When Yoweri Museveni was declared winner of the January 14 election in Uganda, the situation in Kampala and other towns and townships across the country remained calm. There were no spontaneous celebrations. His party’s secretariat would hours later organise a victory procession from the spot where the declaration was made to Kololo Airstrip, the venue where Museveni will take the oath of office for the sixth time on May 12. One could clearly see that the procession, which took place under tight security, was largely made up of paid participants.
The absence of spontaneous celebrations after Museveni is declared winner is not news; it has been like this before. Museveni being declared winner and his opponents disputing the results has been a ritual that has been repeated every five years since 1996. When Museveni defeated Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere in 1996 amidst accusations of rigging, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, was 14 years old, too young to vote.
Much earlier – in 1980 – Museveni took part in his first presidential election as a candidate more than a year before Kyagulanyi was born. Museveni failed to win even in his own constituency on that occasion and the victory went to Milton Obote, the man who commanded the guns at the time. Museveni turned things in his favour when he started a war after that election and took control of the guns and the country’s leadership in 1986. He hasn’t looked back since.
Of course some Ugandans vote for Museveni, but perhaps they consider it too risky to openly celebrate. It is risky because many of their compatriots who vote against Museveni are angry at the establishment and do not understand how a Ugandan in full possession of their mental faculties can vote for Museveni in the year 2021. Many Ugandans have been attacked for showing support for Museveni, and when demonstrations take place, one would be well advised not to be caught wearing yellow, the colour of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM).
Those Ugandans who don’t vote for Museveni believe that elections are habitually rigged in Museveni’s favour. And there is another group of Ugandans who have grown too despondent to participate in any election in which Museveni is a candidate. A regular commentator has over the past few months repeatedly wondered why Ugandans are keen to participate in polls whose outcome is known in advance.
The country is deeply divided and very few believe that the government is committed to democracy. An opinion poll that was conducted by Afrobarometer, whose results were released two days to the election, showed that whereas 78 per cent of Ugandans want their leaders to be chosen through periodic free and fair elections, only 36 per cent of the citizens are satisfied with how democracy works in Uganda. (Afrobarometer describes itself as an Africa-wide survey research project that measures citizen attitudes on democracy and governance, the economy, civil society, and other topics.)
That is the setting in which Kyagulanyi took on Museveni. The popstar-cum-politician whipped up emotions and motivated many – especially the youth – and ran a campaign against Museveni in particularly difficult circumstances. He had 64 days to campaign in 146 districts in what was his first ever countrywide tour as a politician. He had attempted to tour the country before the campaigns – and the law allows a presidential aspirant to conduct such a tour one year to the election – but the authorities blocked him. His music concerts were banned over three years ago when he made it clear that he harboured presidential ambitions.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to drop like manna from heaven for Museveni, and it was quickly seized upon to ensure that Kyagulanyi’s campaign activities in dozens of districts were blocked, while those in the districts he visited were over-policed and strictly controlled. To say that Kyagulanyi campaigned in the actual sense of the word would be to stretch matters.
The same thing happened to the other candidates in the race. Museveni did not personally address rallies and limited himself to fairly small meetings with leaders of his party in different areas in observance of the rules that the electoral body had put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But he has interacted with the same voters for decades and as in all previous campaigns, he again had the entire state machinery doing his bidding in every village, paid for by the taxpayer.
Like Kizza Besigye, who before him had challenged Museveni at the polls four times, Kyagulanyi ran his campaign through defiance and made it clear at the outset that he would not abide by the rules set by the electoral body ostensibly to control the spread of COVID-19; he would only abide by the electoral laws as set out in the constitution and the relevant statutes. Although Kyagulanyi acknowledged that COVID-19 is real and had sent out messages asking Ugandans to protect themselves, he also pointed out that by the time the campaigns started, Ugandans were interacting freely and such restrictions were almost nonexistent in markets and other areas, and argued that it was not logical that the government should think that people could only contract COVID-19 at political events.
In any event, he added, the government had not showed a commitment to the fight against COVID-19 and, as an example, pointed out that whereas money had been appropriated to supply all Ugandans with masks six months before the campaigns started, millions of Ugandans still hadn’t received them.
Kyagulanyi would be vindicated when after the election – and having been declared winner – Museveni drove from his country home hundreds of kilometers from the capital, making several stopovers along the way and addressing crowds of people who were not observing the preventive measures that had been strictly enforced during the campaigns. The veil was off and the lie was laid bare the moment Museveni obtained the result he was after.
Kyagulanyi disregarded the regulation to have a maximum of 200 people per meeting and called mass rallies. The authorities held their breath for a moment, hoping that the popstar would fail to draw crowds in areas away from his native Buganda region and his efforts would collapse on themselves. When the campaigns kicked off on 9 November 2020, Kyagulanyi started with a bang in an area far away from his native land. The crowds kept growing bigger and the narrative that he was only popular in his native Buganda region collapsed as quickly as it had been been constructed by regime propagandists. As the days wore on Kyagulanyi continued to pick up steam as he went through the districts and his tour of Buganda region drew closer. The regime ran out of patience.
Kyagulanyi had scheduled rallies in the east on 17 November 2020, to be followed by his first rally in Buganda the following day. He visited Masaka – the epicenter of anti-Museveni activities – on his first day in Buganda. The authorities couldn’t allow that so on the morning of 17 November, Kyagulanyi was arrested as he arrived at the venue of his scheduled rally. It took something like a garrison of the army and the police to arrest him, and after a mini scuffle the presidential candidate was whisked away like a hardcore criminal. The abduction was relayed live on social media and some of it was on television. Kyagulanyi’s supporters violently protested in Kampala, Masaka and other towns and after two days of rioting the security agencies had shot and killed at least 52 Ugandans. According to official records, two others were run over by vehicles that were caught up in the melee.
The effects of the events of 18 and 19 November are still in evidence all over Uganda. While Kyagulanyi has been under house arrest since election day and he disputes the results of the election – Museveni was declared winner with 58.64% with Kyagulanyi garnering 34.83% – his supporters have not raised their heads to protest. There are armed soldiers walking in single file every few hundred meters in Kampala and other urban centres, and Ugandans only have to look back at the events of two months ago to know that these armed men could kill them with little provocation.
President Museveni left no doubt at all whatsoever that this could when he spoke about the November protests and killings: “According to the police report, for instance, the five persons who died in Nansana were part of the rioting group. They had, apparently, “overpowered” the police. I will get the details of “over powering” the police. What actually happened? It is criminal to attack security forces by throwing stones or attempting to disarm them. Police will legitimately fire directly at the attackers if they fail to respond to the firing in the air. Many of the up-country police groups are not equipped with anti-riot equipment (shields, batons, water cannons, rubber bullets etc.) and should not be. We should not have a country of rioters. It is the duty of everybody to keep the peace.”
It is therefore back to square one. The emergence of Kyagulanyi as his principal challenger excited many and ignited hitherto apolitical constituencies to rise up against Museveni. These groups include artistes with whom Kyagulanyi has interacted for decades and young Ugandans who were excited by the prospect of having a youthful president. But the optimism that was whipped up by Kyagulanyi’s superstar status has since dimmed. He is locked up in his own home and not even the American ambassador succeeded in meeting him when she tried last week. His lawyers and party officials have been pleading to meet with him so that, they say, they may prepare a petition against Museveni’s re-election.
After the 2016 election, Besigye was where Kyagulanyi now finds himself. He was locked up in his home from the day after the voting until the eve of Museveni’s inauguration – a period of three months – when he escaped and unexpectedly showed up in the busiest area of Kampala. Besigye was then arrested and flown in a military chopper to the remotest part of the country where he was charged with treason because he had declared himself winner of the election. The treason case has not been tried for five years and the state is clearly not interested in following through.
The objective – which was achieved – was to keep Besigye out of circulation and prevent him from organising a mass uprising, which Museveni’s government seems to believe is the only thing that can remove it from power. After the 2011 election, which Besigye again disputed, the opposition leader inspired what were dubbed walk-to-work protests, bringing Kampala to a standstill for months. Museveni is keen to ensure Kyagulanyi does not inspire such protests and his government has literally banned demonstrations; whoever tries to protest is met with brute force. On the other hand, those Ugandans who would perhaps like to protest against what they call a rigged election wouldn’t dare – the events of November are still very fresh in their minds.
Museveni has thrown at Kyagulanyi every weapon that he thinks might work. In an interview with an international television channel during the campaigns, he accused Kyagulanyi of being backed by foreigners and homosexuals and has repeated these claims many times over. Museveni made the same claims against Besigye, never mind that his stranglehold over Uganda for the last 35 years has been made possible in large measure by foreign funding.
A new accusation that has cropped up against Kyagulanyi is that he is promoting tribalism and sectarianism. Kyagulanyi is an ethnic Muganda and his tribesmen have for the first time since 1996 rejected Museveni and voted for Kyagulanyi. Museveni, however, has on each occasion since 1996 been overwhelmingly voted for by the Banyankole – his kinsmen – and most of western Uganda, but this does not come up in the tribalism talk that he and his spokespeople have now ignited. The import of what is happening is simple: Kyagulanyi, just like Museveni’s every opponent before him, will be fought by all means possible.
When all other methods fail, Museveni resorts to the use of force. In a video clip that went viral, Museveni vowed to obliterate Kyagulanyi’s group. A few days later, security forces arrested dozens of Kyagulanyi’s followers, accusing them of all sorts of crimes. Some of them are locked up by the military, accused of illegal possession of military equipment. The pressure exerted on Kyagulanyi was so intense that about a week to polling day he sent his children out of the country. He cut an isolated figure going into the election, only enjoying the company of his wife at home, with whom he now remains under house arrest. You can call it a home or a barracks, whichever you choose.
In the end, all the theories about whether Kyagulanyi would be a different proposition to Museveni collapse. It was always going to come to this; the history, age, religion, tribe or whatever other characteristic of whoever challenges Museveni doesn’t matter. When everything else fails Museveni resorts to the use of force. With his military strength still visibly intact, he will perhaps keep his foot on the gas peddle for as long as he can. Or maybe he will surprise us and engineer a negotiated exit.
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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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