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Pambazuka News

Egypt’s Power Game: Why Cairo is Boosting its Military Power

This peculiar pattern began to take shape as soon as Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi became president in 2014. High-profile arms deals signed during his first two years in power include a 5.2 billion Euro agreement with France to deliver 24 Rafale combat jets, a multi-mission naval frigate and air-to-air missiles; deals with Russia to buy 46 attack helicopters and 50 MIG-29 fighter aircrafts; and with the US to purchase F-16 jets and harpoon missiles. It was also reported that Egypt has initiated negotiations for the procurement of the advanced MIG-35 Russian fighter jets. Egypt also signed an agreement with Russia to build a $25 billion nuclear power plant in Dabaa, northern Egypt.

A great deal of Egypt’s military efforts has focused on bolstering its presence in the Mediterranean. In this regard, Egypt has been strongly backed by major European powers who are deeply concerned about the specters of terrorism and illegal immigration. As one analyst put it, the Europeans perceive Cairo to be “the only southern Mediterranean state that can help police the region and secure Europe’s southern border.” Towards that end, Paris, Berlin and London ramped up their arms sales to Egypt. Over the past few years, Egypt received corvettes, amphibious assault ships and a reconnaissance satellite from France, submarines from Germany, and armored vehicles and components for aircraft from the UK. Meanwhile, Egypt’s armed forced have conducted several joint military and counterterrorism exercises with France and the UK. As a consequence of these investments, it is fair to say that Egypt has become a major military player in the Mediterranean region.  

Cairo’s efforts to reinforce its naval power are not limited to the Mediterranean. It was recently reported that Egypt seeks to establish a military base in Eritrea, obviously to buttress its influence in the Red Sea and the Mandeb Strait, historically an Egyptian-dominated region. To the same end, Egypt formed the Southern Fleet Command in January 2017. As a result of these strenuous efforts, Egypt has now the sixth strongest navy in the world.  

Egypt’s promotion of its military capabilities figures prominently in all military reports and indices. According to the global analysis firm IHS Inc., Egypt upped its spending on military imports in 2015 to $2.268 billion, making it the fourth-largest weapons importer worldwide. This figure is corroborated by a report produced by Global Security, which indicates that around 60% of Egypt’s military budget, estimated at $5.2 billion, is spent on salaries, while the rest is earmarked for arms purchases and sales parts. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) --which tracks arms transactions based on production costs rather than procurement prices-- calculated that the value of arms transfers to Egypt in 2015 reached $1.475 billion, compared to $686 in 2010. In other words, arms transfers more than doubled between Sisi’s first year in power and Hosni Mubarak’s last year in office. According to the ranking developed by Global Fire Power in 2017, Egypt is ranked as the 12th most powerful army worldwide. With the exception of Turkey, it surpassed all other Middle Eastern states in the ranking, including military powerhouses such as Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Algeria.

Military Expenditure in Egypt (in Egyptian Pounds)
Source: “Egypt – Military Expenditure” Index Mundi

Not only did Egypt massively upgrade its military capabilities, but it soon put its military power to use on more than one regional front. In August 2014, two months into Sisi’s presidency, Egypt and the UAE launched secret airstrikes against Islamist militias fighting for the control of Tripoli, Libya. Multiple reports gave an account of the involvement of the two countries in other aerial attacks in Libya, including one that asserted that General Khalifa Haftar (the self-styled leader of the Libyan National Army) has clearly become “dependent on the Egyptian and UAE air forces to carry out his air operations.” Again, in retaliation for the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christian workers in Libya in February 2015, Egypt carried out airstrikes against positions of ISIS in eastern Libya. Other air strikes were launched in May 2017, to target training camps of militiamen who are allegedly implicated in terrorist attacks in homeland Egypt. Meanwhile, Egypt’s navy and air force have joined the ongoing Saudi-led offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen, although their contribution has remained marginal. This military-based posture represents a stark break from the past, especially the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule (1981-2011), when reluctance to get involved in combat was official policy (with participation in the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait being the sole exception). 

It is crucial, however, to notice that Sisi has hardly showed any enthusiasm to intervene militarily in both Syria and Yemen. There is reason to believe that, because of the complexity and intensity of both conflicts, the army leaders have expressed their reluctance to send Egyptian troops there. In general, when it comes to military action, Egypt’s preference seems to be for conducting aerial strikes, or participating in multinational coalitions where sizeable Egyptian forces could play crucial roles in low-risk, internationally-legitimate missions.   

The reason behind Cairo’s proclivity to upgrade its military power has been a subject of controversy. It has admittedly been fostered by Cairo’s pervasive sense of insecurity resulting from the intensification of multiple security threats surrounding Egypt. These include the heated armed insurgency by ISIS affiliates in northern Sinai; the spillover effects of the protracted civil war in Libya; the unremitting state of tension in the Gaza Strip; and the rising threat of terrorist attacks at home. Also, despite a stable four-decade peace treaty with Israel and current security cooperation at highest levels since the peace deal, Egypt’s geographic proximity to the Jewish state (which has a huge arsenal of conventional and non-conventional weapons, including some 200 nuclear heads) must be worrying for the Egyptian leadership. The upgrade is likewise part and parcel of the overall security strategies seen by Egypt’s security-minded leaders as the panacea for all political and social questions. Moreover, it might have partially been a response to the two decades of the leadership of Mohamed Hussein Tantawi (Egypt’s Minister of Defense, 1991-2011), which reportedly saw a decline in the army’s “professional readiness.” While some analysts argue that Egypt’s vast purchases of French and Russian weapons aims at diversifying its suppliers of military equipment, and lessening its dependence on the US, others believe that these purchases may be geared to “repressing an anticipated urban uprising that resembles Syria’s”

The validity of these interpretations notwithstanding, the decision to allocate huge resources to the procurement of jets, helicopter carriers and weapon systems in the throes of a mounting economic crisis reflects something else: Egypt’s intention to convert its uneasy one-sided dependency on wealthy Arab states into a mutual dependency. In other words, Egypt seeks to balance its economic inferiority with its military superiority, in a bid to elevate its status in the region and to avoid subordination to other Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia.

That is why Sisi has been more than willing, nearly eager, to put Egypt’s military strength to actual use. Egypt was the most vocal advocate about the creation of a joint Arab military force when the idea was popular in 2015, and it pledged to commit 40,000 troops to the force, but the plan never came to fruition. Moreover, Sisi vowed to provide protection to Gulf states whenever required, and he also expressed his readiness to send Egyptian troops to a future Palestinian state to help stabilize it. There is also reason to believe that Sisi feels inclined to intervene militarily in neighboring Libya, but only if a multilateral force that enjoys a UN mandate is formed.

Leadership aspirations are not alien to Egypt’s modern history. In fact, due to Egypt’s pivotal geographic location, demographic weight and cultural lure, the pursuit of regional leadership has been a constant feature of Egypt’s foreign policy since its independence. Egyptian rulers have seen themselves as the natural leaders of the Arab world, often falling into the trap of taking their country’s preeminence for granted. Following the revolution of the ‘Free Officers’ in 1952, the type of leader in power implied how that leading regional role was to be executed. Gamal Abdel-Nasser believed that Egypt’s hegemony cannot be imposed without a constantly active foreign policy that ardently asserts its presence in all inter-Arab issues with vigor and dogged determination. Sadat, on the other hand, was less zestful. He believed that Egypt is destined to lead and that Arabs are bound to follow in Egypt’s footsteps. Mubarak had to come to terms with the decline in Egypt’s capabilities vis-à-vis other states. He thus opted for a tripartite leadership of the Arab world (with Saudi Arabia and Syria).  

So over the past seven decades, Egypt led at times, was the first among equals at other times, and saw its influence fading at other times. Yet whatever the mode in effect, Egyptian rulers across different regimes shared an apprehension about the potential emergence of other regional hegemons. King Farouk in the late 1940s, Nasser in the late 1950s and Mubarak in the 1980s were alarmed by the rise of Iraq in the Arab state system, and they strove to thwart its influence.

Sisi is following in the footsteps of his predecessors. His decision to boost Egypt’s military strength is driven by his knowledge that his country has limited room for maneuver, and that its frail economy cannot eliminate its dependence on the largesse of wealthy Arab states, let alone compete with their economies. Only military prowess will enable Egypt to maintain its traditional political leverage and to avoid being swept away by the rapid reconfigurations of power in the region. Indeed, Sisi expressed, on numerous occasions, his personal irritation at his country’s dependence on the oil-rich Gulf states (who bankrolled his regime with more than $30 billion since his predecessor was ousted in 2013), and his hope that this dependence would soon come to an end.

The Egyptian president admitted that he did not purchase vast amounts of arms for defense purposes, but to project Egypt’s power in the Arab world. In April 2017, Sisi said: “Nobody will invade you from the outside. So why do we own these [military] capabilities? We own them because a huge vacuum has happened in our region ... in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq … this vacuum has to be filled, filled with these capabilities.”     

In a region that is in a state of great flux and challenge, Sisi’s power gamble may fail to produce the desired results. Also, given Egypt’s huge economic troubles, it stands to reason that his stupendous spending on arms is grossly irrational. But this is how Middle Eastern leaders who were trained in the ranks of the military usually think and act. They believe that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, tend to be fixated on raw forms of power, waste scarce resources on questionable ends, and more often than not fail to admit their faults.

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Egyptian Tank in the streets of Cairo, February 2011 in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Graffiti by protesters on Tank (near wheels) were masked or painted.[ Source: Essam Sharaf]

A letter to President Kenyatta—cc the IEBC

Dear Mr President,

Maybe you have been wondering about those “principles laid down in the Constitution”, to which the Supreme Court referred when deciding that the August 8 presidential election had not been conducted in accordance with the Constitution and the law.

Until the Court has delivered its full judgment, we shall not be sure precisely what the judges were referring to. But we would like to draw your attention to what seems to us as one of the most fundamental principles, which was perhaps not what the Court focussed on, but is an obvious aspect of “free and fair elections”, the phrase used in Articles 38(2) and 81(e) of the Constitution.

The principle to which we refer is the “level playing field”. The analogy is that of a sport, and the idea that neither side should have to struggle uphill while the other has an easy, downhill run.

Benefits of incumbency

The most obvious cause of tilted playing fields is incumbency: In various ways, whoever is in office in the run-up to an election has a range of possible strategies for winning that are beyond the reach of the other side.

The things that ruling parties, presidents and prime ministers use to win another term are legion. They may try to make peace (in their own or other countries) shortly before the election. They drop taxes or raise social benefits as close to elections as they dare. They open, inaugurate or launch things — airports, roads, railways, hospitals, and bridges, almost anything — as close to the election time as they dare. They confer other benefits, like recognising groups as tribes. They know that the public have rather short memories, and are likely to be most affected by what happens not long before polling day.

And those in power have other tools at their disposal: A huge number of employees, official vehicles (fuelled at public expense), broadcasting stations, security machines, that may somehow find themselves used to purvey the virtues of the regime. Incumbents may have easier access to public spaces — such as squares, parks and stadiums — for rallies. Not to mention money in the government coffers; governments have even been known to print money in the pre-election period, enabling the ruling individual or party to pay for campaigning, albeit at the cost of causing inflation, and rising cost of living for the citizens after the election.

The other side has far fewer techniques at their disposal: It can critique what government has done, or point out what it has not done, but it cannot itself do anything very much, other than promising to do great things if elected. But for the electors, it may be that a bird apparently in the hand is worth more than a whole flock in the bush of promises.

Looked at like this, the use of the opportunities available to incumbents does not seem very fair, does it?

Our constitution and law

The drafters of the Constitution were aware of these temptations. They focussed a lot on parties: These are not to “accept or use public resources to promote [their] interests or … candidates in elections”. There must be law to ensure that airtime is fairly allocated to parties, including during election campaigns, generally regulating broadcasting “to ensure fair election campaigning”. There must be a political parties fund: This is not some free gift (of taxpayers’ money, of course, because money does not grow on trees), but to reduce the temptation to use other public money in a surreptitious way, or to raise funds from sources that will look for pay-back after the prize of office is won.

The law adds to these provisions. Did you know, “No government shall publish any advertisements of achievements of the respective government either in the print media, electronic media, or by way of banners or hoardings in public places during the election period”? This is in the Election Offences Act s. 14(2) — you signed it into law, Mr President.

Among the most valuable resources are the human ones. But the same Act is clear that any public officer, who “publicly indicates support for or opposition against any party, side or candidate participating in an election” commits an offence and if convicted, may be fined up to Sh1 million or imprisoned for up to three years (Section 15(1)(b)). And they may not use public resources to start any development project to support any candidate in that area. We suggest this includes supporting the President, who is a candidate in every area.

Section 14(1) of this Act prohibits anyone (not just parties, but candidates or anyone else) using public resources to campaign.

We should perhaps (though we should not need to) remind you of the guarantee of political neutrality of the security forces. They must not act in a partisan manner, further any interest of a political party or cause or prejudice any legitimate political interest or political cause that is legitimate (Article 139 of the Constitution).

Other countries

Some countries go further. For nearly 20 years, Bangladesh required that for the six months run-up to elections, the Chief Justice should take over as head of government — to avoid the advantage of incumbency.

In the UK, during the election campaign period, public servants are expected to go into what is, rather unfortunately, known as “purdah”: They are expected to avoid doing or saying anything that could help either side in the forthcoming election.

In many countries, it is well established that major development and policy initiatives should not be taken by government in the run-up to elections.

Your position

You have been placed in an unusual position. You are still President, but you are not guaranteed to be in that position for longer than the time before the swearing in of whoever is elected on October 17.

There are clear legal rules for some issues. We should see no more of the Presidential Delivery Unit, telling us (using public money to do so) that the Jubilee government has done great things. No county commissioner or regional coordinator should be preaching the virtues of your administration (or indeed criticising it). These are clearly against the law. And let us not see “goodies” dispensed to voters in the form of title deeds, or (meaningless) recognition of tribes.

You cannot be prosecuted; the civil servants who carry out the bidding of the office of the President are not protected.

Even if you are immune from prosecution, the principles of the Constitution on elections remain. You should abide by them.


The commission is not only in charge of administration of elections; it is the overseer of fair behaviour. It may, for example, seize public vehicles used for elections. It may prosecute offenders under the elections legislation.

Indeed, if it fails to carry out this policing function it is in breach of this duty — and failing to respect the principle of the Constitution and the law.


As President — under whatever circumstances — you have the obligation to respect, uphold and safeguard the Constitution (stressed by Article 131). Whether or not you are technically a temporary incumbent under Article 134, your current role is a temporary one. It is clear that you should not perform functions that have vote-getting implications. It is regrettable that you appear already to have breached this principle in your pressurising members of Parliament over their choices of Speaker in each house.

A president re-elected on the basis of the special position, immunities, impunities and privileges, cannot really command the respect of all citizens and others. Worse would be a president re-elected on the basis of abuse of the law and the Constitution. Such situations also demean the high office that you have held for the last four-plus years, now hold in a different situation, and hope to hold again.

This time round, Mr President, can Kenyans see what a level playing field looks like?

* JILL COTTRELL GHAI and YASH PAL GHAI, both noted legal scholars, work with Katiba Institute, a Kenyan organization established to promote knowledge of constitutionalism and to facilitate implementation of Kenya’s constitution.



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Kenya’s Supreme Court ruling and democratic consolidation in Africa

As expected, the Supreme Court’s annulment of Kenya’s 8 August 2017 presidential election over “irregularities and illegalities” has provoked mixed reactions. However, all seem agreed that the justices of the apex court demonstrated rare courage in upholding the will of the people over and above other considerations including the risks of ruling against a usually powerful sitting African president.

At issue was the deployment of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the electoral process, particularly in the vote tallying and results transmission. But events leading up to Election Day were ominous, especially the gruesome murder a week to the polls, of Chris Msando, the acting head of the ICT department of Kenya’s Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The fact that the IEBC commissioners were only appointed into office in January and therefore had limited time to organise a national election of such magnitude was another big challenge on its own.

Still, Kenyans had been hopeful that they could put behind them the sad experience of the 2007 bloody elections that resulted in the avoidable deaths of more than 1,000 people. As part of the aftermath, Uhuru Kenyatta, then a Deputy Prime Minister, was dragged to the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity, which were later dropped.

A few Kenyans still lost their lives in the aftermath of the latest polls and while Msando’s murder remains unresolved, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court David Maraga had on 2 August 2017 issued a statement condemning what he called “increasing pressure” on the judiciary by the political parties. In addition to this,, on 4 August, offices of the main opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) were ransacked allegedly by state security operatives.

So, as the world watched the unravelling fierce presidential contest with a keen interest NASA leader Raila Odinga lodged a complaint alleging that the IEBC’s ICT system had been hacked. When the IEBC declared President Uhuru Kenyatta re-elected with 54% of the vote, Odinga challenged the result at the Supreme Court.

Before the Court’s 4-2 majority ruling on 1 September 2017 which nullified the poll results and ordered for a fresh election within 60 days from that date, tension had again risen in Kenya, which is no stranger to election violence.

United by a common language Swahili, the ethnic diversity of the “Safari Nation” of some 46 million people is a recipe for both a vibrant national culture and divisive political conflict. Kenya has also had more than its own fair share of global terrorism, notably in 1998 when more than 200 people were killed at the US Embassy in Nairobi in an Al-Qaeda attack; and subsequent attacks by the Somalia-based Islamist militant Al-Shabab in Nairobi (2013) and at Garissa University College, northeast Kenya (2015).

On the economic front, the country faces high unemployment, rising crime rates and poverty levels compounded by regular bouts of droughts with the latest report of UN humanitarian agencies putting the number of the population affected at 5.6 million, including 3.4 million who are food insecure.

These harsh statistics could not have been lost on the Kenyan Supreme Court justices in reaching their decision to annul the poll result. Armed with convincing evidence provided by information technology (IT) experts, the judges were left in no doubt that justice must be served through a vote re-run instead of pandering to the exigencies of cost or the potential jeopardy to their individual career.

This Supreme Court ruling raises a number of fundamental questions on the capacity of electoral management bodies (EMBs) to conduct free, fair, transparent, credible and peaceful elections; the deployment of new technology in the electoral process; functions of poll observers, and the role of the judiciary in Africa’s democratic consolidation.

This is not first time that a presidential vote has been cancelled in Africa (Nigeria’s military president Ibrahim Babangida did so with military fiat in 1993 and the country may not have fully recovered from the consequences of that annulment), but it is a first for the judiciary to invalidate the result of an election after an electoral commission has declared an elected sitting president victorious.

Also, just like the principled stance taken by the Electoral Commission of The Gambia to insist, even in the face of apparent political risk, that then President Yahya Jammeh lost the December 2016 presidential election, there is an abiding lesson from the bold step taken by the Kenyan Supreme Court judges for the strengthening of democracy in Africa.

The independence of the judiciary and the national electoral body is critical to the delivery of credible elections and the promotion of democratic principles, just as the credibility of any election depends on the integrity of the election administrator.

Another take-away from the Kenyan electoral experience is the need for capacity strengthening of election management bodies to enable them to deliver on their very sensitive and delicate mandate. It has since emerged from a leaked memo by the IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati to the Chief Executive Officer Ezra Chiloba that all had not been well with the Commission. In the memo, which only surfaced after the Supreme Court’s decision, the Chairman was reported to have cited some 12 concerns and/or “irregularities” related to electoral procedures in the bungled August 8 election, including costly satellite phones for results transmission that were never used.

The memo also alleged that some 10,366 out of the 40,883 polling stations had sent text results without the accompanying legal form 34A for over 4,6 million votes from the 19.6 million voters registered by the Commission.  It further disclosed that two IEBC IT staff members reportedly created two separate accounts with the Chairman’s username and password without his knowledge or consent and used the said accounts to undertake 9,934 transactions. If this was the case, it is curious that the same chairman would declare a winner in such a flawed contest!

As expected, opposition leader Odinga, whose petition resulted in the overturning of the poll results, has latched onto these latest allegations, claiming a vindication of his position and insisting that the IEBC staffers involved must face prosecution.

It remains to be seen how the Commission handles this potentially explosive situation. But beyond the political blame-game, the other big lesson for Africa from the Kenyan experience is the need for due diligence in the introduction of technology in the electoral process. There is no doubt that ICT brings efficiency to electoral process, but it should be deployed with maximum caution and only after effective sensitisation/training, pre-testing and experience-sharing to maximize its benefits to avoid unintended consequences.

Similarly, the Kenyan example also exposes the limitations of election observers. Without a doubt, election observation is an integral part of Africa’s political evolution from the era of military dictatorships and flawed governance systems to the contemporary period of multiparty democracy.

For instance, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has used election observation as one of its electoral assistance initiatives over the past decade to promote electoral integrity, conflict prevention and democratic governance in the region, with the result that all 15 member States of the regional economic bloc are operating democracies today.

Even so, like in all human endeavours, there is room for improvement to this mechanism, including in the area of funding, which is currently provided mainly by external partners. The high cost of elections is a subject for another discussion, but some critics have already jumped to the wrong conclusion, blaming international observers for not going deep enough as the Supreme Court justices in their assessment of Kenya’s last electoral process.

Odinga, a former Kenyan prime minister and four-time presidential candidate who, incidentally headed the African Union (AU) Election Observation Mission to the Kingdom of Lesotho in February 2015, has even dismissed the work of international observers as “cosmetic,” but without saying what efforts he had made toward improving the mechanism.

Without holding brief for election observers, whether local or international, this criticism is rather harsh. It is based largely on the non-appreciation of the context within which election observers operate, and the limited scope of their mandate, given that elections are fundamentally, a sovereign national responsibility. Observers only add value to the process.

In addition unlike election monitors, observers’ mandate is to observe, document and report their findings with the purpose of improving on-going or future electoral processes. It is unlikely that Kenya’s IEBC would allow observers a free access to their database or the operations of their sensitive ICT system, which the Supreme Court examined in detail before reaching its verdict.

More importantly, elections are not an event, but a dynamic process, covering pre-, during and post-election periods, and each phase is critical to the success or failure of the process.

Perhaps, in their preliminary reports, different organisations such as the European Union (EU), Commonwealth, AU, and America’s National Democratic Institute (NDI) among others, that deployed more than 400 international observers to Kenya ought to have taken Odinga’s hacking allegation more seriously and highlighted its implications on the outcome of the electoral process, instead of giving a thumbs-up to the vote.

On the whole, Kenya’s experience has clearly shown that the organisation of periodic elections as a critical aspect of the democratic process is still a learning curve for all stakeholders – governments and their agencies, politicians, EMBs, non-State actors including civil society, the media, election observers, development partners, and even the electorate.

Another lesson is that the deployment of technology in electoral process is still work in progress. There is also the need to strengthen the independence of the judiciary, sensitisation of all stakeholders on the role of election observation, and a critical review of the mandate of election observers to address all key aspects of the electoral process including the use of ICT.

* PAUL EJIME is an international media & communications specialist. Email:; Twitter: @paulejime5.



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What Cuba can teach America about freedom

“…Cubans have nothing.” These were the last words exchanged between a stranger and myself as we both stood in line at JFK Airport waiting to check our bags for a flight to Havana. Three minutes before this, I had stood in line, chatting with my friend waiting to check our over-sized luggage and a young woman stood behind us eyeing our bags. She asked, “Are you going to Cuba?”

Unable to contain my excitement, I exclaimed, “Yeah, it’s our first time!”

She didn’t seem to share in my enthusiasm, as she asked, “Are you staying for a long time?”

“No, just a few days”, I replied.

Her face did not betray her underlying motives for posing this line of questioning. “Well, are you leaving stuff there? I mean, that is a lot of stuff.”

Only then did I realize that I had become a part of a conversation having little to do with me fulfilling a life-long dream of traveling to Cuba. After letting her know that we had no intentions on leaving things there, I asked why she was so concerned with our baggage.

Her voice was exasperated. “Cubans are really poor. It’s a third-world country.”

Having traveled to quite a few poor countries, I remained confused. Why was it unacceptable to bring a big luggage to Cuba? Had I missed something in my combing through travel blogs on Cuba about being culturally sensitive with the size of my luggage? “I’ve been to other so-called third world countries with this same luggage. I don’t understand why it’s a problem.”

Again, with an air of irritation, she replied, "Cuba is different: Cubans have nothing.”

Our formal conversation ended shortly after that. I, though, continued the conversation in my head and with my travel companions.

I wanted to respond to the young woman with the statistics and anecdotes that I had accumulated over the years in studying the country that showed Cubans being more socially developed than the U.S. I also wanted to ask what exactly did she mean by “nothing?”—didn’t they have breath in their bodies? Isn’t that something? That she was particularly focused on my luggage, I could only deduce that she was speaking in terms of material wealth. I wanted to explain how American notions of poverty are also so much direr when cast on to other countries, but much more forgiving when applied to the U.S. I didn’t say any of this to her, quite frankly, because she said that it was her third trip to the island. I did not have the first-hand experience to challenge her claims. I could only bow out gracefully as I awkwardly dragged my bag to the next weigh station.

Up until my actual trip to Cuba, I had made a habit of reading about this island just 90 miles south of Florida, capable of stoking so much ire and pity in the American psyche. I had tried to read and engage the history of the country from relatively balanced viewpoints: from Carlos Moore’s Pinchon: Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba to Fidel Castro’s War, Racism, and Economic Injustice. The native literature always portrays a more complex and evolving social and economic landscape than that depicted in U.S. media.

The quantitative evidence also shows that Cubans were fairing much better than most. Infant mortality rates are around 4.5 deaths per 1,000 births in Cuba and 6.1 deaths per 1,000 births in the U.S. States like Alabama have infant mortality rates as high as 8.7 per 1,000 births. Cuba also has the lowest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the western hemisphere. Contrast this with places like Washington D.C. HIV/AIDS is officially an epidemic in D.C. Still, I knew that there was only so far that being bookish can take you in a debate predicated mostly on people’s lived experiences.

The exchange in the airport was also not the first time that I had been charged with being insensitive to the plight of Cuban people. Once, as a Teaching Assistant for an Introduction to Comparative Politics class, I was attempting to explain to my students how modernization theory, with its push for liberal democracy and capitalism, does not necessarily lead to easy acquisition of social goods. I provided Cuba as an example of a country that does not subscribe to the typical ideals of democracy and capitalism, however the country has less poverty and higher literacy rates than a lot of so-called democracies. A student immediately exclaimed, while raising his hand, “Yeah, but Cubans don’t have anything. My family is from Cuba, and they all hate it there.” At that point in time, I had no personal experience to counter his claim. To the student, I could only give the same reticent look that I gave the stranger in the airport.

That conversation and others like it haunted me all the way until we landed in Jose Marti International Airport. I expected the airport to look like one that I had visited in West Africa, where the floor was still dirt and there was no air conditioning or conveyor belt to bring out the bags (this was because the airport was undergoing renovations)—this was what I imagined from a country that had nothing. Instead, I found an airport similar to many small airports that I had been to both abroad and in the U.S. I found people picking up 40-inch plasma televisions and expensive sound systems from the cargo area. I did not get the feeling that people would be comfortable bringing such high-end electronics (at least not that openly) into a place where people have “nothing”.

Cuba is the only country that I had ever visited where not once did I encounter a beggar on the street. It was also the first country where I received the same prices as the locals when I shopped in the market, despite my obviously American accent.  The rest of my experience in Cuba only fortified my initial sentiments: our notions of nothing are inextricably tied to a history of political propaganda against our neighbor to the South.

The unqualified victimization of Cubans is most evident in the unfolding of this past weekend with the onslaught of Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean and parts of the U.S. On Friday, Cuba experienced its first category-5 hurricane in 80 years. Parts of the island remain flooded, infrastructure remains destroyed, and thousands are still unable to return home. With such catastrophic damage on such a small island, the death toll reached 10.

The Cuban government was able to mitigate the effects of Hurricane Irma through its Hurricane Response System, which the government created in 1963. Included in the response system is an evacuation plan that relocates those most likely to be affected to safe shelters. Despite domestic damages, the Cuban government has already sent 750 health workers to neighboring islands in the Caribbean that suffered from the storm.

There has been very little attention paid to the government’s preparedness or continued commitment to sending health workers abroad when needed. There has also been scant acknowledgement that Cubans are 15 times less likely to die from hurricanes than Americans, according to the Center for International Policy. And, unlike the current American government, the Cuban government has long acknowledged and put in place measures to address climate, which is inarguably linked to the rise in natural disasters.

With respect to Cuba, the American conception of nothing is not understood in conventional economic terms, but through a liberal rendition of freedom. With this version of freedom comes a set of values that if not perpetuated, suggest an un-freedom worse than access to a livable life. In this country, we value freedom to fail and struggle more than the right to a standard in our quality of life.

This is especially evident in Donald Trump’s plans to continue with economic sanctions in Cuba until the Cuban government implements internationally supervised elections and freedom of speech, among other traditionally liberal American political institutions. Otherwise, how could anyone choose a place like Cuba to concentrate their philanthropic resources when only a few miles south of the island is another country where political, economic, and social infrastructure have been interminably assailed since 1804?

The notable Anthropologist Paul Farmer aptly demonstrates the racialized and politicized ways in which Americans can easily see Cubans as victims, despite their advancements in standard of living, while Haitians are viewed as a liability.

There are consequences for painting Cuba with such broad strokes. In one sense to consistently refer to Cubans as impoverished and destitute reproduces a narrative that serves larger American, capitalist interests. Despite numerous attempts at political usurpation and a full embargo since 1962, the country continues to provide basic necessities to its population and those wishing to become citizens. No other country could boast of such a thing. We also miss the opportunity to learn from Cuba.

This is not to say that the country is a utopia, no country is. And, the American media has provided a litany of both truths and ‘alternative facts’ about Cuba. However, Cuba can be more to Americans than just a missionary trip. It can provide us with useful social and economic models (as well as solidarity) in our own struggles for livable wages, healthcare, and decent housing.

Using Cuba as one of many models may in fact alter our notions of ‘nothing’ and ‘freedom’ so that the two are not so inextricably tied together. As more and more Americans flock to Cuba, I hope that the national discourse begins to counter the one-sided narrative that we’ve been reproducing since the Cold War.       

* T.D. HARPER-SHIPMAN is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research interests include political economy, international development, Africa, Latin America, and human rights.



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China “means business” when it talks of an “ecological civilization”

One of the things that have puzzled me a lot over the continued participation of Chinese nationals in galamsey (illegal artisanal mining) in Ghana – given the overwhelming visual evidence that attests to the horrendous devastation that galamsey is wreaking on the environment in Ghana – is why the Government of China is not forcing its nationals to end their participation in the wanton wrecking of the Ghanaian environment.

For I have never believed that the destruction of Ghana can be countenanced by the Chinese state.

The reason is that I heard one of the most respected Chinese leaders, the late Premier Zhou Enlai (formerly spelt Chou En-Lai) who ruled China with Chairman Mao Zedong from 1949 until his death in January 1976, say that the Chinese people do not think in terms of “decades or even hundreds of years but in thousands of years.” He was talking to a group of African writers, including myself, who met with him in Beijing in 1958. He actually advanced the notion that because of its traditional concern for the environment, China would be the only country that would survive a nuclear holocaust.

“Our culture is used to the planting of trees,” Premier Zhou said. “So, as we plant trees for thousands of years, the Chinese countryside will come to life again and recover from the ravages of nuclear radiation.”

I thought at the time that this was an impossible pipedream. But other “impossible” things have happened in China since 1958, so I am now not so sure that Premier Zhou's prediction was all that unrealistic.

For instance: in 1958, China's GDP per capita was estimated at only $77 per annum. By 2016, this had grown to $8,126.

Total GDP in China was $50,40 billion in 1958. In 2016, GDP totaled $11,202.92 billion!

Surely, a certain vision survived China's many internal political upheavals to bring such an enormous economic growth about? That vision did not apply only to GDP growth. Indeed, there is evidence that “ecological civilisation” has been growing in prominence in China's socio-economic calculations of late.

According to the London Guardian, an environmental lawyer called James Thornton has been helping to draw up the legal framework for evolving China’s ‘ecological civilisation’.

An article in the Guardian of 11 September 2017 says James Thornton is  chief executive of ClientEarth, and, “in his four decades of legal practice across three continents …. never lost a case.” His “specialty is suing governments and corporations on behalf of his only client – the Earth – and he’s very good at it.” He started ClientEarth, as a public interest environmental law firm in London in 2007.

The Guardian reports that “first invited to Beijing in 2014 to help implement China’s new law allowing NGOs to sue polluting companies for the first time, Thornton has seen how serious the world’s biggest polluter [China] is about addressing its environmental problems. He believes their concept of “ecological civilisation” is the best formulation he’s heard for the new environmental story we must tell. Facing the ruin of their environment, the Chinese looked hard and amended their constitution. This core document now calls for the building of an ecological civilisation. [he says]. “We built an agricultural, then an industrial, and now must build an ecological civilisation.” [the Chinese constitution now proclaims.]

Thornton declared to the Guardian: “I have no cynicism about whether they mean to do it. My job is to try and clean up the environment for future generations. The Chinese really want to do that.” This task “is made possible by China’s 2,500-year tradition of centralised government.”

 “They said, we have a long-term vision, we want to be here in another 2,000 years and that will only happen if we clean up the environment. So we have determined that we’re going to deal with our environmental problems and we’re going to do so in a very thoroughgoing way.”

The Guardian article added: “Thornton said it helps that most of the politburo are engineers, rather than political scientists, lawyers or economists, as in the west.

So when they actually decide that there is a problem – and it takes actual evidence to get them there – they define the problem and then their next question is: what’s the solution? How can we afford it, how quickly can we do it, and how can we marshal all forces in society to get there?”

 “At first, Thornton thought this was rhetoric. [But then he] "realised it wasn’t rhetorical. So by the time we got deep into conversation and I first heard the notion of ecological civilisation, I asked several very senior officials, ‘Is this serious?’ And they said ‘Yes, absolutely serious’. It's been central Chinese policy for some years.”

With a group of Chinese experts and five other westerners, Thornton spent 18 months analysing how to create the legal structures for an ecological civilisation. They then gave recommendations for how to create the rule of law to deliver it.

Says Thornton: “That’s typical of what they’re doing. They’ve thrown hundreds of their best intellectuals at designing the theoretical framework for each of the pieces of the architecture of ecological civilisation.” These include economic, industrial and agricultural policies for an ecological civilisation”.

 “In the west, efforts to address environmental problems are fragmentary and not well funded. Whereas in China... suddenly you have this direction from the top on down asking all of these top people over the course of the next few decades: How does everything have to change to deliver this?”

Having read all that about China’s new environmental  policy, I ask a question which I have often asked myself: if China has adopted such an enlightened policy towards tackling its own environmental problems, why is it so selfish that it can't see the damage that the alliance of Ghanaian nation-wreckers and Chinese nationals called galamseyers are doing to the environment in Ghana?

I am certain that China possesses the manpower and analytical capability to assess the environmental devastation facing Ghana and that Chinese analysts would agree with me that (1) China must ban the exportation to Ghana of all machines capable of being used for galamsey operations and (2) any Chinese nationals who return to China after being expelled from Ghana for engaging in galamsey operations, will suffer severe punishment in China when they return to China.

I think that an opportunity was actually missed when the chair of the Inter-Ministerial Task Force overseeing Operation Vanguard, Prof Kwabena Frimpong Boateng, was not included in the delegation led by the Vice-President, Mr Mahamudu Bawumia, to China for discussions with the Chinese Government on economic co-operation. That mistake must be rectified as soon as possible.

In preparation for such a visit, the Ghana authorities must commission a thorough-going study on how the rivers, streams water-bodies and farmlands destroyed by galamsey can be reclaimed or rehabilitated, and how much it will cost. Our Government should take the findings of the study to China, and engage in a proper and realistic dialogue with the Chinese authorities on how they can assist Ghana to carry out the recommendations of the study.

Maybe Ghana should engage the services of Client-Earth for such a study?

* CAMERON DUODU is a veteran Ghanaian journalist and author.



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Comment by Nefertari Ahmose on April 28, 2008 at 12:40pm
In reply to the discussion titled Pan Africans, enemy of the people to which I made a reply, but it would seem got lost in this web of things. First of all who are the people? Are they the masses on the continent of Africa and the African Diaspora in the West? or, are they individuals that maintain the interests of neo-colonialism over their own people? Now, before I go putting designation on others, I would first wait for others to define who they are. So that I can see if they are one with me and my interests. I will not define Morgan Tsvangirai, Clarence Thomas or Bruce Golding it is for them to state who they are and I hope they are in line with what constitute the good care, protection and provision of the masses of African people found suffering and struggling in every part of this world. To say pan Africans are enemies of the people is a very strong statement indeed. We are our natural selves as to whom we identify with is another concern. If the word Wafrakan taken from the Kiafrakan language with Kiswahili and Amharic roots is used to designate and define all Africans, then it behoves all Africans to work not only in their own interests, but in the interests of others as well. It is what we identify with that tell us who we are. We need to unite as one African people with distinction. Time for the fractions of who we are become united with the whole and together we can move ahead successfully. I am, Nefertari A. Ahmose, Founder, Office of Black Sovereign, Queendom of Wafrakan.

Comment by Nefertari Ahmose on April 28, 2008 at 12:14pm
As a pan African people lack of money and lack or representation among others have plagued us as a people. I come forward with Black Sovereign the Black Alternative as an office for leadership representation for our people. To mobilize us and give us financial access. I have created Merkhutu and with Merkhutu which is the currency used by the Queendom of Wafrakan and its affiliated organizations and institutions. The Queendom offers through the Royal Wafrakan Insurance benefits in healthcare, housing, education to people who pay into the system using Merkhutu as the medium of exchange. Through the Royal Wafrakan University education in Kiafran and Wafrakan studies are available in workshops and tele-classes. Merkhutu is controlled by the Royal Bank of Wafrakan. Websites for information will soon be available. People interested in services offered by the Queendom may send an e-mail to Thank you. I am, Nefertari A Ahmose, Founder, Queendom of Wafrakan.

Comment by jocelyn braddell on April 27, 2008 at 9:07am
At 8:56am on April 27th, 2008, jocelyn braddell said…
Dear Friends, This is a little story that shows that friendship is not alone valued for its confidence building but that small measures of aid can give people the impetus for extraordinary outcome.
Early in the history of my magazine The Handstand I received material from a sad and shy young Palestinian in a refugee camp (Deheishe) near Bethlehem. He felt the loss of happy innocent childhood for Palestinian children and he and some other young teenagers started a youthclub for very young children to dance and sing there, make jokes together, feel friendship develop. after 2-3 years they got a computer and started a website and learnt to use the machine hoping to get in touch with the outside world for help and aid for their project. The boy even achieved a visit to supporters in England, although the revelation of other life-styles impressed him he was amazed by the English inability to
communicate with him, or to talk atall, silence on car journeys, during meals etc. seemed incredible to him! This young boy grew up to late teens experiencing every measure of Israeli occupation of his country and he thought to study. He wrote to many many governments to appeal for a student study in medicine - only the Ukraine Government replied to him. He travelled to Ukraine late last year and entered the Campus to learn a new language and to begin that inexorably difficult study of medicine. What money would support him? His father has not been allowed to work by Israel govt. edict for many many Palestinian men and thus his parents can only send him a very small sum. He is lonely, he must try to communicate in Ukraine language and try to eat enough to keep going. I recently received this letter from him which is so affectionate and typical of his strong will that I am sure you, dear friends will take the measure of it for your own community.
dearest Jocelyn,
thank you very much for sending that great book to me, i have got it, it reached me to my campus, and i showed it to my medical teacher and she said its really really great. and she told me that it will help me a lot, and the next years. i am really grateful for you to send that book to me.
and about the palestinian doctor, please dont leave him or he would forget about me, so, please remind him often, and please make sure that he has sent me the message .
dear jocelyn plz dont make your self tired with me, please take care of yourself, ad dont be sad or unhappy for me, because you should know that i would never stop or give up.
please agine , take care of your self and have all my worm greeting.
PS. plz dont get angry from me because i took some time to set on the internet, but it was because of studies.

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