetic make-up.

The transcript is available here. Read the whole thing.

Also, the average Rwandese lives a full six years longer than the average African.

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Ultimately, the sustainability of Kagame’s achievements will depend on his ability to solve an important optimal stopping problem:

The problem, he says of who might succeed him, is preventing someone from “bringing down what we have built”. Above all, he says, he wants to “avoid leaving behind a mess”.

The president insists it was never his intention to stay on, but the party and population insisted. “We are not saying, ‘We want you forever until you drop dead,’” he says, imitating the voice of the people. “We’re only saying, ‘Give us more time.’”

On Obsolescing Bargains: Hoima-Tanga Pipeline Edition

This is from the East African in March:

The incentive that among other things lured Uganda to choose the southern route is the tariff of $12.2 per barrel of oil that Uganda will pay to move its crude oil through Tanzania, which Ms Muloni says was “the best we got.”


Source: Oil & Gas Journal

The East African has learnt that in a bid to hijack the deal from Kenya, which also discovered oil in the northern region, Tanzanian officials were willing to throw sweeteners into the deal, which included free land and a fair tariff.

But, after getting the deal, Tanzanian officials started raising doubts over the project’s benefits to Dar es Salaam, citing a number of issues, such as the fact that in Tanzania land belongs to the government, so Uganda did not have to compensate any landowners, hence an increase in the tariff to a figure that The East African could not establish, was seen as a fair deal for Dar.

I hope Ugandan negotiators are aware that Tanzania’s bargaining position will get even stronger after the 1445km pipeline is built.

On Uganda’s Textile Sector

This is from The Economist:

Uganda’s main advantages, for the moment, are cheap cotton and labour, and preferential access to American and European markets. When exporting to the rich world “Africa has an 18-35% duty advantage over any other continent”, says Nick Earlham, a shareholder in WUCC and in Fine Spinners. “It’s very competitive.”Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 1.13.26 PM

Textile workers in Kampala earn about $85 a month, compared with $150 in Kenya and $108 in Vietnam, never mind up to $700 in China. But these savings are offset by problems in almost every other sphere. Power cuts keep plunging the factory into darkness, and an erratic supply of steam to the dyeing machines makes it hard to ensure that each batch of fabric looks alike.

Textiles appear to be a low hanging fruit as far as creating mass employment in African states is concerned. And, at least for now, they will remain immune from the threat of mechanization:

Robots are not yet much good at fiddly sewing jobs on floppy fabric; less than 0.1% of the world’s industrial robots are in the clothing trade.

More on this here.

Lastly, while production levels have not increased significantly over the last decade, FAO data (see below) do suggest a non-trivial increase in productivity (yield/ha) in Uganda’s cotton sector. This outcome could be a result of a myriad causes, but it is in line with recent research by Bates and Block (2013) showing increased agricultural productivity in African states that experienced real exposure to competitive electoral politics.

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South Sudan: A runaway kleptocracy or a gradual evolution towards statehood with an encompassing interest?

The Sentry, a project co-founded by George Clooney and John Prendergast, has a nice report that details corruption at the highest levels of the South Sudanese government.

How do President Kiir’s children afford to live in such apparent luxury? Corporate records for Combined Holding Limited (CHL), a South Sudanese holding company incorporated in February 2016, provide one clue. These records reveal basic information about the company: the date of incorporation, names of shareholders, their contact information and a copy of their passport. One of CHL’s shareholders is a 12- year-old child with the surnames “Salva Kiir Mayardit” whose passport lists his occupation as “Son of President.” But, this hardly makes this child unique among members of President Kiir’s immediate family.

In total, The Sentry found that at least seven of President Kiir’s children have held stakes in a wide range of business ventures, especially in the extractive and financial sectors. Corporate filings obtained by The Sentry show that South Sudan’s first family appears to be active in the country’s oil and mining industries. Another document obtained by The Sentry, dated June 26, 2015, indicates that Thiik Kiir—the president’s 28-year-old son—owned 35 percent of Nile Link Petroleum. Adocument filed in 2014 lists Mayar Kiir—Thiik’s 29-year-old brother whose passport also confirms he is the president’s son—as owner of half of Oil Line & Hydrocarbons Limited, with the remaining shares held by three Kenyan businessmen.

A document dated May 25, 2015, lists Mayar Kiir as a 50 percent shareholder in Specialist Services Co. Ltd., a company that describes itself as being involved in “oilfield services and petroleum supply.” Another document indicates that Adut Salva Mayar, the president’s daughter, has owned shares of Rocky Mining Industries Limited. Yet another document reports that Anok Kiir, President Kiir’s 29- year-old daughter, has held a 45 percent stake in CPA Petroleum. And, according to another corporate record, Winnie Salva Kiir, the president’s 20-year-old daughter, held an 11 percent stake in Fortune Minerals & Construction. The same document indicates that, as of March 2016, the three largest shareholders of Fortune Minerals are Chinese investors.

You should read the whole thing here.

You’d be interested to know that Salva Kiir and Riek Machar live screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-4-55-03-pmonly a short drive from each other in Nairobi, Kenya.

The idea that the leaders of South Sudan are stealing state resources left, right, and centre is totally abhorrent. Tens of thousands have died since the resumption of civil conflict. Millions are in dire need of humanitarian aid.

The international community has its work cut out for it. South Sudan lacks a functional state apparatus. It is yet to get to the point of stationary banditry.

Which is why I think that it would be misguided to presume that the key problems with South Sudan are endemic corruption or the lack of “good governance.”

Should we really expect the president of a (struggling) oil producing 5-year old state to make $60,000 a year and not dip into state coffers once in a while? After all, Kiir’s *perceived* peers are likely not some low-level bureaucrats here in DC but other leaders of the world and the Davos crowd. This is not to say that if Kiir were paid more he would necessarily be less corrupt. The point is that I am not particularly shocked that Kiir and his collaborators in the pillaging of South Sudan want and have acquired the same material comforts that most leaders in the world have.

The historically inclined might even argue that this is South Sudan’s enclosure movement.

Should one take that view, then the solution to the current problem would not be the *relative* impoverishment of the South Sudanese putative “upper class,” but investments in the expansion of this social category so that there is sufficient intra-elite accountability across the different socio-cultural groups in the country. The strategy of integrating rebel leaders into the SPLA could have served this purpose, but the downside is that it incentivized the proliferation of warlordism in the hope of being bought off by Juba.

Perhaps one of the most important questions to ask about South Sudan is how the international community can help Kiir and his henchmen invest their (ill-gotten) wealth in Juba instead of Nairobi or Kampala.

If left alone, South Sudan will likely remain to be a runaway kleptocratic failed state instead of gradually moving towards a stable state with sufficient coercive powers.

The student of the political economy of institutions in me is somewhat convinced that horizontal intra-elite accountability is probably the best way out for South Sudan (if they can establish intra-elite political stability to begin with). The hope that vertical accountability through regular “free and fair” elections will help keep a globalized elite running a fractious post-conflict state honest and accountable is phantasmic. At the moment the domestic audience costs for engaging in corruption are very low for Kiir and other elites, and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future.

And don’t even mention “political will.” There are no “good” leaders in the world. Just properly incentivized individuals.

Again, definitely read the report.

Interesting Somalia fact of the day

This is from the Economist:

Even if elections pass off well, it is unclear that they will deliver much legitimacy. One problem is that the entire process is dominated by diaspora Somalis. Some 55% of MPs have foreign passports, and while Mr Mohamud [the president] himself has never lived abroad, almost all of his advisers are either British or American Somalis. They are not always popular.

Also, here’s a primer on Somalia’s upcoming legislative and presidential elections.

The 2016 elections will have a bigger selectorate (14,025 delegates) than in 2012 (only 135 elders), but is still far from the global norm of universal suffrage. This is probably a good thing, for now.

The EAC: A Model for Boosting Intra-Africa Trade?

The Economist reports:

Since its resurrection in 2000, officials are more often found toasting its success. A regional club of six countries, the EAC is now the most integrated trading bloc on the continent. Its members agreed on a customs union in 2005, and a common market in 2010. The region is richer and more peaceful as a result, argues a new paper* from the International Growth Centre, a research organisation.

Many things boost trade, from growth to international deals. The researchers use some fancy modelling to pick out the effect of the EAC. They find that bilateral trade between member countries was a whopping 213% higher in 2011 than it would otherwise have been. Trade gains from other regional blocs in the continent are smaller: around 110% in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and 80% in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).

Planned infrastructure links over the next decade should add a positive shine to these figures.

Now if only regional integration had a similarly sanguine implication for democratic consolidation among the member countries of the EAC…

A Tentative (Mixed) Public Health Victory: The Slow Retrenchment of HIV-AIDS

This is from the Economist, on the state of the fight against HIV-AIDS.

The next UN target is that, by 2020, 90% of those infected should have been diagnosed and know their status, 90% of those so diagnosed should be on ARVs, and 90% of those on ARVs should have suppressed viral loads. That is ambitious, but history suggests those in the field will rise to the challenge.

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The blue line is testament to George W. Bush’s No. 1 foreign policy success: PEPFAR.

But we should count our chickens just yet. The trends in the graph above are not uniform across the globe. As I noted in a previous post, there is quite a bit of heterogeneity both across and within countries. For example, in East Africa, Uganda is lagging Kenya and Tanzania in the quest to tame the virus (see below).

On a different note, this is yet another data point to suggest that Yoweri Museveni has hit the inflection point, and from now on all his machinations to stay in power will wipe out the achievements of his first 20 years in power.

Interesting Fact of the Month

On life expectancy on the Continent:

Malawi has led the way, with life expectancy at birth rising 42 per cent from 44.1 years in 2000 to 62.7 in 2014, according to data from the World Bank.

Zambia and Zimbabwe have both seen rises of 38 per cent over the same period, with longevity in Rwanda, Botswana and Sierra Leone up more than 30 per cent.

Uganda, Ethiopia, the Republic of Congo, Niger and Kenya have all witnessed rises of more than 20 per cent. Overall, of the 37 countries to have seen life expectancy rise by more than 10 per cent since 2000, 30 are in sub-Saharan Africa, including the 15 with the biggest gains, as the table below shows.

Not one sub-Saharan country saw life expectancy fall between 2000 and 2014.

Public health for the win.

The full FT piece is here.