The chairperson of Uganda’s Electoral Commission, Justice Simon Mugenyi Byabakama has declared the National Resistance Movement (NRM) presidential flagbearer, fifth-time incumbent Yoweri Kaguta Tibuhaburwa Museveni, winner of the just concluded 2021 presidential polls. The emotive dust in the cyber-political atmosphere is yet to settle down. The country’s electorate together with all those associated with Uganda diplomatically or otherwise are also yet to come to terms with the outcome of the 2021 elections. In the meantime, the debate about liberal democracy within the parameters of national sovereignty pitted against cyber-globality rages on.
The birth of electoral fundamentalism: the February 1962 polls
As British colonial rule in Uganda wound up, the 1949 Local Government Ordinance intentionally placed authority at sub-national levels (local government) in the monarchical set-up in all kingdom areas. This legal framework precipitated a double move: the minorisation of a great many social groups in those kingdom areas and the provincialisation of social groups in non-kingdom areas. The 1949 Ordinance here buttressed the process already underwritten by the 1900 (B)Uganda Agreement. The subsequent passing of the 1955 District Councils Ordinance, however, augured the prospect for democratisation. The promulgation of the new ordinance drew the contours of an inaugural democratic dispensation in which the holding of universal adult suffrage became sacrosanct.
The first half of the 1950s in Uganda had seen two important developments on the political stage: the Uganda National Congress (UNC) and the Democratic Party (DP), respectively founded as political parties in 1952 and 1954. These parties appealed to different groups for political followership. Although nationalist in rhetoric, the UNC — first under the leadership of I.K. Musaazi — was already stunted by the ethnic and religious bases of Ugandan politics.
So divisive along ethnic and religious lines were the politics articulated by the UNC that it eventually split into factions. The most prominent faction was Milton A. Obote’s UNC, which subsequently metamorphosed into the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) after a merger with the 1958-founded Uganda Peoples’ Union. The formation of the DP in 1954, on the other hand, was a response to the struggle for power dating back to the 1890s from which the British colonists and their Protestant allies in Buganda had emerged victorious.
Taking advantage of democratisation reforms in motion in Buganda since the late 1940s, the Ganda Catholic élite made a bid to challenge the chiefly Protestant establishment at Mmengo. They thus fielded Omulamuzi Matayo Mugwanya for Katikiroship — a far more influential premiership position in Buganda Kingdom hitherto reserved for Protestants. The establishment closed ranks to ensure Mugwanya was not elected. Matayo Mugwanya then became first President-General of the DP, a party whose initial raison d’être was to challenge the Protestant establishment at Mmengo and elsewhere. With the formation of the UPC and the DP (soon after under the leadership of Benedicto Kiwanuka), political lines were more boldly drawn in the run-up to Uganda’s accession to independence from British colonial rule. At stake, however, was a viable system of administration for independent Uganda: a political framework of federalism (ethnic or otherwise) was pitted against that of centralism (by premiership or otherwise).
The consequential national elections set in February 1962 framed the choice for a political framework for independent Uganda in stark contrast: federalism versus centralism. The report of a commission appointed by the folding colonial administration under the chairmanship of Lord Munster, published in 1961, had recommended that Uganda should be a single democratic state with a strong central government.
The Munster Commission Report, however, underscored that the relationship between the central government and Buganda should be federal in nature, while that with the other kingdom areas of Ankole, Bunyoro, Toro and the Territory of Busoga, should be semi-federal. So, then, were the 1962 polls, with late colonial British brinkmanship, cast in a deeply fundamentalist fashion. The coming together of Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress with the Mmengo establishment under the auspices of the Kabaka Yekka party — characteristic of a political matrimony full of unholy romance — afforded an electoral victory to Obote as the new Prime Minister-elect. A fundamentalist belief in universal adult suffrage to secure rather than challenge a preferred political status quo was hence set in motion for would-be independent Uganda.
The coming of age of electoral fundamentalism: the December 1980 polls
Against the backdrop of the 1980 ballot was the firing bullet. On the morning of 30 October 1978 thousands of Idi Amin’s troops crossed into northwest Tanzania and occupied the Kagera Salient, an area of 710 square miles. It took two months for the Tanzanians to marshal their army. In January 1979, they pushed through Kagera, crossed the border and invaded Uganda. In their company were militias composed of Ugandan exiles.
Amin’s military put up a desultory defense. Tanzanian troops, alongside a cocktail of soldiering Ugandan exiles, made fast progress: on 11 April 1979 they victoriously marched into Uganda’s capital and put an end to Idi Amin’s government. In the wake of Amin’s ousting, the de-facto Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) authority eventually called for national elections to choose the leaders who would form a new government. The electoral commission, it is reported, aimed to establish polling stations for every 1,000 voters.
Though the equipment was almost entirely absent — three months before the election day the then electoral commission asked foreign governments for 50 duplicating machines, 200 typewriters, 10,000 duplicating stencils, 15,000 ballot boxes, 15,000 padlocks, 250 calculators, 12,000 lanterns, and 100 Land Rovers to transport election materials — crowds of up to 2,000 people queued to vote in Kampala, and voters in Mbarara, for instance, walked as far as ten miles in order to reach their polling stations. In Gulu, it was reported, there were so many voters that by 11 a.m. election officials had run out of ballot papers.
Marred by serious allegations of malpractice, the then electoral commission declared the outcome of the bitterly contested election in favour of Milton Obote, the man who Idi Amin had ousted in 1971. Even the diplomatically careful Commonwealth Observer Group that watched the December 1980 polls noted in their interim statement that “imperfections and deficiencies [of these 1980 elections] had caused deep unease”. The leaders of the Uganda Patriotic Movement — under the aegis of one of the former soldering Uganda exiles named Yoweri Museveni — called the elections “one of the greatest farces in electoral history”.
More than the 1962 electoral experiment, the 1980 polls embodied a political imagination obsessed with securing the status quo ante. Universal adult suffrage was here a rubber-stamp. Its aftermath hence begot a cesspool of violence. Obote’s 1980 inaugural speech painted a rosy picture of a regime which, from the onset, was set on the path to collapse. In February 1981, a militia — the National Resistance Army led by Yoweri Museveni — launched a guerilla war against Obote’s government. In the words of the Ugandan historian Abdu K.B. Kasozi, what followed were “four and one-half years of brute violence”.
The electoral saga of 1980 thus ended up being an additional plot in the long-drawn out narrative of political violence in contemporary Uganda. That the end of the Cold War further suffocated an already paralysed political imagination obsessed with electioneering is an indisputable fact in much of independent Africa, the façade of multi-party dispensation notwithstanding.
Electoral fundamentalism writ large: Bobi Wine and the new generational wave
Late in the afternoon of Thursday 17 August 2017 Kampala was in an uproar: the then 35-year-old Ugandan musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, took the parliamentary seat for Kyaddondo East with a landslide victory in a by-election. The seat fell vacant when the losing NRM candidate, Sitenda Sebalu, filed an electoral petition which eventually successfully overturned the victory of his opponent, Apollo Kantinti, of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party. Bobi Wine put forth his candidacy when a by-election was called. His triumphant entry into elective politics set the national political stage for the countdown to the 2021 polls.
Bobi Wine’s parliamentary representation of this no less important constituency of a great many urban poor on the outskirts of Kampala City came to symbolise an array of possibilities for a multitude of Ugandan youth to write themselves back into the country’s political history. For Kampala’s youthful and opposition-leaning electorate, as for the rest of the disenchanted youth across the country, Bobi Wine’s parliamentary victory vividly invigorated the belief in universal adult suffrage as the route par excellence to reclaim the country’s political leadership from what they see as a “non-responsive gerontocracy”. Never before in the course of the three-and-a-half decades of NRM rule have the batteries of electoral fundamentalism at both ends of the political spectrum been so charged.
One important lesson soon emerged: one person can make music and even make it very great, but one person cannot make politics. Politics, Bobi Wine and his immediate entourage quickly found out, does require mass mobilisation, association and alliances. The National Unity Platform (NUP) party thus came into being at the eleventh hour of the election clock. From the announcement of his parliamentary candidacy in May 2017 to assuming the presidency of the NUP party and subsequent presidential flagbearship in September 2020, Bobi Wine captured the country’s political imagination with the changing dynamics of the electorate much in his demographic favour.
But the character and scope of this political imagination were by no means revolutionary in any substantive sense. For the NUP and its charged supporters, the 2021 ballot was the new silver bullet to end all the ills besieging both the Ugandan polity and society. So contagious indeed was this belief in electoral fundamentalism across the political divide that politics beyond the horizons of universal adult suffrage were rendered inconceivable. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to argue that the electoral fever by this new generational wave in today’s Uganda seems to have brought to the fore a category of elites whom Jean-Germain Gros rightly labelled opportunistic democratizers. To be sure, despite the fact that universal adult suffrage remains a prerequisite for broader democratic practices, electoral exercises and democratic political order are certainly not synonymous.
One of Uganda’s bottlenecks beyond electoral fundamentalism: the land question
There is no longer doubt that land policies and land reforms in particular have moved to the very center of discussions about development in most of the global South and more particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. There seem to have emerged two main positions in the discussions about land reforms and economic development in Africa in particular, namely, the neo-liberal and the evolutionary.
The neo-liberal position argues that indigenous customary land tenure is static and a serious stumbling block on the road towards a functioning capitalism in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, this should be replaced by individual land titles to fuel economic development. On the contrary, the evolutionary position argues that customary land tenure in sub-Saharan Africa is dynamic and gradually moving towards individual ownership and that actually, the titling programmes implemented by the state are doing more harm than good and simply not making capitalism work.
The case of Uganda demonstrates that there is no single answer to this debate. Some forces within the country advocate for large-scale mechanised agriculture, arguing that the land is underutilised. Other forces within the country want to maintain the status quo, and simply argue to be left alone to pursue the way of life they have known for generations. Within this debate, questions over access to resources, the role of government, rights and responsibilities of citizens, and the most appropriate drivers of development are not agreed upon. Yet they remain pertinent to resolve in order for Uganda to achieve its own assigned goals within the globalised world of the 21st century.
Within Kampala and along highways in Uganda are signposts with bold words painted on them: “This Land Is Not For Sale” or “Land For Sale” with a cellphone number to be found right below the words. The competing visions on the value and meaning of land are evidenced by these signposts as well as through discussions with different stakeholders. Even within the central government’s own policies, there appear to be contradictory visions. For example, the current National Development Plan (now in its third phase) asserts that agriculture needs to be modernised, causing fear in some regions, especially the north where land is communally held.
The 1995 Constitution itself asserts that land belongs to the people and that those who are bona fide occupants of land can only be evicted for nonpayment of rent for two consecutive years, yet the government has in some instances promised plots of land to various investors without securing the agreement of the people. Ground rents, Busulu, are set by the government. In June 2012, for example, the government set the yearly rental fee for tenants in Kampala at 50,000 UGX (approximately US$15) while in rural areas the fee was set at 5,000 UGX (approximately US$1.5).
To further complicate the situation, there are four land tenure systems in Uganda, namely mailo, freehold, leasehold, and communal. Land cannot be owned by foreigners, but it can be leased for up to 99 years. The central government has also issued edicts that contradict some of the existing laws related to land. For example, in February 2013, President Museveni announced that the government was halting all evictions, whatever the reason. So, while on the one hand the central government is saying it wants to attract foreign investment — and there are reports that it is working on large-scale land deals — on the other hand, the same government is assuring the people that evictions will not take place. The lack of certificates of ownership of land for many “bona fide occupants” also confuses the picture, while attempts to issue certificates of occupancy have been resisted by many private landlords and customary landowners who fear that the process of issuing certificates will only make it easier for the government to take over their land.
The tension between locals who wish to remain insulated from many of the drivers of globalisation and those who advance embracing these forces as a way of modernising or developing the state is evident in many places where land deals are being discussed in today’s Uganda. One basic indicator of this tension is the characterisation of the phenomenon by different stakeholders: those in favour of modernisation of the agriculture sector, such as the government of Uganda or the World Bank, utilise terms such as “large-scale land lease” or “large-scale land investment” while those opposed to these types of deals utilise the term “land grabbing”. A neutral term that seems palatable to both sides does not exist. Each terminology for the phenomenon brings with it an implied ideological orientation and a competing vision of the way forward. The bottlenecks relating to the land question in Uganda today will certainly not be fixed by the mere holding of popular elections, however free and fair, as currently professed by the localised liberal democracy script.
In lieu of a conclusion
As an historically underprivileged student of Western liberal democracy, Uganda today—across the political divide—is gravely suffering from electoral fundamentalism in the same way macroeconomists from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank not so long ago suffered collectively from market fundamentalism. In the words of the Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck, the latter too believe that meeting the formal requirements of a system is enough to let a thousand flowers bloom in even the most barren desert. For a country that, since its founding moment in modern times, has been gripped by deep-seated antagonisms along religious, ethnic, class and political lines, the elitist organisation of general elections in the quest for a democratic political order ironically suffocates all opportunities for a “democracy-from-below”.
Those who, alongside Lancincé Sylla and Arthur Goldhammer, argue that period and popular elections provide a rational solution to the problem of succession would still have to remember that the early optimism about Africa’s democratic transition has met with new scepticism: political liberalisation under the dispensation of liberal democracy has shortened rather than aggrandised the time horizons of African heads of state at the expense of the development of institutions for the common good.
Moreover, the characteristic winner-takes-all kind of elections (as have been witnessed in the previous Ugandan electoral experiments) turn the pursuit of democracy into a matter of life and death, a zero-sum game whereby the elected government focuses on the systematic annihilation of the defeated party(ies), together with the constituencies (real or perceived) that support them.
Ironically, the script of liberal democracy now goes against the grain of a truly democratic order: the hunger for free and fair elections only ends up producing a power-hungry political elite characteristically hostile to the notion of democracy as once practised by the ancient Athenians. A political imagination thus undergirded by electoral fundamentalism ends up begetting a disenfranchised polity, with both the citizens and non-citizens within it deeply disenchanted.
The debate on the management of the electoral process in today’s Uganda is still heavily laden with the assumption that the key institutional players in the process — most notably the political parties — do represent the aspirations of the electorate, and that the general elections merely come into play to arbitrate over which of the contesting parties is deemed by the voting majority as best at addressing their concerns. Yet, the prevalent context strongly suggests that the demands of loyalty supersede efficiency, inclusivity and even (social) justice. Dooming as this context portends, electoral violence remains likely not least because power is sought by any means necessary. After all, hasn’t the predominant route to Uganda’s state power in past instances been the orchestration of political violence, of which electoral violence was the harbinger?
The litany of predicaments of social existence in current Uganda — from the systemic impoverishment of society with the blessing of the neoliberal polity to political violence with remarkable impunity — are not simply incidental problems which the holding of periodic and popular elections can easily fix. Rather, these are structural pitfalls sustained by a kind of political imagination deeply entrenched in an ill-negotiated neoliberal mode of governance. Thus, unless another mode of political imagination is envisioned and then institutionalised in the always uneasy trilogy of state-market-society relations, a truly democratic political order in Uganda today will remain elusive.
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Death By Compromise: Will the Biden Administration Do What People Actually Want Or Play Politics?
If the Biden presidency is making excuses and is handicapped before even it has begun, especially during this time, then maybe it is the modern Democratic Party that is truly in jeopardy.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Trump’s inherent flaw is that he failed to tap into his own political potential. Yes, he is an uncouth racist who harbours American isolationist instincts and is hell-bent on division. It would be a mistake, however, to ignore the fact that his greatest attraction was due to the economy. In essence, the real situation of many working people in the US had grown so difficult that out of desperation they threw in their lot with a two-bit huckster who claimed that he could make all their empty-wallet woes disappear into the ether of history. Now upper middle class liberals in places like Seattle, Washington, Madison, Wisconsin and the suburbs of New York City are scratching their heads and wondering just how, how could so many millions still vote for this abomination after all that has happened during his time in the White House?
There has been an outright refusal by many on the left to acknowledge that the Trump base are anything but hidden racists, now magically freed to unmask themselves by some sort of Orange Pied Piper. Now as the Trump camp closes shop and flies away from the White House in shame, Biden is beginning his presidential term under deeply bizarre circumstances. The election victory, the transition and the first few weeks of the Democratic administration were met with some jubilation, but overall the response to Biden’s victory was rather tepid, especially when compared to the response that greeted Obama.
So why the underlying feeling of trepidation? It could have something to do with the well-deserved hand-wringing coming from the left wing of the party, seemingly left out in the cold for the last several months (at least since they were largely locked out of the Democratic National Convention last August). They had been promised a seat at the table, but that chair appears to have been lost in the move. What does this mean exactly?
Well, the Biden team and cabinet is being packed with the same type of lobbyists, centrists, supporters of the Iraq war and even billionaire Democrats disenchanted with the Obama administration who helped to turn the tide against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 race. One Washington insider quipped that the cabinet picks for the Biden administration looked like a guest list for a bourgeois dinner party in the upper crust Washington DC neighbourhood of Georgetown. It includes some of the same minds that helped to walk back the Obama White House from a more progressive agenda. Already Democrats are walking back the very promises that brought them to power — such as promising US$2000 cheques and now floating “hopefully US$1400, because the US$600 sent in early January and the new round of US$1400 would equal US$2000”. This goes against Occam’s razor principle, where the simplest solution is usually the right one. In this instance, the smart thing to do would be to send the full amount immediately, because a desperate public doesn’t give a damn about technocratic reasoning and austerity measures. In America’s skewed political structure, the prospect of the Democrats staying in long-term control of the US government is tenuous at best.
For example, in a year absolutely stuffed to the brim with progressive sentiments and activism across the US, why did the Democrat-controlled House actually lose seats (narrowing their majority)? As projections were touted across the media for months on end, and innumerable polls read the tea leaves to project an utterly massive Democratic win in the US Senate, the forecasts proved utterly wrong. In the end, the Democrats took the Senate by flipping Georgia’s two seats in January, but back in November several infamous Republicans, projected as vulnerable, held onto their seats by wide margins of victory.
Now Biden is already falling into the trap of being too bipartisan — a concept that doesn’t yield results and doesn’t truly affect anyone’s day-to-day lives. Republicans sure as hell don’t do bipartisan. In fact, Mitch McConnell, the controversial Senate minority leader from the state of Kentucky, had given himself the awkward moniker of the Grim Reaper during the Obama years, focusing solely on killing off any legislation that the Democratic Party brought forward, resulting in stagnation, political fallout and economic destitution for millions — and all that was before the scourge of COVID-19 revealed America’s system to be a mere façade of a true empire.
If this is the way forward, then the US is truly in dire straits and Biden may easily face another Trump-esque arch-conservative again in four years, or perhaps even Trump himself; he seems intent on positioning himself as a media figure, holding continuous rallies, never admitting that he truly lost, and then riding down another escalator some time in June of 2022. If the Biden presidency is making excuses and is handicapped before even beginning, especially during this time, then maybe it is the modern Democratic Party that is truly in jeopardy.
To put it bluntly, there are absolutely massive problems facing the US right now, ones that could well put an end to its status as a global leader and reputation as a democracy. This winter has thrown tens of thousands into starvation, cast millions into poverty and consolidated power further in the tentacled grasp of a corporate elite. COVID-19 killed over 100,000 Americans during the month of January 2021 alone. Now the status quo has returned to Washington DC, but the Democratic elite are acting as though that is a good thing, not seeing that the writing on the wall has been there since the financial crisis of 2008, a groundswell of populism that will soon be hard to ignore.
Rather than doing away with archaic filibuster and trying to confer statehood on DC and Puerto Rico and instead immediately passing a massive economic stimulus package, the Democrats are dithering and posturing with austerity-tinged deals and half measures that accord Republicans some sort of input. There could be very serious repercussions for the left wing and the right wing in two years if political action is not taken to get both the economic crisis and the pandemic under control within the next few months.
Looking ahead, however, it seems as though once again the youth will be blamed for whatever future is to come in the political landscape. It will be claimed that they will not have voted in large enough numbers (despite the rates being similar for nearly every single election amongst voters under 30 since the 1950s). They’ll be called lazy, entitled, ignorant, and the argument will be made for incremental change by an assortment of millionaire octogenarian figures within the Democratic leadership.
The progressive wing has already been blamed by the more conservative elements of the party for it not being a wide enough victory, with Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger of Virginia (who used to work for the CIA and represents some of the richest people in America) stating in a taped conference call in the days after the November general election that if progressive ideals (or the specter of socialism) are put on the ballot, then Democratic candidates will get “fucking torn apart in the 2022 election”. This despite the fact that it was the more centrist candidates who faced tougher competition in their election bids, and the further to the left a candidate was, the better they performed overall.
So why would a multitude of people vote in the next midterm elections in 2022 or the next presidential election in 2024? The phrase “getting turned on” inherently means that some effort has been made, something has turned you on to that idea or cause to propel you to join or vote for it. Such are the problems that the current party is grappling with. It is bogged down in partisan signaling and identity-based politics, while not actually advancing any progressive agenda, blaming the youth and the far left that could save them from their underperformance in the United States congressional races, and refusing to negotiate meaningful stimulus packages to revive a US economy that has been in the COVID-19-drenched economic doldrums since 2020.
The Democrats have pigeonholed themselves as a middling, tedious political entity, one that turns people off in droves and panders to the wealthier coastal suburbanites. The numbers don’t lie; while they had projected that adding Kamala Harris to the vice presidential slot would bolster their bloc amongst minorities, this didn’t play out, and Latinos, Blacks and Asian Americans voted for Biden at a lower rate than they did for Clinton in 2016. The question goes unanswered: could voters be more concerned about their economic standing during a pandemic-induced depression than about the racial makeup of the candidate on the ticket? Such thoughts can easily get one removed from the good graces of the current Democratic establishment, even as the possibility of rallying their base seems to diminish by the day.
For starters, anyone vaguely on the left already despises Donald J. Trump, and felt that way even before the last 11 disastrous months. The Democratic Party didn’t need to convince anyone here, but the Biden team spent most of the primaries solely attacking Trump for being the useless self-obsessed goon that he is. They then proceeded to not hammer him nearly hard enough when the disaster truly arrived, instead leaning back into the tropes of tired-eyed neo-conservatives from the George W. Bush era (some of the same talking heads who pushed messaging for the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars) and continuously beaming over advertisements coming from anti-Trump Republicans like the “Lincoln Project”. More centrist media outlets like MSNBC fawned over these “high-minded idealists” and simultaneously ridiculed left-wing figures for questioning if this would truly be a progressive administration.
This is an avoidable issue, but as the leadership within Congress (House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer) can’t be moved from their messaging, this slow-moving car is heading for a cliff. Biden can either push the pedal down to the floor and drive off to an untimely death or pull the emergency brake and change course.
Democrats could have run on the progressive economic policies that they tip-toed around during this last horrifying year. They could have at least pretended to embrace a sweeping set of policies unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. If they had, there is a very real possibility that their lead in the House would have increased and they would have at least been able to flip the Senate. They didn’t. Instead they bowed to outside interests and fucked around politically, even leaving stimulus on the table. Now, the same crowd that pushed for bombing Libya under Obama is back into the fold, all within the same umbrella of a “well needed return to normalcy”. Normal sucks in America.
The real middle class has been dying for a long time, but it seems the Biden administration can’t actually wrap their heads around this fact. Instead, it seems as though they’ll be content to simply reverse some of Trump’s uglier policies and call it a winning formula. In fact, that’s exactly what Biden did on day one of his administration instead of passing executive orders regarding COVID-19.
So, if the Democratic Party continues on the trajectory they are on, who exactly do they intend to turn on? If anything, millions have been utterly turned off by the state of politics in the United States, and if an individual doesn’t stand to actually benefit, what is the benefit of supporting a political party? Back to normal shouldn’t have been the banner of the Democratic party in 2020; it should have been like the title of a horror movie to be run away from as quickly as can be messaged by PR officials in the corridors of the United States capitol.
Tragedies earn their names by reflecting the failures that weren’t overcome although they could have been. In years to come, the fear shouldn’t be Trump himself per se — he was much too incapable to be an outright authoritarian, and too big a coward to really make such moves anyway. It should be the fear of those for whom Trump was the unwieldy flagbearer.
The worry should really be: who will come after Trump? With all of the so-called “rising stars” on the right wing in the US right now, someone will crawl out of the primordial ooze to usurp an aging Donald Trump. Could such a figure manage to turn on a large enough swath of Millennial and Generation Z voters distraught at the economic conditions brought on by previous generations, and in less than four years from now sweep to a landslide victory over Joe Biden/Kamala Harris/another middling Democrat who doesn’t inspire?
What if the next one is some kind of ultra-conservative Evangelical someone with all of the idealism of a Vice President Mike Pence and none of the soul-sucking lack of charisma? What kind of irreversible damage could such a figure actually do? Not all totalitarians are useless, some are altogether efficient.
The Mis-Education of Nigeria’s Upper Deck People
It is clearly in the interests of the middle class to rid the country of a political elite that has shown that it is not only anti-intellectual but also willing to cannibalise the cosmopolitan culture and entrepreneurial economy that the middle class holds dear.
Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement has been hailed as a new generation’s attempt to challenge the status quo. Its ability to transform online disaffection by its youthful population towards offline protests and direct action has resulted in it being treated as the most formidable opposition to the Buhari administration.
While this is not the first movement to have transformed online angst into visible activism on the streets of urban centers (there was #OccupyNigeria in 2012 against the petroleum subsidy), the depth and breadth of people and organizations (such as the Feminist Coalition, Gatefield Media, and Amnesty International, among others) that participated in and backed the protests is unrivalled. #EndSARS has mobilized the middle class—a group notably indifferent to Nigeria’s political elites’ machinations or, at worst, active collaborators with them.
Discussions on where #EndSARS could and should go have excited political commentators, members of the movement, and the general public especially after the end of most protests across the country. An interesting suggestion that has gained ground is for the movement to carry out mass education programs to the working class and the urban poor, ostensibly to inform these groups of the repressive nature of the political elite.
The reasoning behind this approach is insinuations that these groups are the Achilles heel of efforts to challenge the elite. The belief that members of the working class, urban, and rural poor elect members of the political elite solely because they have been able to mobilize them either on ethnic terms or by financially inducing them has allowed this idea to gain currency.
Since the nation’s return to democracy in 1999, the middle class has collectively stepped away from the electoral space. This is evident in its inability to create a party platform that can attract the working classes. The working and urban poor, on the other hand, are more likely to vote, be party members, participate in the democratic process, and to protest injustices that impact them disproportionately.
The purported renaissance of Nigeria’s middle class post-1999 was expected to entrench democratic norms and ideals. The proliferation of local civic society organizations to tackle endemic issues, such as corruption (Budgit, NEITI), the electoral system (YIAGA) and bad governance (EIE), seemed to emphasize the emergent possibilities of citizen action toward creating a more representative governance system.
In reality, Nigeria’s middle class are unwilling to act, despite bearing a significant brunt of the political class’s governance programs that have ensured their decimation and impoverishment—such as those that have reduced public sector spending, results of which are clearly apparent in the nation’s poor healthcare system and substandard educational facilities; others that have sought to perpetuate corruption, such as the security vote system that sees state governors spending public funds that are not subject to legislative oversight or independent audit.
The regressive agenda of gender inequality goes beyond mere utterances (the current Nigerian President once stated that his wife belongs in the kitchen and the bedroom in a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel). Nigerian women suffer some of the highest maternal mortality rates, with legal structures still restricting their basic rights and only four percent of elected officials are women.
Yet, the middle class has imbibed the belief that less government is better and has set out to interact and participate with governance in a “limited capacity.” Those that participate appear content to serve as technocrats to provide intellectual backing and lend professional gravitas to the repressive policies pursued by the state. The middle class has championed the status quo by preaching the gospel of economic development in spite of the government by highlighting the various problems that the country faces.
They erroneously promote the belief that the country’s economic stakeholders have earned their positions as a result of their business savvy or prowess. Their determination to view the country’s dire economy through rose-colored spectacles and dismiss the structural realities of the Nigerian state—where a clear majority of economic activities focuses on seeking to profit from government dysfunction—are upheld. Quite often they go as far as highlighting the various handicaps, but position them as business opportunities that can be solved by foreign direct investment, limiting the role of the government to create an “enabling environment.”
The refusal of the middle class to tackle the regressive agendas of the ruling elite has led to the latter being let off the hook: The middle class is instead viewed as the tool that functions in the subjugation of the working class. In fact, they are the visible representation of a country that is designed to work for a few at the expense of many. The historian David Motadel rightly notes the activities of American and European middle classes, which have actively championed conservative nationalism and authoritarian leadership over centuries—in essence, positing that middle classes in Africa are also disinclined to push for democratic reform.
Yet, in Nigeria, middle class activist history is a little more complicated. While the nationalist movements resulted in power being handed over to a political elite, the actual struggle comprised of various groups, and utilized western social and political ideals in the fight for independence. Coleman’s study of Nigerian nationalism notes that middle class individuals, such as Herbert Macaulay, an engineer and journalist, and Ernest Ikoli, also a journalist, founded and led political organizations and movements while training and mobilizing countrymen around the values of nationalism. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s Abeokuta’s Ladies Club (later the Abeokuta’s Women Union) took on the Native Authority System administering British indirect rule.
During the struggle for democracy this professional class built linkages with organized labor and provided intellectual support for the movement. Individually and collectively, through groups such as the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Nigeria Bar Association, the middle class worked to reform the electoral process, reform institutions of governance, and build networks to protect these reforms. Some might argue that we owe our fraught but enduring democracy to this iteration of the middle class.
It is clearly in the interests of the middle class to rid the country of a political elite that has shown that itis not only anti-intellectual but also willing to cannibalize the cosmopolitan culture and entrepreneurial economy that the middle class holds dear. The incremental improvement in governance that the middle class considered as fait accompli with the return to democracy in the fourth republic has not occurred. On the contrary, there has been a rotation of vivid and subtle tyranny.
Signs of a middle-class awakening abound. The 2019 elections saw the emergence of “third party” candidates to challenge for the presidency. While these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, they highlighted that a growing number of the middle-class Nigerians are unwilling to endorse the status quo. Organizations such as ASUU, for example, continue to challenge the gravely unjust system, by forcing the government to recognize the need for increased funding in public universities.
So where does the middle class go? Perhaps the #EndSARS protests and even the riots provide lessons for the middle class and offer opportunities for introspection among members. Jamaica and the Rodney Riots provides a vision for a possible future. In 1968, Walter Rodney was banned by the Jamaican government from re-entering the country to continue his teaching and research at the University of West Indies.
Rodney, an academic who had pulled no punches in criticizing the middle-class became a symbol for a protest movement that brought together what Klug describes as: young people, middle-class intellectuals, and working class Jamaicans. The Rodney riots and the alliance it birthed is credited with the victory of Michael Manley’s People National Party win in 1972. Could the enduring effects of #EndSARS be the beginning of a broad alliance against an irresponsible political elite that has shirked all pretensions of being responsible to the people?
The focus of political education programs must target the middle class and should be executed in tandem with members of the middle and working classes. Erroneous beliefs, such as the country being solely organized on ethnic or religious lines, must be tackled and the need for an independent media outside the hands of the political elite must be emphasized. We must promote and encourage debates around the pervasive reasoning that the only way to win political elections is by amassing funds from the private sector or by playing groups of the political elite against each other. Finally, and most critical, is the need for organization / mobilization of the middle class in their places of worship, workplaces, professional organizations, and communities.
Bloody Kenyan Elections: Confronting Electoral Violence in 2022
The Kenyan election cycle has become synonymous with bloodletting, but without acknowledgment and apology for the atrocities each time committed, we cannot build any lasting bridges.
We, the people, and our leaders are in terrible jeopardy. An ominous cloud hangs over us as the 2022 elections approach. The retiring Chief Justice David Maraga was perceptive when he warned of drumbeats of political war. His words gave me an eerie feeling. A Luo in an election year. How can we bring these bloody elections to an end?
The Kenyan election cycle has become synonymous with bloodletting, which has disproportionately affected the Luo. The general election conjures up memories of 1969. The first parliament was ending in December and Kenya was to conduct the first post-independent general election. Following the 1966 fall-out at the Limuru Convention, a frightened government sought to hold on to power at all costs. This would not be easy. The opposition Kenya People’s Union (KPU) formed in 1966 presented them represented a threat. To make sure they retained power, Jomo Kenyatta sanctioned the now infamous oath-taking to forge the uthamaki ideology to keep the presidency within the Gikuyu oligarchy and mobilise the Gikuyu folk around this narrative, thus binding the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru communities (GEMA) in a spiritual and political pact under KANU in an imaginary nation of Uthamakistan.
On July 5th they gunned Tom Mboya down in broad daylight. Although Mboya was a KANU leader, according to David Goldsworthy in Tom Mboya: The man Kenya Wanted to Forget, he had to be eliminated because he posed a threat to the presidency. Killed by a bullet coated in the blood of the oath. Since we have been conditioned to understand politics through the prism of tribe, Mboya’s assassination snapped the already loose cord that tied the Luo to the Kikuyu community after the fall-out of Jomo Kenyatta and Odinga Oginga in 1966 and the mass state-led propaganda Kenyatta and his cabal undertook to paint the Luo community to the Kikuyu as a backward and violent community. The resulting protests against President Kenyatta at Mboya’s requiem mass marked the beginning of animosities that are still felt today.
Although Kenya has remained silent about Mboya’s murder, the effects endure to this day. As Yvonne Owuor, winner of the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing, aptly observes, after Mboya’s death Kenya gained a third official language after English and Kiswahili: Silence. But I wonder what to expect when a train stops at a lakeside town in 2022. In 1969 the train “offloaded men, women, and children. Displaced ghosts. In-between people. No one to blame. Most of the witnesses were dead. Others had vowed themselves to eternal silence. This was the same as death,” in the words of Yvonne.
After Mboya’s death, the events of 25 October 1969 in Kisumu exacerbated the despair among the Luo. Jomo Kenyatta had come to open Nyanza Provincial General Hospital which had been built with aid from Russia. Although Odinga was not invited, he arrived in force, for it was he who had started the project with Russia’s help. In the ensuing mayhem, the presidential escort and the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) shot their way through the crowd, killing many and not stopping the shooting for 25 kilometres outside the town.
If Mboya died, then everything that could die in Kenya did. Including school children standing in front of a hospital the head of state had come to open, lamented Yvonne. The events emptied central province of a people they now called cockroaches, nyamu cia ruguru (beasts from the west). Who spoke of this exile, or of the souls evicted from our world?
The provincial security apparatus had warned people to stay away from Kisumu because of the protests following the brazen assassination of Tom Mboya, but as political scientist Akoko Akech asks, “Why did the presidential security shoot children, children in Awasi, some 50km away from the hospital?”
The killings were framed as animosity between the Luo and Kikuyu communities, but they were not. It was a group in power using government machinery to crush a perceived enemy. The Luo were not fighting Kikuyu people in the violence that broke out as a large crowd menaced Kenyatta’s security. The security forces killed indiscriminately, hence the “Kisumu massacre”. While the official body count was 11, historians close to the event such as B.A. Ogot put the numbers at 100 people dead. The school pupils along the road at Awasi had come out to sing praises to their president but his security forces silenced them and sent them to their graves instead.
The people were silenced, the records expunged and the photographic and film evidence of the event destroyed, and we would not have seen the devastation were it not for the oft-reproduced single monochromatic photograph of the chaotic scene taken by Mohammed Amin, and Satwant Matharoo’s film footage that was shown to the British audiences by the WTN. Even the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) removed the oral eyewitness accounts and memoranda from its last report on the colonial and post-independence massacres. The now official record is an extract from the unofficial Report of the Commission on Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation.
In his book Exclusion and Embrace, Prof. Miroslav Volf captures the experience of the Luo people best when he avers, “We demonise and bestialise not because we do not know better, but because we refuse to know what is manifest and choose to know what serves our interests.” Hence, the proscription of KPU made Kenya a de facto single party state and established a pan-ethnic nationalism. The government accused KPU of being subversive, stirring up inter-ethnic strife, and accepting foreign money to promote anti-national activities, which included the building of the aptly named Russia Hospital that the president had come to open. Having demonised Nyanza Province, it was easy to exclude her from “national” development plans.
Unless we confront the past, murders like that of the electoral official Chris Musando in 2017 will recur. Kenyan police have a long history of using excessive force against protesters, especially among the Luo in western Kenya. Of the over 1,100 people killed during the 2007 post-election violence, over 400 were shot by police in the Nyanza region. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2013 police killed at least five demonstrators in Kisumu who were protesting a Supreme Court decision that affirmed Uhuru Kenyatta’s election as president. And in June 2016 police killed at least five and wounded another 60 demonstrators in Kisumu, Homabay, and Siaya counties. The state acknowledging these crimes and making public apologies to the Luo will, in my view, end the continued violence against the community.
It is the duty of the current Kenyan state to reach out to the Luo community for the killings since 1969. If we can trace the records of Nazi Germany atrocities during World War II, why can’t we do the same in Kenya? Why hasn’t any government felt the duty to at least apologise or acknowledge the trauma?
In December 1970, during a state visit to Poland which coincided with a commemoration of the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt spontaneously dropped to his knees. Although he uttered no word during his Kneifall von Warschau, his Warsaw Genuflection, Brandt later wrote in his autobiography that upon “carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them”. The Kenyan government should do for the Luo what Germany’s leaders did for the Jewish victims of the Nazis.
In 2011 German leaders again expressed deep remorse for the suffering their nation had inflicted on Poland and the rest of Europe during World War II. “I bow in mourning to the suffering of the victims,” German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at a ceremony in Warsaw. “I ask for forgiveness for Germany’s historical debt. I affirm our lasting responsibility,” the statesman said, calling the war a “painful legacy”. Where are the presidents of Kenya who have expressed such remorse?
Even if no one does, we remember. As long as it is remembered, the past is not just the past; it remains an aspect of the present. A remembered wound is an experienced wound. Toni Morrison is right when she says in Beloved that, “Deep wounds from the past can so much pain our present that, the future becomes a matter of keeping the past at bay”. Without apologies, the crimes are bound to recur and our wounds to remain uncovered.
I am terrified by the state’s silence, the wishing away of the crimes and the failure to reach out to the Luo community. While President Steinmeier has called WW II a “German crime” that his nation will never forget, Kenya’s leaders are quiet and want Kisumu forgotten. How can the Luo people forgive crimes no one owns? How can the scar they bear be concealed? I fear that without acknowledgment, ownership and apology, we cannot build any lasting bridges.
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