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Bad Bill aside, Kenya could still push Africa’s economic integration, By Joachim Buwembo

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When Kenya’s President William Ruto returned from a state visit to the United States last month, there was a lottery winner’s spring in his steps as the basket of financial goodies he brought home seemed big enough to silence those criticising his frequent foreign trips as being too costly for his debt-riddled economy.

The jewel of the offers he secured from the Americans was a $3.6 billion loan to construct a 440km superhighway (at $8.2 million/km) linking Mombasa to Nairobi.

As happens with such announcements, inconvenient words like “loan”and “debt” are avoided, and absent-minded listeners can think that a loving Uncle Joe (Biden) just gave the $3.6 billion to Nephew Bill (Ruto) to sort out some pressing problems.

But the tech-savvy Kenyan Generation Z, who can access big finance info in the palm of their hand are not absent-minded.

For, while it is true Nephew Bill had pressing problems — the battered Kenya shilling making debt servicing particularly more expensive, as more local currency was required to buy dollars to service foreign loans than previously — adding billions of dollars to the foreign debt stock didn’t look like a good idea. And the $3.6 billion from the US curiously equalled the $3.6 billion that built a railway parallel to which the highway connecting the same two destinations recently funded by, er… China.

The Finance Bill 2024, for operationalising the budget, suddenly became the worst word in Kenya’s public dictionary. And why, of all the five presidents Kenya has had, did the harsh Bill have to come under President Bill? The Finance Bill is supposed to be an annual affair and this time the pun of being Bill’s Bill is not funny at all, for a lot of blood has been spilled over it.

But as Gen Z upped their demands for Bill to go with his Bill even after he conceded and set it aside, their understandable anger may make it hard for the two sides — protesters and president — to see the hand of external powers standing to gain from the chaos.

The president might instinctively see only local opponents in the picture, though it is hard to believe that His Excellency’s excellent intelligence services haven’t pointed at the foreign forces, who even we mentioned on this very page recently by quoting an American saying often attributed to (their second) President John Adams thus: “There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation — one is by sword, the other is by debt.”

President Ruto started off as a beacon of hope to Africa’s economic unity, pouring new energy in the African Continental Free Trade Area. He has been going the extra mile to promote the single African market to use local currencies and adopt develop a common unit of account.

To push out or retain Ruto is for Kenyans in their sovereign state. But Africa will still, and for long, need a Kenyan leadership that is alive to the urgency to integrate African economies, which are right now prone to extortion by foreign powers using the tool called debt. As each economically weak African republic separately goes to foreign lenders to sip from their poisoned chalice, chances of pulling and pooling together become dimmer.

God or Fate endowed Africa with a huge land mass which can not only produce biofuels for clean aviation but also contains massive, rare earth mineral deposits required to transition the world’s transport from fossil fuel to clean electric energy. The need for these minerals is now an emergency. Africa can either coordinate their processing or they will be collected “free” like others before.

Pause and ask yourself if DR Congo’s obvious disinterest in the East African Community, which it joined two years ago, is just an oversight. Curiously, two years ago, Ruto took office and injected enthusiasm into the AfCFTA, plus Africa’s playing its role in the climate change fight, and DRC’s interest in EAC started dipping. However, Dr Ruto’s looking at external powers to finance these processes may not augur well for the continent’s independence.

Yet Kenya’s lead in matters of ICT and finance can be leveraged to re-imagine a new Africa that can re-organise its capabilities and potential for meaningful development without courting conquest and enslavement, which debt will certainly achieve sooner than later.

The breakdown of law and order can accelerate the conquest. Africans might even desperately call in the “superior” external forces to help restore order, which will come at the cost of independence.

Strictly Personal

The post-budget crisis in Kenya might be good for Africa, after all, By Joachim Buwembo

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The surging crisis that is being witnessed in Kenya could end up being a good thing for Africa if the regional leaders could step back and examine the situation clinically with cool-headed interest. Maybe there is a hand of God in the whole affair. For, how do explain the flare not having started in harder-pressed countries such as Zambia, Mozambique and Ghana?

As fate would have it, it happened in East Africa, the region that is supposed to provide the next leadership of the African Union Commission, in a process that is about to start. And, what is the most serious crisis looming on Africa’s horizon? It is Debt of course.

Even the UN has warned the entire world that Africa’s debt situation is now a crisis. As at now, three or four countries are not facing debt trouble — and that is only for now.

There is one country, though, that is virtually debt-free, having just been freed from debt due to circumstances: Somalia. And it is the newest member of the East African Community. Somalia has recently had virtually all its foreign debt written off in recognition of the challenges it has been facing in nearly four decades.

Why is this important? Because debt is the choicest weapon of neocolonialists. There is no sweeter way to steal wealth than to have its owners deliver it to you, begging you, on all fours, to take it away from them, as you quietly thank the devil, who has impaired their judgement to think that you are their saviour.

So?

So, the economic integration Africa has embarked on will, over the next five or so years, go through are a make-or-break stage, and it must be led by a member that is debt-free. For, there is no surer weapon to subjugate and control a society than through debt.

A government or a country’s political leadership can talk tough and big until their creditor whispers something then the lion suddenly becomes a sheep. Positions agreed on earlier with comrades are sheepishly abandoned. Scheduled official trips get inexplicably cancelled.

Debt is that bad. In African capitals, presidents have received calls from Washington, Paris or London to cancel trips and they did, so because of debt vulnerability.

In our villages, men have lost wives to guys they hate most because of debt. At the state level, governments have lost command over their own institutions because of debt. The management of Africa’s economic transition, as may be agreed upon jointly by the continental leaders, needs to be implemented by a member without crippling foreign debt so they do not get instructions from elsewhere.

The other related threat to African states is armed conflict, often internal and not interstate. Somalia has been going through this for decades and it is to the credit of African intervention that statehood was restored to the country.

This is the biggest prize Africa has won since it defeated colonialism in (mostly) the 1960s decade. The product is the new Somalia and, to restore all other countries’ hope, the newly restored state should play a lead role in spreading stability and confidence across Africa.

One day, South Sudan, too, should qualify to play a lead role on the continent.

What has been happening in Kenya can happen in any other African country. And it can be worse. We have seen once promising countries with strong economies and armies, such as Libya, being ravaged into near-Stone Age in a very short time. Angry, youthful energy can be destructive, and opportunistic neocolonialists can make it inadvertently facilitate their intentions.

Containing prolonged or repetitive civil uprisings can be economically draining, both directly in deploying security forces and also by paralysing economic activity.

African countries also need to become one another’s economic insurance. By jointly managing trade routes with their transport infrastructure, energy sources and electricity distribution grids, and generally pursuing coordinated industrialisation strategies in observance of regional and national comparative advantages, they will sooner than later reduce insecurity, even as the borders remain porous.

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‘Slow burner’ Tanzania is at it again, but she needs to learn to make more noise, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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Tanzania has been up to its tricks again. The Minister of Livestock and Fisheries Abdallah Ulega said Monday that the country’s meat exports have risen dramatically, jumping from 1,774.3 tonnes in 2022 to 14,701.2 tonnes in 2023.

That is a growth of a head-turning 729 per cent, the type that blows socks off. He attributed the growth, not surprisingly, to “the government’s efforts to revitalise the livestock sector,” including a substantial increase in budget allocation for the sector.

That budget allocation, he said, rose from Tsh32.1 billion ($12.2 million) in the 2021/2022 fiscal year to Tsh112 billion ($42.6 million) in the 2023/2024 fiscal year.

You can’t scoff; that is a 249.18 percent increase. It is not often that African governments increase spending at that level in productive sectors. They do so for MPs to buy cars and travel abroad, for State House so the president can feed his patronage machine, or for dubious “classified expenditure,” not livestock or beef.

Of course, the Tanzania government doesn’t own cattle in any significant number, so the beef is ultimately the product of farmers’ enterprise. These farmers have given Tanzania 36.6 million head of cattle, the second-largest cattle population in Africa, after Ethiopia.

This news will be surprising to many people outside Tanzania. Few would associate Tanzania with leadership in anything to do with cattle or beef. We never hear noises and see photographs of long-horned Ankole cattle or read claims about how Tanzanian beef is the meat of the gods. Tanzanians don’t even seem to know how to polish cattle horns, adorn them with beads, or compose cow poetry. Or so it would seem.

But they know their cattle. They just don’t make noise about it. In East Africa, this is known as the “silent Tanzanian approach,” and the country is dabbed the “slow burner”. The only Tanzanian we know in the rest of the world who brags about his wealth and gifts is the phenomenally successful musician and dancer Diamond Platnumz, easily East Africa’s most blinged artiste.

Tanzanian Mohammed Dewji is a dollar billionaire and one of the wealthiest people in Africa. He is the youngest, wealthiest person on the continent. Although he is handsome too, he does not flood the media with stories of his fortunes and expensive lifestyle. In fact, a few years ago, some goons — or even possibly shadowy state operatives — kidnapped him, and days later released him in a maize garden or something like that. Shameless lack of respect for money.

I can count on my hands the countries in this fair world where Dewji would own the president, and the army and police chiefs. And, in many places, he would be the last thing you see before you go to bed and the first thing you see when you wake up.

Tanzania recently launched East Africa’s first electric train running on a standard gauge railway. After a few mentions in the media, that the project is underway.

Elsewhere, it would have been after 10 years of daily bragging, and by the time it comes to reality, it would have been mentioned 10,000 times. The launch event would be loud; with drums, dancers, the police band, and the president would show up to cut the tape with 100 hangers-on in tow. He would declare that the train is part of the country’s unstoppable journey to be one of the world’s top 10 economies in five years.

We leave it to Tanzanians to explain to us what kind of madness this is; being shy to proclaim your small, medium, and big achievements from the top of Mountain Kilimanjaro. They are wasting the highest mountain in Africa, leaving it mostly to foreigners to climb. Kinjikitile “Bokero” Ngwale, that great man who led the Maji Maji Rebellion against colonial rule in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) must be writhing in his grave.

We are being jocular here. More seriously, slow-burner Tanzania represents a distinct tradition in the East African narrative of development. It shines a light on how local politics and geopolitics shape how people speak about progress.

A part of it goes back to founding Father Julius Nyerere, a modest and studious man who lived an embarrassingly simple life. Nyerere would today be too unglamorous to be a State House gardener in a couple of African presidential palaces. His ways, though, rubbed off strongly on political culture. Some years ago in London, I went to an event where President Ben Mkapa was speaking.

He mingled with the rest of us hoi polloi during the coffee break. I went over to where a couple of people were talking to him, his security standing off in the distance. There he was standing, talking away, with what must have been his favourite beaten briefcase, clasped between his legs.

It would seem that the slow-burner thing is also what happens when a long-ruling party like CCM derives its legitimacy not primarily from providing bread and butter, but more philosophical and intangible goods like “unity,” creating a “tribeless society” and being an African liberation vanguard.

Geopolitics also influences whether one will proclaim from the rooftop or not. Countries which exist in a hostile international environment, where foreign forces assail the state’s or government’s legitimacy and record on the global stage, need a megaphone to shout back their defence, and to display their record on a high billboard.

Tanzania hardly has enemies these days. It doesn’t have to make noise.

Many African countries could use such good fortune.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3

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