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Tax protests: The wolf in sheepskin bares his claws, By Tee Ngugi

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On Tuesday of June 18, young Kenyans poured into the streets of Nairobi in huge numbers to protest the high cost of living and punitive taxes imposed on various products and services.

The protests were not organised by politicians; the young people used their social media savvy to organise in similar fashion to the demonstrations that sparked the Arab Spring. And just like the Arab Spring demonstrations, young women in their numbers took part in and led the protesters.

If anyone ever needed proof that it is the police who inflict violence on peaceful demonstrators, it was all there, relayed on cell phones and broadcast by mainstream local and international media.

Despite being beaten up, arrested and teargased, the demonstrators did not resort to violence. They did not loot shops or vandalise cars.

The only weapons they carried were placards denouncing the Ruto-Gachagua regime.

One young woman, after defying two burly policemen trying to arrest her, led the crowd in chanting, “People’s power! When we lose our fear, they lose their power!” The woman is small in stature, but her voice echoed far back in history. In her voice, we heard Mary Nyanjiru defying the colonial police order to disperse. In her voice, we also saw in our memory the hundreds of thousands who, on July 7, 1990, flocked to the streets to demand a return to democracy.

The colonial police opened fire, killing Nyanjiru and 20 other people. In similar fashion, the Nyayo police opened fire, killing hundreds of protesters.

Mary Nyanjiru and her group were protesting the arrest of Harry Thuku and other leaders who were incarcerated at the Central Police station.

On Saba Saba Day, hundreds were also arrested and locked up in various stations, including Central Police Station.

It is instructive in a deeply disturbing way that this is the same station where tens of those protesting the Ruto-Gachagua regime were locked up. The Central Police Station has been central in the drama of repression and defiance in Kenya’s history.

A footage circulating on social media shows a group of women seated on the cold cement floor of a jail cell at Central Police Station.

They are not broken by the harsh conditions of their captivity; they sing defiant songs denouncing the police and the wasteful and corrupt regime.

Some of the taxes proposed in the Finance Bill 2024 are just absurd. Instead of incentivising small businesses that suffered greatly during Covid, the regime proposed taxes that would impact them.

The proposed taxes on bread, sanitary pads and diapers, cooking oil and mobile transactions show a regime that is totally out of touch with reality. Perhaps if they stayed in the country long enough, instead of travelling abroad every other day, they would understand the horrendous conditions poor Kenyans live in.

The regime has since withdrawn some of the ridiculous taxes after weeks of chest thumping. But the wolf in sheep’s clothing has shown its claws.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator

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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Strictly Personal

‘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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