CS Ukur Yatani : Image-Courtesy

The National Treasury recently tabled the 2021/22 budget estimates alongside the Finance Bill 2021. The proposed Ksh3.6 trillion budget is a 25% increase from the Ksh2.91 trillion in 2020/21.

The budget allocates Ksh1.8 trillion to the Executive, Ksh70 billion to counties, and another Ksh37 billion and Ksh17 billion to the National Assembly and the Judiciary respectively. If approved, this will represent the biggest budget yet in the history of our republic. The budget also sets aside Ksh26.2 billion for the post Covid-19 recovery strategy economic stimulus programme.

This comes as the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) experiences revenue shortfalls year after year, further worsened by the pandemic. In previous years, the Kenyan government has not been able to finance its budgets, resorting to continued borrowing.

The expanded budget is surprising, considering that Kenyans are already overburdened and weary from tough economic times, occasioned by Covid-19.  This, amidst concerns that the country might be unable to meet its debt obligations, considering the recent upgrade of its risk of debt distress from medium to high.   

To finance the 2021/22 budget, the Finance Bill proposes various amendments aimed at widening the tax bracket. These include; amendments to the Digital Service Tax (DST), review of Value Added Tax (VAT) status for certain goods from exempt to taxable, with ordinary bread shifting from zero-rating to the standard 16% rate. These tax amendments demonstrate desperation on the side of the government to generate sufficient revenue to meet its obligations. Despite these efforts, the proposed budget still threatens to worsen the country’s debt burden. 

Expanding DST’s scope to hurt online businesses

On the DST, proposed amendments aim at expanding its scope to include income accruing from businesses conducted over the internet or an electronic network, including/or through a digital marketplace. This tax rate is levied at 1.5% of the gross transaction value. Although Kenya’s digital economy is still in infancy, KRA projects collecting up to Ksh5 billion in revenue from DST in the first six months of the FY2020/ 2021.

In expanding the scope of DST, the government seeks to bring more businesses that generate income over the internet or through an electric network into the tax bracket. Since DST is being imposed on all digital services, irrespective of their gross transaction value, it could result in undesirable implications, especially for persons whose primary income is derived from provision of digital services and are under the Turnover Tax regime and minimum tax bracket. The government should consider setting a minimum threshold for applicability of DST with exemptions for businesses that register low margins. To facilitate smooth filing of DST returns, KRA should also update its online filing platform, iTax.

Description of Digital Service Tax | Source: Trio Digital Marketing

Reviewing VAT status to increase prices of basic commodities

VAT is imposed whenever a value is added on applicable goods and services across the supply chain, from production to consumption. The tax, which is levied on taxable products and services supplied or imported into Kenya, is collected by registered persons at designated points in the supply chain before submission to KRA. The registered persons charge VAT at every stage along the supply line, which the final consumer bears.

The VAT amendments are set to affect prices of basic commodities, including bread and baby-infant milk, whose prices are set to rise on imposition of 16% VAT, from current zero-rated status. Since bread is consumed in many households, this will make it less affordable to the common mwananchi, coming only months after a Ksh5 price hike, following a surge in global wheat prices. This has led to an outcry, with Kenyans terming the amendment as unfair and uncalled for, considering the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The Bakers Association of Kenya has warned that introducing 16% VAT on bread violates the fundamental right to affordable food, besides risking closure of some companies, that could in turn see up to 100000 people jobless.

Kenyans shopping at a Supermarket | Source: Kenyan.co.ke

Similarly, removal of baby infant milk, otherwise known as formula milk, from the tax-exempt bracket will increase its price, thus affecting families dependent on it. Other commodities such as eggs, milk and meat are also set to cost more due to the proposed taxation of inputs for producing animal feeds. This will affect both farmers and consumers, as production costs will rise, translating into prices of these goods shooting up. 

However, as much as the VAT amendments propose imposition of 16% tax on some items that were previously exempted, it also offers reprieve for some items by withdrawing the standard charge. The proposition to exclude the VAT levy on medical ventilators and inputs for manufacture of medical ventilators is laudable, since it encourages local innovations such as the one by students of Kenyatta University who designed and built a low-cost ventilator using locally sourced materials. With the exemption on materials for manufacturing ventilators, costs of procuring such inputs will drop. This is likely to encourage local production and reduce costs of ventilators and other related products, thus propping up management of Covid-19 in the country. Other items that have been excluded from VAT include: Insulin, Malaria test diagnostic kits, immunological products, Vitamin C and its derivatives, food supplements, protein concentrates, medical equipment and products, among others. The exemption will lower treatment costs for various ailments including diabetes, providing a relief to the health sector.

In this way, the VAT amendments signal a more considerate Treasury, especially towards the health sector. However, some discrepancies exist in the proposed policies. Some items which were exempted from the tax in the past are to be charged at a rate of 16%.  For example, syringes, which complement immunological products, vaccines and treatment, will be VAT-able. The result is cancellation of the effect of exempting some of the goods. In essence, what one hand giveth the other taketh away.

With the ongoing pandemic, one would expect the government to limit its expenditures and channel more efforts and resources towards vaccinating the population as a means of jumpstarting the economy. But if the proposed budget is anything to go by, there remains little to be optimistic about. With the proposed tax amendments, the huge public debt, and runaway corruption, Kenyans should brace for tough economic times as much of the expenditure burdens shifts to their shoulders.

However, following these proposed amendments, Kenyans raised concern and were given the opportunity to submit their opinion physically at Parliament Buildings or via email to the clerk by 2nd June 2021. The President is expected to assent to the legislation by June 30th 2021, paving way for KRA to start implementing them from July 1st 2021.

Ends…

By Eunice Wahito, Emmanuel Owuor and Janet Muchai

The writers are Graduate Interns at Africa Center for People, Institutions and Societies (Acepis).

Gender equality concept | Source: UNCTAD

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only changed life as we knew it, but also threatened to significantly reverse gains towards attaining gender equality and accordance of equal rights and opportunities to women and girls in Kenya.

Over the years, the Kenyan government has taken measures to advance gender equality. This has ranged from free maternity and immunization programs for children to providing free sanitary towels to over 4 million school-going girls. The Constitution of Kenya provides for equal gender representation in leadership positions, requiring at least no more than two-thirds of holders of elective public bodies be from one gender. Article 27(3) of the Constitution also provides for equal treatment of either gender, including access to social, economic, political and cultural opportunities.

In spite of all this, gender equality still remains a challenge in Kenya. Women have lesser access to basic education, economic participation and political representation, and face greater health and safety risk. According to the United Nations, women and girls currently earn and save less, while holding insecure jobs.

The pandemic has adversely impacted health of women and girls, due to shifting priorities and reallocation of resources for sexual and reproductive health services. Previous health crises such as Ebola have demonstrated that in such times, resources are normally diverted from routine health services, thus reducing already limited access to these services, as well as maternal, new-born and child health services. Consequently, some women in Kenya could not access contraceptives during the pandemic, leading to unwanted pregnancies. This has also been linked to the alarming number of adolescent pregnancies since the onset of the pandemic and school closures. Statistics indicate that in 2020, 152,000 teenage girls in Kenya got pregnant during this period.

Besides access to critical healthcare services, the pandemic has also increased the burden of unpaid care work, due to heightened needs of the vulnerable and sick. Globally, women perform more than three times unpaid care work than men, according to the International Labour Organisation. The care burden on women in Kenya significantly increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those bedridden at home. This reduced the time available for women to generate income from business or formal jobs.

As such, many women suffered job losses, negatively impacting their income levels. According to 2020 KNBS Economic Survey, the proportion of the population in active informal or formal employment dropped to 65.3% for men and 48.8% for women. This is in addition to significantly disrupting workflow, as a result of reduced working hours, occasioned by the curfews and social distancing measures.

Labor-force participation in Kenya, 2019 vs 2020 | Source: Development Initiatives

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly reversed the last three decades’ gains in improving access to quality education for women and girls. Globally, governments shut down learning institutions, which had to shift online. While e-learning has been effective for some, it generally remained inaccessible for many, especially women and girls from poor and developing countries.

Aggravation of sexual and gender-based violence has translated to fewer women and girls being able to access learning materials during the pandemic. Pregnant school-going girls have been forced into early marriages, apparently as a safeguard against immorality, and to put them in a ‘family’ setup.

The pandemic has also heightened the risk of women and girls to sexual harassment and gender-based violence, as a result of movement restrictions and social isolation. Violence against women is the most pervasive breach of human rights. The UN Women estimates that up to 243 million women and girls globally aged between 15 and 49 years, experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partners during the year. These effects of gender-based violence and unwanted pregnancies are likely to outlive the pandemic.

President Uhuru Kenyatta recently raised concerns over the rise of gender-based violence in Kenya and directed the National Crime and Research Center to probe it. The 16 days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign by the WHO to call for prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls globally also emphasized ending GBV. These efforts and directives are expected to substantively impact and assure Kenyan women and girls protection from physical and sexual violence.

With COVID-19 having affected the socio-economic aspects of life, especially for women, its impact on inclusion and participation of women in civic processes will continue to be felt beyond the pandemic.

Policymakers need to adopt measures to limit scarring effects of the pandemic on women and girls. Recovery measures post COVID-19 should aim to build a more equal, inclusive and sustainable economy for both genders. Governments, NGOs and international actors need to collaborate and inculcate a gendered approach towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic for an inclusive result, especially for women and girls.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought significant challenges to public forums, especially those of a political or civic kind.

Given that public health considerations take precedence over social engagements, conventional forms of engagements have been crippled or rendered rudderless. Politicians, particularly, have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, necessitating a complete change in their public engagements. Except for isolated cases reeking of selfish defiance, restrictions to curb the spread of the virus have made it impossible to hold political gatherings, as was previously the norm. Consequently, some overly vocal figures on the political scene have gone unnoticeable for months.

Attempts to restructure some predominant physical engagements to adapt to reality of the pandemic have so far fallen short of expectation. Further, in countries like the United States, defiance and denial of the magnitude and seriousness of the pandemic has come with irreversible consequences, as evident from the high number of infections and deaths.

Notably, politicians and other public figures have recognised the power of digital platforms as an alternative means of engaging with the masses. In recent days, political activity on social networks has grown exponentially. Discussions on social networking sites have led to youth engaging more on political issues. According to UNICEF, youth today use digital platforms to establish their civic identities and declare political stances. Through these modes, youth can now voice concerns and table their agenda, unlike in the past where they remained marginalised.

Recent happenings globally prove that the digital world is equally, if not more, powerful. The world witnessed Black Lives Matter protests accelerate from the epicentre in Minnesota throughout the United States and across the vast Pacific and Atlantic oceans to Australia and the United Kingdom. This was one of the greatest testaments of the power of digital platforms.

Black Lives Matter Protests | Source: CNN

Similar occurrences have also been witnessed in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Uganda, the rise of ‘People Power’ has been largely attributable to social media activism by Robert Kyagulanyi – Bobi Wine – who has stood firmly against oppression by the current regime. Not to forget embers of the Arab Spring that were blown into a raging inferno online.

Arab Spring Protests in Egypt | Source: Reuters

From these, it is evident that the world’s interconnectedness, thanks to the digital revolution has made it easier for humans to form communities, uniting strangers around a common cause, ideal, or belief. In a world where even those who reside in remote places can access the internet, it only takes a post on Facebook, a hashtag, or a branded social media avatar to stir a revolution.

With the Covid-19 restrictions, there has been a meteoric rise in creation and sharing of digital content, to cater for grounded audiences. Zoom meetings and webinars have become the norm, especially for leaders striving to sustain their potency. However, there is a striking contrast in the nature of engagement on digital platforms compared to what is typical of political rallies and gatherings. Given discussions online are topical, leaders have to demonstrate ability to articulate their ideas clearly and defend their ideals in a manner that resonates with citizens if they are to be granted an audience. The mass hysteria characteristic of political rallies and other traditional forms of engagement that politicians often ride on, no longer exists. Citizens are also forced to be more critical of information shared by leaders.

Amplification of digital civic engagement is a premonition of things to come. While traditional, in-person forms of civic engagement cannot be completely eradicated, time is ripe to fully go digital and strengthen frameworks that facilitate the same. A critical element remains improving access to quality and reliable information which the nature and quality of online discussions are dependent on. Over the years, Kenya has made significant strides in enhancing access to public information, a right prescribed and guaranteed in the Constitution. However, existing frameworks remain weak, as critical information regarding public debt, tendering processes, procurement and budget remains difficult to access.

The desired success can only be attained through inter-ministerial synergies to ensure established frameworks are firm, functional and incorruptible. Success is also predicated in enhancing digital infrastructure, granting those in rural and marginalized areas a unique focus to ensure their voices and concerns are sufficiently represented.

It is also important to pay attention to deterring rampant sharing of fake news and disinformation through digital platforms. While online platforms provide avenues for reaching wide segments of the population, it also makes it easier to share fake news and misinform the public, thus shadowing and diluting quality of online engagements. To counter such, it is also important that efforts be channeled towards equipping citizens, particularly the youth, with media and information literacy skills to increase their capacity to create, consume, critique and disseminate online information. One such initiative is the recent Media and Information Literacy training by the Africa Center for People Institutions and Society supported by UNESCO.

Online Training on Stimulating Youth Civic Engagement Through Media and Information Literacy | Source: Acepis

Considering the increasing cases of cyber-bullying, it is also important to have candid conversations regarding how best to put together safeguards, in  the form of law or policy. This will ensure digital safety for billions of users across the world, especially young people.

Digital civic engagement is gaining traction and will outlast the Covid-19 era. This ushers in a new era that promotes inclusion of youth and other groups that have traditionally been excluded and unheard in decision-making processes. It is an era where every member of the society has equal opportunity to establish their civic identities, elevating them to a better position to be diligent and active in performing their civic duties.

Overall, investment in strengthening digital civic engagement mechanism is in a worthwhile endeavor that must be encouraged if we are to foster responsible citizenry moving forward, post-Covid pandemic.

Suspension of the 2020 school calendar, by the Ministry of Education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, has elicited mixed reactions.

For students, particularly those preparing for national examinations, it is a bitter pill to swallow. It is equally unpleasant for, businesses and workers relying on the education ecosystem for their livelihoods.

However, it has a silver lining too. In it, the Ministry of Education has a rare opportunity to address ills that have, for long, crippled Kenya’s education sector. Introduction of free primary and secondary education, while realizing higher enrollment and transition rates in schools, came at a cost. It exerted pressure on already overstretched school infrastructure and diluted the quality of education in  the country.

Despite reports from media and other institutions highlighting the dire need for government to address existing capacity, infrastructural and funding limitations in  the education sector, not much has been done in that regard. Students still have to contend with the uninspiring state of schools, with those based in rural areas most affected.

Further, politicization of education in the country has made the situation worse. Critics have questioned government priorities with projects such as the Digital Literacy Programme (also known as ‘One Laptop per Child’ project) for Grade 1 kids being ranked ahead of improving infrastructure in schools. Most students in the country are yet to draw any tangible utility from the project. Also the introduction of the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) remains an issue of contention in the sector.

Righting the wrongs

The suspension of the school calendar as a measure to contain the spread of Coronavirus, presents an opportunity for the government to harmonize the education system. It also affords a chance to relook priorities and address gaps ailing the sector in preparation for the resumption of studies in 2021.

In the National Budget for the Financial Year 2020/21, the education sector was allocated over Ksh.500 billion. These resources – especially those earmarked for spending over the next 6 months – can be efficiently allocated to  include improving basic school infrastructure. This will ensure that when learning resumes, students have decent classrooms, sufficient facilities and enough teachers to facilitate their studies.

Part of the government’s Eight-Point Economic Stimulus Package in response to COVID-19 involves improving education outcomes by recruiting 10,000 teacher interns, constructing and rehabilitating classrooms and hiring ICT interns to facilitate digital learning in schools. Whereas these are welcome moves, some argue that allocated resources are not proportionate to the magnitude of existing gaps. That is why the education sector must focus on proper prioritization and utilization of current allocations to ensure enough cents are spent on addressing the most pressing issues.

This also the time for the ministry to engage with other stakeholders in the education sector to iron out contentious issues. In recent days, lack of synergy between the government and the other stakeholders in the education sector has been pronounced, particularly with the launch of the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC). Some stakeholders in the education sector, particularly from the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), have argued against the government implementing the programme. They insist that there is insufficient capacity to implement the new curriculum effectively. Pundits have also criticized the government for implementing the new curriculum without research-based evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness, with the current state of the education sector in the country.

The break offers a chance of the government to iron out these contentious issues by actively engaging with various stakeholders and addressing their concerns. With the government’s bet on the CBC curriculum to transform the education sector, ironing out contentious issues and strengthening the foundation and design of the curriculum will enhance chances of success.

Parents also have a role to play

For parents, whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic, suspension of the 2020 school calendar is a godsend. It presents an opportunity to reorganize their resources for the 2021 school calendar.

With the burden of school fees off their shoulders for this period, these resources can be channeled towards food and healthcare of their children, and other essentials. Further, the reopening of the economy allows them to invest in business ventures and save for their children’s education come next year.

The flip side

While the break allows government and parents to relook their strategies, the decision is also costly for private schools and other auxiliary personnel whose livelihoods are anchored around the education ecosystem. Unlike public schools where teachers are guaranteed their salaries, at least for the foreseeable future, in private schools, salaries are dependent on school fees. The same goes for drivers, cleaning staff and food suppliers, among others whose products and services have no offtaker.

The government needs to step in to provide necessary safeguards and to cushion private sector players in the education sector to protect jobs and  livelihoods of workers during these  hard economic times they have to withstand until learning resumes. This could be fashioned along the lines of the lifeline fund the government offered operators in the tourism industry to buoy hotels and restaurants. This will help public and private schools to weather through this period.

The onus is on the leadership of the education sector to exercise leadership and grab this opportunity to do the right thing.

The least students deserve are decent classrooms, sufficient desks and books, enough well-trained teachers and a curriculum that guarantees them a decent education.

***

This article was first published on The Standard on Wednesday 22nd July 2020

The police service is the enforcement unit of government. It is tasked with the noble duty of maintaining law and order - protecting lives and property, among other roles.

Policing is generally considered a respectable profession; and officers regarded as important members of society. They have the privilege of carrying arms around, to protect people.

However, long standing concerns exist over the prudence of policing world over. Cases of extra-judicial killings and police brutality have been on the rise globally. Day in day out,  media reports news breaks of police officers abusing their positions to take away the very lives they swore to protect.

This has neither been adequately acknowledged by our governments, nor addressed. The police remain, ironically, a stumbling block to maintenance of law and order. Apart from physical fitness, no attention is paid to their mental and emotional suitability during police recruitment.

The recent killing of a black man in the United States of America, sparked protests globally, raising questions as to whether it was another case of racism or police brutality. George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American, died at the hands of white police officers who left him unable to breathe as one of them knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. His death has not gone unnoticed as violent Black Lives Matter protests have rippled across the United States and throughout the world, with demonstrators calling for an end to police brutality.

Black Lives Matter Protest in Memphis, USA | Source: USA Today

In Africa, police brutality is rampant with many incidents reported by the media and civil society organizations. Many African countries typically suffer police brutality during charged political seasons, when power is exercised in excess. Journalists have been arrested for reporting on police brutality in Tanzania, and the United Nations has accused security forces and the government in Burundi for perpetrating vices such as gang rapes, torture and killings of innocent citizens that went unpunished.

In Uganda, critics say that President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has largely relied on brute force to suppress growing opposition to his rule. In August 2013, the Ugandan government passed the Public Order Management Act that granted police wide discretionary powers to permit gatherings. This Act was used during the 2016 presidential campaign as a basis to arrest opposition politicians, with opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye suffering police brutality. The police severally arrested Dr Besigye and used pepper spray on him, injuring him to the point of being flown to Kenya for hospitalization.

In Kenya, the two sides charged with ensuring police accountability, the Internal Affairs Unit that receives and investigates complaints and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority appear overwhelmed and dysfunctional. Even with enactment of the Constitution in 2010, the narrative has remained unchanged. On many occasions, police officers, armed with guns, teargas canisters and batons  have viciously descended on protestors during electioneering season, beating some to a pulp and leaving others maimed or dead. The media has repeatedly beamed footage of police brutalizing citizens. However, it is absurd that up until now, some of these perpetrators still walk scott-free, even with such overwhelming evidence against them.

Politicians have not been spared from the police’s excessive force. During election campaigns, opposition politicians have had a fair share of run-ins with the police using teargas and excessive force to disperse their crowds. Former Bomet County Governor Isaac Ruto had to be rushed to South Africa for urgent medical attention after a teargas canister exploded in his face. This points to the citizens’ disadvantages, as not everyone can afford advanced medical care after such encounters with police.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck East Africa like an armed robber, no country was prepared to deal with the pandemic. Kenya declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew, while Rwanda and Uganda totally locked down their countries to contain the spread of the virus. This left the police in these countries with the task of ensuring that citizens adhered to the restrictions. While ensuring that the lockdown instilled during the COVID-19 pandemic was observed, police in Uganda acted irresponsibly and allegedly maimed many.

In Kenya, police have been blamed for causing more deaths than the pandemic itself. Kenyans try to avoid catching coronavirus during the day and avoid beatings at night from the police during the curfew.

Mathare Residents Peacefully Protesting Against Police Brutality in Nairobi | Source: VOA

Police brutality is not only unlawful but also counterproductive in fighting the spread of COVID-19. The officers have acted ruthlessly and helped little in instilling measures such as social distancing among citizens.

Since the curfew in Kenya was instituted, the police have reportedly killed at least 15 people, the latest victim being an elderly homeless man, shot dead in Mathare after being found out during curfew hours. The Independent Policing Oversight Body (IPOA) has reported 87 complaints against police since the curfew and heightened security measures were rolled out on March 27.

The police have a lot to do to clear their name and regain long-lost respect due to them. This begs the question; who will tame the police as they execute their duties to the public? More has to be done to ensure that the officers undertake their duties according to the law, while upholding human rights.

I would suggest a change in the policing culture - during hiring and training of police recruits and in the long term. The requirements for joining the police force should attract more academically astute candidates too; and should not be left for those regarded as rejects.

It is agreed that many cases of police brutality can be linked to anger from poor pay and working conditions for officers. Governments should increase funding to the police service to improve their working conditions and remuneration. Vigilant oversight of police activities needs to be emphasized, to pile pressure on perpetrators of police brutality and increase accountability of the police to their actions while on duty.

Lastly, when citizens have better livelihoods, healthcare and efficient systems, government can invest more in public goods in their neighbourhoods, which makes them feel safe and reduces crime rates. This eventually makes the work of the police a lot easier.

Whilst citizens are encouraged to lodge a report whenever they experience police brutality, the police themselves should be accountable for their actions, even as they maintain law and order.

The East African Community already had its fair share of woes, way before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Burundi had, twice consecutively, frustrated convening of the 20th summit EAC of Heads of State. Rwanda and Uganda have been on each other’s necks for more than two years.  Tanzania and Kenya, on the other hand, continue their protracted duel on trade barriers.

These woes even had some pundits already prophesizing a clear path towards disintegration of the EAC in  the not so distant future.

But the manner in which the bloc has conducted itself, in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling out mitigation measures, has been depressingly inadequate. It has revealed just how hollow and incompetent the institution remains.

To step back a bit,  the EAC is established and buttressed on the idea of international cooperation, multilateralism and regional integration. By its own creed and stated objectives,  one would expect that a regional, intergovernmental organization of its stature would step up to the challenge and live up to its bidding when most relevant. One would expect the EAC to facilitate cooperation and multilateral engagements among East African States and at least broker a functional joint framework to coordinate response to COVID-19 in the region.

Nonetheless,  a look across East Africa reveals a mosaic of disparate, disjointed and uncoordinated efforts at State-level, some of which have undermined successes across borders or not been helpful at all in the least. Like States insisting on conduct tests at either side of a common border. Or others, like Tanzania and Burundi, continuing business as usual while the rest implement costly containment measures.

COVID-19 has heightened the need for states to work together in coordinating implementation of mechanisms to protect citizens from the virus, promoting research and science to provide sustainable solutions, safeguarding livelihoods, protecting jobs and facilitating businesses in these difficult times.

At the least, citizens of the region need confidence in capability of their governments to work together in addressing challenges brought about by the pandemic. They need assurance that States and their leaders understand the crucial need for cooperation in response. Now, more than ever, East Africans, who depend on free movement of people, goods and services need assurance that their governments understand interconnectedness of their businesses and lives, and are implementing policies and measures that make this possible.

However, the EAC appears to sit on its hands! Silent and ineffective when it is needed the most. On crucial issues, like mass testing, it would have been more effective establishing a multiagency, multi-country team or committee to oversee procurement of test kits and other medical paraphernalia, coordinating testing and certification of those tested to facilitate movement across borders, and a mechanism for information sharing to develop a comprehensive understanding of trends in infections, deaths and recoveries.

Likewise, on the issue of cross-border movement of goods and people, the EAC is better placed to coordinate a multilateral framework to facilitate harmonization of policies to lessen time spent and pain endured by businesses in moving much needed commodities across the region.

Truck Drivers awaiting Clearance at the Uganda Immigration office in Malaba border. | Source: The East African

Notably,  the EAC unveiled a 30-paged US$97 million Covid-19 response plan on 30th April 2020 that lists, among other things, plans to increase access to PICs, improve surveillance, regional capacity building for partner States and resource mobilization. The fact that this came four months after reports of the virus and its dangers were reported is in itself a problem. But the bigger challenge is the question of executing this plan. The EAC has a history of failed plans, unimplemented policies and dishonored protocols.

Essentially, in the absence of effective coordination and enforcement of plans, the region has had to contend with fear mongering, political grandstanding and panic fueled by misinformation and disjointed communication across States.

A lot of business capital has been lost unnecessarily due to the failure of East African States to work together and harmonize their response. Far too many lives have been lost due to failures of the states to work together in harmonizing standards and procedures for testing, contact tracing and handling of cases and COVID-19 related deaths. Previously harmonious communities of East Africans, especially those living in border areas, have been unnecessarily broken down in Namanga, Isebania, Busia, Lungalunga amongst others for lack of a coordinated approach that could have otherwise been brokered by the EAC.

It is perhaps in the area of macroeconomic policy that lack of coordination, or at least effective communication amongst EAC States, that most shall be lost to the pandemic. Every State has withdrawn to their dark corners making sub-optimal policy decisions like tax breaks, price controls, financial market policies whose real impacts shall be felt long after the world finds a sustainable solution to COVID-19. Also, across East Africa, States are absorbing huge amounts of public debt, to finance responses to Covid-19, despite an existing debt sustainability problem, Imagine the opportunities that have been lost for not working together on ‘debt-repayment moratoriums’ that could be better negotiated through EAC than separately by singular States.

Ultimately, at the border posts, at the EAC headquarters in Arusha, and at national capitals across East Africa,  the voice of the bloc has been conspicuously faint. And in  the media,  the place of the EAC has been eclipsed by State operatives – ministers, politicians and administrators who have done the least to advocate for cooperation and coordination, which is crucially necessary. Shouts of nationalist sentiment –who is sending their virus to who, and who is failing to do what, and who understands COVID-19 more than the other – is deafening and depressing.

Be that as it may, some argue that Covid-19 has been an unprecedented challenge never imagined and that everyone is doing their best – muddling-through and hoping for the best. As such we should not be too hard on the EAC. Others point to similar lack of leadership and clever responses in other multilateral organisations like the EU, UN and the AU. There are also those who argue that the COVID-19 pandemic came at a point in time when the idea of international cooperation and multilateralism was already on its knees, beaten down by fascist and nationalistic sentiment like in the United States, Europe, United Kingdom among other parts of the world. They argue that appetite for international cooperation was already far too low as seen in issues like climate change action, international trade negotiations (with protracted trade wars between US and China, UK and EU, some African states among others), international security and the fight against terrorism and immigration. As such,  it was less likely that the EAC would wrest the space and muster the voice to lead and coordinate effective response.

But I tend to differ.

There remains significant goodwill and political capital in East Africa for interstate cooperation and regional integration that can buoy the EAC to its full potential. Perhaps, we could begin with areas where we agree and with people who already speak the same language on some common things. What prevented largely agreeable States like Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda from trying a coordinated approach to COVID-19 response?

Ends …

***

This article was first published on the Daily Nation on Tuesday 27th May 2020

Crisis has a way of stripping people naked to reveal the size of their cojones. It trumps lies, pretense and all manner of mediocrity in people, especially leaders.

Recently, a sense of bewilderment gripped the world when the US President, on live television, suggested that injection of disinfectant be used to treat COVID-19. While he later, in his clinical fashion, changed the narrative claiming he was only being sarcastic, the harrowing reality of emptiness and lack of leadership where it is most expected was evident for everyone to see.

Unsurprisingly, many leaders across the world have been rather underwhelming in their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just a handful of leaders in a few countries - like New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Taiwan - have shown leadership worth emulating.

In Africa, countries like South Africa, Uganda and Rwanda have ramped up testing to quickly identify and isolate Corona virus cases and trace contacts. However, in other countries like Tanzania, basic measures such as providing social distancing guidelines are yet to be enforced.

Other countries have leaders who prefer looking like they are leading instead of actually leading. In Kenya, several politicians spent money on branding donated facemasks and hand sanitizers instead of investing in more sanitizers, personal protective equipment and financing the health system. Some section of religious leaders even moved to court to oppose government’s ban on church gatherings, completely oblivious of the risk that this could amplify the spread of the virus.

The Power of Truth

Leadership at this moment of crisis means being a champion for truth. This is evident from Angela Merkel who has been honest and open with her citizens on the status of the pandemic. It is by being truthful that the true extent of disease can be established and mitigation measures set up.

From the U.S to the U.K, China and across Africa, those charged with speaking truth to power have deliberately chosen to do the very opposite. Reports of leaders disregarding expert advice and silencing those who attempt to speak up against governments’ actions or inaction are scattered all over. Some have even gone as far as openly castigating the media for seeking answers when in real sense they are avoiding accountability.

It is during such times that leaders – especially those in government – should remember and be guided by the words of John F. Kennedy: “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed. That is why our press was protected…to inform, arouse, reflect, to state our dangers…to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mould, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”

Decisiveness in dealing with the pandemic

One of the hallmarks of great leadership is being able to make decisive and effective decisions when everyone is looking up to you. As early as January, Taiwan had established 124 measures against COVID-19 when the first hint of the virus was detected. In New Zealand, it did not take long for the Prime Minister to implement a countrywide lock down and enhance alertness. In Uganda, the county was swift to seal off all entry points, while ramping up testing. Whereas the viciousness of the virus was already evident, some countries have not been as effective in their response strategies.

Uganda Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng assessing thermal scanner | Source: The Observer

Up to now, some countries, especially in Africa, are yet to set up guidelines for combating the disease. In others, like Kenya, where a dusk-to-dawn curfew is in place, it is difficult to judge effectiveness of the same, given the manner in which security officers are implementing government directives. Further, there have been reports and widespread concern regarding status of the quarantine facilities. If images shared are anything to go by, these quarantine centers that are to serve as containment centers for the virus are slowly morphing into incubation centers for the same.

Decisiveness in leadership in the era of COVID-19 also means being meticulous and strategic with containment measures. It calls for leadership to be innovative and cognizant of realities of the contexts within which they operate. No wonder, many African leaders have been criticized for ‘copying and pasting’ intervention measures applied in other countries without assessing their fitness to the unique situations in their countries.

A time for compassion and love

This is the time for leaders across the board to exercise love and compassion for the people they represent. This is the time for elected officials to show that they are pro-people and demonstrate that they are in touch with lives of the citizenry. This is the time for healthcare workers to be provided with the entire arsenal they need for this humongous fight.

Commendable efforts have been seen world over where individuals and corporations have stepped in to bridge gaps by providing crucial Personal Protective Equipment for frontline healthcare workers as well as food and sanitation products to the less fortunate. Some religious leaders, beyond their spiritual support, have stepped in to provide economic and psychological support to those who need it. We have seen individuals spending their time and resources to help sensitize communities in their local languages on importance of social distancing and maintaining high levels of hygiene. Such is the motif of pride and leadership to be emulated.

Early in the 20th century, it took 36 months for the world to manage the Spanish Flu. While we are faced with an almost similar pandemic, the world today – unlike in the 20th century – is better placed to fight this war. We are more advanced technologically and intellectually, putting us at a better position to understand the enemy and fight it effectively.

While we have the resources, proper leadership will catalyze effectiveness of the fight and push us close to victory. The world needs leaders who communicate effectively and not be “sarcastic”. It needs leaders to collaborate with everyone in the community, take decisive action and be intentional about finding solutions that will help us fight this war.

Leadership in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is not about being an authoritarian. It is about being bold enough to speak truth to power, making truth powerful and making power truthful. It is about setting aside selfish ambitions and marshaling resources– including knowledge, expertise, human resources, money and political capital to fight as one army.

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