Monday, April 22, 2013

We have no war looming, let’s be brave and cut our military budget

PHOTO | JENNIFER MUIRURI | FILE

PHOTO | JENNIFER MUIRURI | FILE  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By WAGA ODONGO

The new government has set out to fight squalor, ignorance, want, and disease and its first target is reducing the government wage bill and exercising prudent management of public funds. Money is required for devolution and to supply all the promises made on the campaign trail.

As government officials cut through the thicket of VAT exemptions and try to straighten the recurrent expenditure Gordian knots, they should look at the security services and in particular the military.

So let us cut the military budget. Not a judicious trim, not a light shearing of its fringes, but a proper disembowelling. Last year the bill from the military — boots, tank treads, and mortars included — stood at Sh64 billion.

All public expenditure should be justified. The army makes nothing and costs a fortune. It is a prime candidate for the chop. Its spending is ring-fenced and always ramped up. No other government can spend so much annually and not have anything to show for it.

We all know we need more money in the health and education sectors because we believe that increased spending leads to better services. Increased military spending does not lead to more safety. We are, after all, short of money and facing no major threats.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), Kenya spends twice what Uganda spends on the military. That is a ludicrous state of affairs. Uganda is in a worse neighbourhood than Kenya. It has the LRA to worry about in the north, a bloody border with South Sudan, and is engaged in frequent adventurous expeditions into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Uganda also has the jackboot of the military comfortably resting on the neck of all its political and economic spheres. Yet we still spend twice the amount they do. It does not make sense.

We are engaged in an arms race with no war in sight. We outspend Ethiopia, which is about twice our size, has more internal squabbles, has a population more than twice ours, and is deep in a complicated relationship with its openly hostile neighbour, Eritrea.

Some would argue that the army is a reserve against hostility in the future. We do not spend billions on creating a cure for a disease that has not yet occurred.

Imagine if someone tried to justify spending Sh64 billion annually (subject to increase every year) on developing a cure for a disease that has yet to infect anyone.

The disease that could occur in the future has the potential to wipe us all out. So it is better to be safe than sorry. We would recommend that man for Mathari Hospital, or forgive him if his last name was Linturi.

At what point does eternal military vigilance start looking like paranoia? Should we not rightly assess the risk and conclude that it is exaggerated?

The cost of an eternal, billion-shilling vigilance against an unknowable and unforeseeable threat, as opposed to quick re-armament when the need arises, seems to be an easy choice to the insane.

This brings us to terrorism. The army is not of much use when it comes to fighting terrorists. Having the most expensively assembled military in East Africa did nothing to stop us from a spate of bombings last year. Tanks, fighter planes, and mortars are completely useless when it comes to preventing grenade attacks since they are used to repulse foreign aggression.

Reports coming out of towns in North Eastern indicate that they still have a Wild West flavour about them, with armed gunmen and amateur improvised explosives aficionados having their day out. The military has not helped much in this regard. Terrorism suspects are usually denied political recognition and treated as criminals and can, therefore, be dealt with by the security services.

Spending so much on a military when you do not have the threat to justify such expenditure and have roaring inequality against the poor, I think, should be considered a financial war crime.

The era of thick, well-buttered security contracts buttressed by impenetrable darkness is over. Parliament can now ask questions about the finer points of military spending. Impertinent questions cannot be waved away as imperilling state security. It is time to reach for the steel wool of reason and scrub out the excess from the military.

Think of all the hospitals we could build with a reduced military budget. Think of all the teachers we could employ. Now cut their budget.

Mollycoddled army of generals

Everyone believes there is a correlation between increased police spending and increased security. If you truly believe that military spending leads to safety, then why not argue for a doubling of the budget? Maybe then we will be two times safer. Or even three times.

At what point during a cost-benefit analysis of the army do we decide that increased spending does not lead to increased safety? If you can admit that military spending is not directly pegged to our safety, then why not halve the budget?

The reason spending on the military is so high is that civilian regimes everywhere fear cutting defence spending. They fear the military’s reaction. When a general with a reinforced epaulette due to the weight of his many medals stands before a civilian government asking for new military kit, it is hard to say no.

The military is a sort of god of public spending to which we must offer our fattened calves... or else. The money being spent looks more like protection money than a valuable investment.

Civilian regimes are always wary of the military. In Kenya, we learned from WikiLeaks that former president Kibaki refused a suggestion by Kofi Annan to put the military in the streets. Kagame, the latter-day democrat, had suggested in 2008 to have a military solution to the civilian problem to stop the situation from worsening. (When you scratch the surface of the internationally feted statesman, you find the general wriggling underneath).

The deference to generals does not only apply to them while they are in office. When senior generals retire from the military they are eased into well-padded sinecures to supplement their already generous pensions.

Go through the lists of management of government parastatals and corporations and you will see the title “Gen (Rtd)” fairly often. I have always wondered what talents career soldiers bring to these government parastatals. Perhaps they have some organisational acumen as a result of their time in the army that I miss. But why do private companies not snap them up after they hand over the epaulettes? Why is it that their acumen is only prized by companies whose board composition the government has a say in?

As Douglas MacArthur did not say: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away... into corporate boardrooms.

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Are we giving Samsung preferential treatment?

Samsung agreed to set up a manufacturing plant in Kenya which will employ over 1,000 workers. This is a splendid move considering the jobs and skills that the country will gain. Samsung’s East African boss, Robert Ngeru, said the Korean Chaebol is currently negotiating tax incentives with the Kenya Revenue Authority and the Ministry of Trade. He said the amount of money the Korean firm will stump up for the venture is directly related to the number of incentives that they will receive from the government.

I do not think Samsung needs any more incentives and the Kenyan government should not bend over backwards to accommodate them. Earlier in the year, Samsung intimated that they were targeting the government and public sector bodies with their electronics and mobile teleconferencing services (you know, in case anyone wants a video link to a European city for a personal engagement or whatever reason). They are also trying to push tablets into classrooms and have shown their willingness to supply solar-powered laptops that were a key campaign promise.

Furthermore, Samsung recently won a major government contract to supply electronic signatures to everyone filing tax returns. The tender for the National Identification Number (NID), which helps identify transaction parties and which has the potential to be used in all government databases, is worth Sh400 million.

This deal alone should be enough incentive, but we should ask about the potential conflict of interest in allowing a firm that sells consumer electronics to set up an online identity, verification ,and e-commerce system. Setting up (and possibly maintaining) such a system could give them undue advantage over their competitors.

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Let’s poison this ivory

China has the most tourists globally. Ivory trade is up globally. Are the two related? I read these facts on the same day and in the same newspaper, only a few pages apart. Perhaps it is a coincidence.

On the conservation front, I read rather interesting news from South Africa about how dyes can be used to colour rhinoceros horns to discourage traders from buying them and therefore killing the animals.

Also, the rhino horns could be poisoned with a toxin that makes those who come into contact with it very sick. In South East Asia men like inhaling ground rhino horn and believe it has aphrodisiac qualities. Inhaling powdered horn treated with the toxin would cause sickness and thereby discourage consumption.

Contaminating the horn (it does not affect the majestic beast) will devalue the stuff and hopefully lead to a reduction in poaching numbers.

Tourism is a major income earner and we should strive to adopt these new measures to protect our heritage.

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