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Whose interests are the MPs fronting, citizens’ or parties’?

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KALTUM GUYO

By KALTUM GUYO
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In the week that Chief Justice David Maraga gave us the insight of the interference of independence of key institutions of government, Parliament voted to repeal the interest rate cap.

The cap had been set under Banking Act 2016 at not more than four per cent above the Central Bank’s lending rate in order to make it affordable for most Kenyans to borrow.

It is unclear what precipitated the amendments to the Banking Act, but the move has not failed to raise a few eyebrows.

One is the speed with which changes to the law were initiated. This came just three years after the interest cap was set by the same Parliament.

The other is the style in which the amendment to such a crucial law were made — amid reports that there was a quorum hitch in Parliament to veto the changes, if required.

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Lack of quorum has become synonymous with Parliament over the years.

And it only occurs either to stymie the rights of Kenyans — as was the case with the two-thirds gender rule or the recent case where the cap on interest charged by banks was removed with potential financial implications for ordinary Kenyans.

It now means banks will, once more, charge interest as they please on loans that they extend to their customers.

The rule comes at a time when the economy is on a nosedive.

Basic rules of economics would intimate that loans are made as affordable as possible to encourage more borrowing and spending in a bid to spur economic growth.

Affordable loans will encourage investment across the board. Higher interest rates are bound to favour the banks and oppress ‘Wanjiku’.

The MPs’ removal of the interest rate cap and their hesitation in enacting the constitutional two-thirds gender rule are just two examples that we need to use to gauge our democracy: the definition of democracy is, “a government of the people, by the people and for the people”.

Whether that is a presidential or parliamentary system is immaterial.

The Constitution defines it even better in Chapter 8 (94) (1) when it states: “The legislative authority of the Republic is derived from the people and, at the national level, is vested in and exercised by Parliament.”

One would, then, assume that MPs are, by obligation, in Parliament to represent the views and concerns of the people, who elected them.

Again, Chapter 8 (95) (2) on the role of Parliament encapsulates the key issue that takes MPs to Parliament in the first place: To “deliberate on and resolve issues of concern to the people”.

Our democracy then falters when constituents fail to have their representatives air their grievances or represent them on matters that concern their welfare.

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When quorum hitches occur in Parliament, and if it is due to an ‘act of God’, for instance, it is understandable.

But if it manifests through underhand deals — such as financial inducements, free beach holidays or using the voting time for luxurious activities — to frustrate the vote in favour of a third party (be it the Executive or lobbyists), then we have no democracy to speak of.

Parliament, just as ordinary citizens and other state organs, is meant to carry out their activities within the ambit of the law.

If an MP is legally meant to represent constituents but decides not to be in Parliament or sell his veto for selfish gain, it is time we, the people, started to ask the hard questions — such as where our MP was when we could not afford a mortgage, because they were not there to tell Parliament their constituents are too poor for prime mortgages and save them from loan sharks!

MPs not being able to vote by following their conscience is anathema to a democracy.

It brings to question the whole notion of separation of powers, which has been discussed last week following claims of interference of the Judiciary by the Executive.

No one is saying a ruling party cannot mobilise its members to stand behind an issue of its interest in Parliament.

But if an MP feels the issue goes against the interest of his constituents or his conscience, then he should have the will to vote as he likes with no fear of reprisal.

Politics is, after all, about people and less about lobbyists hiding behind their cronies in government to influence Parliament.

The only way to lock out third parties with vested interests that are detrimental to the mwananchi is to drum into the arms of the government the true meaning of the separation of powers and the legal responsibilities our representatives have.

Parliament is not the place to play politics with the lives and livelihoods of Kenyans.

It is where the welfare of the people needs to be discussed and improved upon.

It is time we said goodbye to quorum hitches and got Parliament working on its mandate.

Its success will be measured by the decent quality of life for the investment banker as well as the jua kali artisan.

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ONYANGO-OBBO: Forget Covid-19; think about camels and cannabis right now

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By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

After five months of restrictions to save us from the new coronavirus, lives have been saved, but many have been infected and died too. But with no cure or vaccine, we are actually surrendering because the personal and economic pain is unbearable. Rulers everywhere are reopening economies, and we are saying “kama mbaya mbaya” — let us go and die from the virus.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has been ruthlessly realistic as people go back to work and begin mingling, albeit with masks on. He has said infection numbers are “expected to increase exponentially.”

We have also spent a lot of time on how the virus will change the world. My suspicion is that the big changes will not be the obvious ones — like a dramatic shift to contactless payments, migration by those who can afford to less-contracted suburbs further out or a return to the drive-in cinema.

The signs of big changes are often hidden in plain view, and we tend to brush them off. So, I did an about-turn on a story in late April, that said Saudi Arabia would temporarily lift the ban on livestock imports and buy “600,000 sheep and 100,000 camels from Somalia in the next 30 days”.

The Gulf countries buy many sheep, cattle and camels from Somalia. It is the one trade that has largely been immune even to the civil war. By 2014, when Somalia was nowhere near the half-stable country it is, it still exported 4.6 million goats and sheep, 340,000 cattle and 77,000 camels worth $360 million (Sh36 billion) to the Gulf. These regional countries that laugh at Somalia as a failed state don’t hold a candle to it.

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On reading of Saudi Arabia lifting the ban, I got interested. But although camels got a bad rap when they were thought to be a source of the human infection with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), they are “well-known hosts to harbour different strains of the coronaviruses and were shown to produce effective neutralising antibodies to these viruses”.

Although it isn’t clear if it’s the reason Saudi Arabia lifted the ban, if that turns out to be a thing, the camel could emerge as the wonder beast out of this crisis. And, of course, Somalia, which has a leg up on rearing the animals, would be in for some big dough and could, well, finally rise from the ashes on the back of camels. Before long, many East African ranchers could be camel keepers.

‘Weed revolution’

That, though, might not be as dramatic as the revolution that would be wrought by cannabis, or “weed” as the good people on the street call it. A lot of good things have been said about cannabis and Covid-19. Some people swear it is a cure but, like claims about other leaves and herbs, there is no scientific proof.

A South African publication, City Press, reported this week that a group of local researchers are looking into the possible role cannabis can play in curing the coronavirus.

The Vaal University of Technology (VUT) and private firm Cannabisiness, said the report, hope to find out if the plant’s anti-inflammatory properties can alleviate the body’s inflammatory response to Covid-19. It notes that cannabis plants, as many know, have been used in traditional medicine in Africa for millenniums.

Last year, the duo partnered on combating inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis sufferers using cannabidiol, a chemical found in cannabis.

In a few African countries, especially in the south, the use of “weed” has been legalised and licences are being handed out to grow it for export.

How could a breakthrough be revolutionary? According to GBNews, despite extensive global prohibition, with only just over 50 countries having legalised some form of medical cannabis, and six have legalised cannabis for recreational use by adults, more than 263 million people consume cannabis every year.

There are an estimated 1.2 billion people suffering from medical conditions for which cannabis has shown to be of therapeutic value, it says. Adoption of medical cannabis treatment, by even a small proportion of that population, would create a massive market. And there is serious money. The total global cannabis market (regulated and illicit) is about $344 billion — nearly equal to the global smartphone market. Africa is in the top five regional markets for cannabis, worth $37.3 billion.

A coronavirus-fuelled blow-up of cannabis could create unstoppable demand for legalisation, and smart governments would be quick to cash in. Our prohibition-based moral order would be overthrown. Massive fortunes could be made by farmers, who would ditch most other crops (the teas and maize) and become ‘weedpreneurs’.

Life would be extremely interesting, and nothing like we have today.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3

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ADHERE: Will China be Africa’s trusted partner?

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By ADHERE CAVINCE

Not surprisingly, many of the apocalyptic projections of the impact of Covid-19 on Africa are yet to materialise. According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control, the continent had by May 30 registered 3,922 Covid-19 deaths and 135,292 cases. The global toll was 360,000 and case tally six million.

Africa’s young population, ecological dynamics, experience dealing with epidemics and mitigation measures by governments are seen as behind its better showing in managing the disease. But this could just be end of the good news.

With no vaccine in sight and World Health Organization indicating that the coronavirus is here to stay, the pandemic continues to be an existential threat to humanity. Yet, even in the face of such grim realities, the global consensus to wrest it is elusive — President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the WHO the latest indication that an international bipartisan approach to contain the pandemic is hard to realise.

Although Africa has performed reasonably well in saving lives so far, the same cannot be said of livelihoods. Many countries are reeling under the yolk of economic hardships. Firms are closing down. Millions of jobs are lost every week. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics survey report indicates that nearly a third of the population could not pay their house rent in April. Women constitute 51 per cent of the most afflicted.

As the US abandons its seat at the WHO high table, China is emphasising functional multilateralism; an idea that an overwhelming majority of the countries also subscribe to. In his address to the 73rd World Health Assembly, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, pledged $2 billion (Sh200 billion) to the WHO and called for solidarity to build a healthy global community.

Should China succeed in developing a Covid-19 vaccine, President Xi added, it will be both accessible and affordable, as a global public good. This view contrasts with that of Washington, where President Trump stated that the US will develop a vaccine only for the American people.

President Xi has also committed to pair 30 leading African hospitals with their Chinese counterparts and expedite construction of an Africa CDC headquarters.

The work of post-Covid-19 economic reconstruction will be a steep climb for emerging economies, especially those reliant on commodity exports. Many of the traditional partners of Africa in Europe are yet to climb out of the pandemic affliction, leaving them little room to extend a helping hand to the continent. With the US indifference towards Africa, only Beijing provides some dependable basis of long-term and pragmatic relations with the continent.

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Drawing from nearly two decades of sustained economic cooperation between China and Africa, surveys over the past five years indicate increased acceptability of Beijing as a strong development partner.

A 2016 Afrobarometer survey, for example, revealed that 76 per cent of Kenyans welcomed China’s economic cooperation with Nairobi. Two years later, an Ipsos poll in Kenya placed China ahead of the US, for the first time, as a development partner. Then in 2019 a Pew Research showed 68 per cent of Kenyans believed that a stronger Chinese economy is good for Nairobi.

But it will take serious efforts to translate this into productive economic cooperative arrangements that can be a force to pull Africa out of the Covid-19 conundrum. To promote industrialisation that can create the much-needed jobs and wealth, African countries should implement investor-friendly policies to tap from the burgeoning Chinese private sector.

Secondly, official development assistance from Beijing should be invested in productive sectors that create value for the majority and not a tiny elite.

Thirdly, according to statistics from the General Administration of Customs of China, the volume of trade between China and Africa was $204.19 billion in 2018. Africa’s exports to China was, however, $99.28 billion, a 70 per cent drop in surplus compared to 2017. Interestingly, 96 per cent of all African exports to China are oil, minerals and timber.

Although the surplus looks good continentally, at the country level, the prospects are totally different. Trade volume between Nairobi and China in 2017 was valued at $4 billion, yet Kenya only exported goods worth $500 million to Beijing that time.

China should, therefore, open up its vast market of 1.5 billion people to more African products. Recent sanitary and phytosanitary agreements signed between Kenya and China is a good example of efforts to promote the entry of African agricultural produce into the Chinese market.

Mr Cavince is a PhD student of International Relations. [email protected] @Cavinceworld

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NDINDA: Still hopeful despite silence on repatriation plans 

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By DIANA NDINDA

One week after we were informed that the repatriation process has been initiated, we don’t have much to ride on. We are still waiting for the results of what must be hectic coordination between the relevant authorities and Kenya Airways.

By now, I have learnt to manage my expectations. Between the frustration that comes with endless waiting, the excitement that rears its head when some progress is made and what seems like a slow process towards the end, I have learnt to be patient.

We anticipated that by this first week of June we would be preparing to travel, but that no longer looks like the case. I decide to email Kenya Airways about rebooking my return ticket.

The person who responds to my email rebooks me on a flight for June 17, the rider being that my travelling on that day will depend on the airspace reopening.

It is clear that all I can do now is wait for June 8, the date that Kenya Airways is set to resume passenger flights. Or perhaps I will be lucky and the repatriation flight will come through sooner.

Meanwhile, I need some money to buy meals and water, so I decide to take an okada (motorbike taxi) to the ATM instead of asking my friend Lanre to travel the 20 kilometres from his home to my hotel to take me.

The first bank’s ATM does not recognise my card, so I decide to move to another bank. At the second bank, I find out that the machines are being serviced, but since I am second in the queue, I decide to wait, sure that it will not be too long a wait.

After more than 20 minutes of queuing, people crowd around the two machines angrily protesting how long it is taking to fix them.

Some of them are wearing masks while others have them on their chins, which beats the purpose.

But since it is now mandatory in Nigeria to wear a  face mask when out in public, many feel obligated to have one on show.

The queue keeps growing, and after a while, it becomes a big crowd of frustrated people anxious to withdraw money.

They are shouting and gesturing animatedly and everyone seems to have an idea about how the problem can be solved. There’s even a commotion as one of the male customers tries to control the surging crowd, and it looks like it might soon degenerate into a fist fight.

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Eventually, I decide that this is not a safe space to be in, considering that there is no longer any social distancing to talk of.

Thankfully, the okada rider has been patiently waiting for me. I hop on  as we decide to try the ATMs at Maryland Mall, about five kilometres away.

The motorbike would not have been my chosen mode of transport for such a long distance because just like their counterparts in Kenya, the riders don’t pay much attention to traffic rules and so one does not feel very safe. But since I have no option, the okada it is.

At the mall, I get an ATM that is working and withdraw money that will tide me over for the next few days.

It is about 4pm when we start the journey back to the hotel. An errand that should have taken 20 minutes has taken one and a half hours.

By the time I alight from the motorbike, I am sweating profusely, and my clothes are sticking on my back like glue. As for my mouth and throat, they feel as if they are lined with cardboard – I am parched, and feel as if I could drink a gallon of water in one go.

I pay the rider and add a little extra in gratitude for all the waiting he had to endure, and then I walk to my room as fast as the sweltering heat allows. I plan to take a cooling shower before frying some eggs for supper.

Ms Ndinda is a research manager with Transform Research Africa Ltd. She is stranded in Nigeria, where she has been since March 21.                         

TOMORROW: My days revolve around sleeping and waking, during which I spend my time on social media, monitoring what is happening here in Nigeria and back home in Kenya. Prayer, messages, and sometimes calls from family and friends are what keep me going as I wait to finally travel home.

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