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Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

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In 2007, tea pluckers on a Unilever plantation were brutally attacked in the midst of ethnical violence triggered by a contested presidential election. As the company failed to protect them despite clear warning signs of impending violence, the victims are now taking it to court to demand reparations

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Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

At least four men armed with machetes and clubs broke into Anne Johnson’s home. They forced her husband and 11-year-old son into the bedroom and kept Anne and her teenage daughters in a separate room. To this day, she doesn’t know for certain if the men who raped her, her husband, and her daughters were her coworkers.  “They spoke the local language,”  Anne testified, but  “they blindfolded us so we could not see who they were.”

By 2007, when the attack took place, Anne and her husband, Makori (their names are pseudonyms to protect the family from retaliation), had lived and worked for more than a decade on a Kenyan tea plantation owned by Unilever, the London-based household-goods giant known for such brands as Lipton Tea, Dove, Axe, Knorr, and Magnum ice cream. In December of that year, hundreds of men from the neighboring town of Kericho would beat, maim, rape, and butcher the plantation’s residents during a week of terror.

The attackers killed at least 11 plantation residents, including Makori, whom they raped and fatally wounded in front of his son, and one of the Johnsons’ daughters. They looted and burned thousands of homes and injured and sexually assaulted an unknown number of people, who were targeted because of their ethnic identity and presumed political affiliation.

A contested presidential election triggered the violence. The candidate favored by Kericho’s local population—and openly backed by many Unilever managers—lost to the politician perceived to have support from minority tribes. The massacre was not confined to the plantation or to Kericho. More than 1,300 people died in post election violence across Kenya.

Unilever said the attacks on its plantation were unexpected and that it therefore should not be held liable. But witnesses and former Unilever managers say the company’s own staff incited and participated in the attacks. They made these allegations in 2016 in written testimony, after the case was submitted to a court in London. Anne and 217 other survivors wanted Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in the United Kingdom to pay reparations. Among the claimants were 56 women who were raped and the family members of seven people who were killed.

In hundreds of pages of witness testimony and other court records and in interviews I conducted, the survivors describe how, in the run-up to the election, their colleagues threatened to attack them if the « wrong » candidate won. When they reported these comments, their managers dismissed their concerns, issued veiled threats, or made derogatory remarks of their own.

Former managers from Unilever Kenya admitted to the court that the company’s top management, including then-managing director Richard Fairburn, discussed the possibility of election violence in several meetings but only ramped up the security for its senior personnel, factories, and equipment.

Unilever Kenya insists it is not responsible and blames the police for acting too slowly. Meanwhile, its corporate parent in London maintains that it owes the workers nothing and that the victims should sue the company in Kenya, not in the United Kingdom. But the workers say that a lawsuit in Kenya could spark more violence, including from their earlier assailants, some of whom still work at the plantation.

In 2018, a judge in the United Kingdom ruled that Unilever’s London headquarters could not be held liable for the failures of its Kenyan subsidiary. Now, Anne and her former coworkers are looking to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which is expected to decide, over the next few months, whether Unilever has failed to meet the United Nations’ guidelines for responsible business behavior. As Anne explained to me,  “The company promised they would take care of us, but they didn’t, so now they should pay us so we can finally rebuild our lives.”

Unilever’s hilly tea plantation in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley covered about 13,000 hectares in 2007. With a population then of roughly 100,000 people, including about 20,000 residential workers and their families, and boasting on-site schools, health clinics, and social facilities, the estates are essentially a company town, and a cosmopolitan one: The workers belong to several ethnicities from across the country.

The Johnsons hailed from Kisii, a county two hours away from the Unilever estates, and identify ethnically as Kisii. On the plantation, the Kisiis made up nearly half the residents, but in nearby Kericho—the homeland of an ethnic group called the Kalenjins—they were a much smaller minority. And many people in Kericho looked down on the Kisiis and other  “foreigners.” The plantation reflected this divide: The Kalenjins were mostly managers, and the Kisiis and other minorities worked primarily as tea pluckers.

The couple spent the last Sunday of December 2007 as they did any other day—in the field with a basket on their backs—though they expected the evening to be tense, since the election results would be announced in the late afternoon. Earlier in the week, millions of Kenyans had gone to the polls to elect either Raila Odinga, who led the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), or Mwai Kibaki, of the Party of National Unity (PNU), as their new president.

Anne hadn’t voted herself. Weeks earlier, she had applied for leave to travel to Kisii, where she was registered to vote, but her manager declined the request, she said. This experience was common among the members of minority tribes, said Daniel Leader, a lawyer and partner at the London law firm Leigh Day, who represented the survivors in court and whose team interviewed all 218 claimants.

The impending elections had exacerbated tensions between Unilever’s Kalenjin workers and their more junior Kisii colleagues.  “They assumed we Kisiis backed Mwai,” Anne explained, whereas the local Kalenjin population were overwhelmingly pro-Odinga.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property. Anne told me that the perception of the Kisiis as Kibaki supporters led some Kalenjins to treat them with hostility. She said that team leaders, for example, began to allocate her job duties to non-Kisii workers. Other coworkers stopped talking to her altogether. To Anne’s distress, she found leaflets with hateful slogans like  “Foreigners go home” in the residential areas, making her worry that  “something bad may happen after the election.”

Anne was frightened but kept quiet.  “The company is so big. I assumed they would protect us,  “she told me. Those who felt less assured and who asked their team leaders and managers for protection were met with indifference, according to survivors. In court testimony, many recalled how various managers ignored their pleas for more security or dismissed them by saying,  “It’s just politics.” Other managers instructed the concerned workers to lobby and vote for Odinga, saying they would be « forced to leave » if they didn’t.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property.

An estate manager admitted to the London court that Unilever Kenya’s senior management—including Fairburn, the managing director—had been aware that « there would be unrest and that the Plantation could be invaded. » They had discussed the need for extra security in at least three meetings in December, he said. But management took measures only to « secure company property, factories, machinery, stores, power stations and management housing, » while « no thought was given to increasing the security of the residential camps in order to protect the workers. » Another former Unilever manager corroborated this claim.

Fairburn, who was allegedly present at them, refused to comment on the meetings when I called him. To this day, Unilever claims that it could not have predicted the attacks, even though the media in Kenya and internationally, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Reuters, had reported on the impending ethnic violence.

“Anyone who knew anything about the Kenyan election in 2007 knew it had the potential to end in significant and widespread violence, and that this violence would largely break down along lines of identity and affiliation, » said Tara Van Ho, who teaches law and human rights at the University of Essex. Both Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in London should have known that the workers and their families were at risk, she continued. To protect them, she argued, Unilever could have hired extra security guards, trained its security personnel and managers, and solidified their buildings or evacuated residents for the period immediately surrounding the election.

Instead, said Leader, the workers’ London attorney, Unilever « created a situation where [these employees] were sitting ducks—at risk because of their ethnicity. “

Meanwhile, Unilever Kenya’s managing director and other executives went on holiday before the crisis, according to the former managers, and the company evacuated the remaining managers and expats on private jets once the violence broke out.

When the news of Kibaki’s victory came on Sunday evening, Anne was preparing supper with her family. Moments later, she heard people screaming outside and knew they were in danger. « We quickly locked our doors, » she said.

That night, hundreds of men armed with machetes, clubs, kerosene jars, and other weapons invaded the plantation. They looted and burned thousands of Kisii homes—which they marked with an X—and attacked their inhabitants.

Court records paint a harrowing picture of what unfolded on the plantation over the next week. People were gang-raped and viciously beaten and saw their coworkers set on fire. When they fled for safety to the tea bushes, the attackers pursued them with dogs.

“We do not know the total number of people who were raped, killed, and permanently disabled, » Leader told me. He thinks the 218 claimants he represented are not the only surviving victims. « Many people are too scared of retribution or renewed attacks from colleagues who they continue to work alongside of,” he said.

Concern about violent reprisals was one reason the survivors wanted to sue Unilever in the United Kingdom. Another was that Leigh Day represented them for free, whereas in Kenya the survivors would not be able to afford legal counsel.

Leigh Day argued that their Kenyan clients had a right to sue Unilever in London, since UK law allows workers from international subsidiaries to sue the UK-based parent companies if, among other things, they can show that the corporate parent plays an active and controlling role in the subsidiary’s day-to-day management. Unilever, Leigh Day argued, clearly did.

Unilever’s lawyers nonetheless insisted that the victims should file their case in Kenya and suggested the tea pluckers  “band together” and  “raise funds from friends and family.”

Multiple victims said they recognized their attackers as Unilever colleagues. One woman told the court she was “started beating me with a metal rod on my back and on my legs and were going to rape me,” she stated in witness testimony, until  “a Kalenjin neighbor who was a male nurse intervened to stop the attack.”

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

After the attackers left, the Johnsons fled and hid for three nights in the tea bushes before making their way to the police station in nearby Koiwa, covered in mud and blood. From there, police officers escorted them to safety, and the family was able to escape to Kisii where they kept a small plot of land. Without savings, they could not afford the hospital costs for either their eldest daughter, who suffered severe injuries and got weaker by the day, or for Makori, who had internal bleeding. In the months that followed, both of them died in their mud house in Kisii.

Anne said that the only communication she received from Unilever since the attacks was an invitation to return to work months later and a letter offering her about $110 in compensation. The letter suggests that this amount was set and paid for by Unilever’s corporate headquarters in London.

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

“On behalf of the entire Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd family,” it reads,  “we thank Unilever for their understanding, material and moral support and we hope that this timely gesture will go a long way to bring normalcy back to our employees and their families.”

Anne told me she never returned to the plantation because she can’t leave her son, now in his mid-20s.  “He developed very bad seizures and panic attacks after what happened and needs constant care,”  she said. Severely traumatized and unable to afford the psychological treatment they need, her son and daughter both stopped going to school.  “We live off gifts from relatives and neighbors and the little maize we grow on our land,” she said.

The claimants say that Unilever owes them meaningful reparations, but Unilever insists it has already compensated them. The company’s spokespeople told me that it has paid all of the workers who eventually returned to the plantation with cash and new furniture and has also offered their families free counseling and medical care. But they won’t say how much the company gave them or comment on the letter that Anne shared with me.

In the summer of 2018, Anne and a group of other victims rebutted these claims in a letter to Paul Polman, the company’s CEO at the time:  “It’s not right that Unilever has said it helped us when we know that is not true,” the letter stated. It continued:

Unilever just wanted us to go back to work as if nothing happened [and those of us who did] were told we must not talk about what happened. We are still scared that we will be punished if we speak about the violence.

Unilever says that after the violence every employee was given  “compensation in kind” to offset our lost wages and that we were given replacement items or cash to buy new items to replace our stolen property…but those who were too afraid to return got nothing and only some of those who returned were given KES12,000 [$110], a little more than a month salary, and a little maize, which was then deducted from our salary. We were told that if we saw people with our belongings we should say nothing.

Polman appears not to have responded to the letter.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

To prove to the court that the UK parent company did indeed exercise such control over Unilever Kenya, Leigh Day submitted witness statements from former workers, who testified to the frequent visits made by London managers, and from four former managers, who gave evidence that the head office shaped, supervised, and audited the safety and crisis management policies of Unilever Kenya and even made its own safety protocols compulsory. This meant that, as one senior manager with over 15 years of experience with the company put it, Unilever Kenya was « confined to strictly complying with the policies and procedures which had been cascaded down by [Unilever] Plc.  “Another senior manager stated that London’s « checklists and detailed policies had to be complied with or an employee would be dismissed or face some other sanction.”

These testimonies seemed to support Leigh Day’s claim that the London headquarters shared liability. Yet to prove it to the court, the law firm needed access to the actual text of the protocols that the managers described. However, since these were pretrial proceedings—meaning that the court had not accepted jurisdiction—Unilever had no duty to disclose relevant materials and simply refused to hand over the documents.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

The judge’s ruling made clear that the  “weakness” of their evidence played a major role in her decision to deny the Kenyans jurisdiction. Human rights scholars and corporate accountability advocates condemned the ruling. The court had created a catch-22 for the workers, Van Ho observed:  “The claimants couldn’t get the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong until they had the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong.”  It’s  “dizzying,”  she said, and  “an unfair expectation for employees who have a lot less power than the multibillion-dollar company that employed them.”

Anne said she remains hopeful that international human rights advocates will support her cause. With other victims, she recently filed a complaint against Unilever at the United Nations, arguing that the company violated the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. One requirement is that companies must ensure that victims of human rights abuses in their supply chain have access to remediation. Van Ho anticipates that the UN body, which is expected to reach a decision soon, will agree that Unilever breached these guidelines.  “Hiding behind legal loopholes and refusing to disclose relevant information to avoid paying reparations is the exact opposite of what the Guiding Principles prescribe,” she said.

Though the United Nations can’t force Unilever to pay up, Anne hopes the case will generate the attention and public pressure necessary to push the company in that direction. When asked what it would mean to her if the workers succeed, she told me,  “It would be the greatest moment in my life.”

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by The Nation. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international. 

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Maria Hengeveld is an investigative journalist, focused on workers’ rights and corporate accountability, and a PhD researcher and Gates Scholar at King’s College, Cambridge.

Politics

Some Countries Are More Equal Than Others: Inequality in the Age of COVID

The world has suffered greatly, the health and livelihoods of billions disrupted and the greatest shame would be to learn nothing and change even less.

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Some Countries Are More Equal Than Others: Inequality in the Age of COVID

Driving down the fabulous Acacia Avenue parallel to Kololo hill in Kampala (the neighbourhood known for being the poshest of the posh) late on a Saturday night, the clubs are hardly unnoticeable. Dozens of cars fill the outside parking, bouncers walk the inebriated out to the street by the elbow and the dull echoes of bass lines filter out onto the trafficless tarmac.

Like it or not, safe or not, Kampala is taking reopening into its own hands. The curfew is still “strictly” imposed at 9 p.m. although the cops are said to be getting less lenient and more likely to attempt to tackle passengers on after-hours boda bodas and quicker to pull the gun on unwitting rule-breakers to better induce a quick handover of Ugandan shillings. The behaviour of the police has become so over the top in recent weeks that it almost seems as though they know that the curfew could soon be ending and are trying to cash in as much as possible before the plug is pulled. There are reports of heavy-handed police behaviour, not only arresting people and jailing them, but then holding onto IDs and remanding individuals in prisons outside of Kampala.

Talk to nearly anyone in Kampala and they’ll all tell you the same thing — that the curfew is far more a political measure than it ever was about the coronavirus threat. Across Uganda, before everyone scatters off into the wind to beat the curfew, the entire nation seems to be operating as normal; the markets are full, people hop mask-free onto matatus and big  church services take place unimpeded.

That is the trouble with the current state of COVID-19 restrictions in Uganda; too much falls through the gaps, rules are bent as though they’re meant to be bent, and all the while the economy of Uganda is quietly falling into utter disarray — a pattern that is becoming the norm across the East African region. So now, as most countries in the world are hovering around the one-year anniversary of the beginning of pandemic lockdowns, it has become more clear that the “Western” model of lockdowns adopted by countries like Uganda and Kenya has simply not worked — and the fall-out will surely be felt for years, if not decades, to come.

March of 2020 saw the pandemic spiral out of control, with dozens of countries announcing lockdowns, curfews, business closures and other measures to try to stem the tide. Some nations, like South Korea and New Zealand, did a remarkable job and have all but contained the situation (and, frankly, had done so by May of 2020). These countries, however, were revealed to be outliers in the global community as most countries found their own methods of failure and leaned strongly into them. These include two of the most influential countries on earth, the UK and the US, both of which took arguably the worst direction they could possibly take and have spiraled into chaos as a result — that of inconsistent, slow and inadequate “half-measures”. In the UK’s case, it was the initial leaning into the concept of “herd immunity” for the population before pulling back and shutting down too late. In the US it was the exact confluence of systemic problems that caused this pandemic to tear down the façade of the “most powerful nation on earth” by way of killing over half a million people and decimating the economic status of tens of millions while politicians complained incessantly about money.

Unfortunately, Uganda seems to be borrowing largely from the failed policies of these two nations and has suffered immensely for it. If nothing else, the intensive measures taken, and their incompleteness have proved to be a sort of litmus test for the failures of neo-colonial influence. Museveni has long been known to have extensive ties with the West and, as with other developing nations, Uganda took the advice of foreign diplomats, external policy, and the NGO apparatus into careful consideration when outlining Uganda’s COVID-19 response, drawing sharp criticism from political opposition figures including Bobi Wine, who called for less short-term solutions and more long-term systemic changes to Uganda’s healthcare system.

Now, over a year in, the effects of the pandemic in Uganda have been largely muted, and potentially underreported in terms of case numbers and deaths. Despite the opacity of the information, the actual human toll has been far less than initially projected by a myriad of global media outlets in the early months of the epidemic.

That isn’t to say that the narrative has not continually shifted, with leading voices in Western medical, diplomatic and academic spheres being repeatedly mystified that the pandemic hasn’t impacted the African continent as it has the “leading democracies on earth”. Moreover, cases are also clearly rising in Kenya, and President Magufuli of Tanzania — one of the leading coronavirus deniers on the continent if not the world — recently died of heart failure days after finally admitting during a church service that the pandemic was real. The issue is clearly a real one, but that isn’t to say that it is not deeply complicated and unexplored, even by leading experts.

Right now in Nairobi, queues for the vaccine are lengthening, but diplomats are allegedly being given preferential priority for the jabs alongside frontline medical workers. Vaccines are being openly hoarded by several of the richer nations of the world, even as  COVID-19 variants continue to pop up to potentially plunge the world back into turmoil just when there is a “light at the end of tunnel” following the development of vaccines (at least in the West, which has blocked vaccine access schemes, preferring to back the profit motives of pharmaceutical giants.)

If there is anything positive to have come out of this pandemic, it is the illumination that many leading powers and voices around the world (such as the US, the UK and the WHO) might not know best, let alone have the best interests of developing nations at heart. Whether or not this will lead to some sort of paradigm shift is altogether too far off to see, as we’re all still caught in the middle of the pandemic maelstrom.

A popular retort that many an American politician likes to resort to is: “it’s the economy, stupid!”. That most of the elected officials in Washington DC who like to use it tend to act with shocking economic obtuseness immediately thereafter is almost irrelevant. The phrase is not merely applicable to the American condition, but can be applied to any company, society, country, region or system. In a largely capitalist world, money makes all things go round and impedes many from trying to jump into the fray.

It has never been more starkly clear that the global financial structures are inherently flawed than in the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic. A case in point the ugly situation surrounding testing for coronavirus within the East African region.

If there is anything positive to have come out of this pandemic, it is the illumination that many leading powers and voices around the world might not know best.

While testing is available, it comes at a cost, a cost that is simply irrational for many people to bear. Unlike the free voluntary counselling and testing systems that helped to get the HIV/AIDS epidemic under control within the region, the COVID-19 testing systems within East Africa are largely preferential in nature; skewed towards the elite, the upper middle-class and the expatriate community in terms of access and availability.

Large foreign-funded organisations in places like Kampala have protocols in place to routinely test their staff, inevitably turning up positive cases as a result. The positive staff are then generally instructed to home-quarantine, where it is unclear if there are monitoring measures in place to ensure that the elderly house help is not allowed to come in to do the ironing. For her however, a “flu” that her neighbours don’t believe to be real might not be worth the risk of losing potential income during the two weeks her client is in quarantine.

And there’s the rub, that the coronavirus crisis comes with a brutal layer of classism ingrained within it. In the US, depending on their political affiliation, the upper classes either criticise individuals who try to continue running their businesses despite government orders or lambast government orders while staying at home. Both political sides of the upper class coin get takeout pizza delivered by a minimum wage driver and get the latest political tell-all book delivered by an Amazon worker who is employed at a crowded “fulfillment center” just far enough away to be out of sight and out of mind.

The cheapest test at a private clinic that I found in Uganda costs USh150,000 (US$41 or KSh4500 Kenyan). The last time the minimum wage was raised in Uganda was in 1984 when it was raised to USh 6,000 per month. Granted, no employer would dare offer such a pittance as a monthly wage in 2021, but ask yourself, would a waitress earning a USh600,000 monthly salary use a quarter of her take-home wages to get a test that may end up negative?

It is the economy, stupid.

The Kenyan government recently released further information about the rollout of the vaccination plan for the country, stating that it aims to have only 30 per cent of the nation’s population vaccinated by June of 2023.  That is more than two years away at the time of writing, which begs the obvious follow-up question: what is everyone supposed to do until then? Will the rich nations in the West vaccinate the majority of their populations by July of this year and then continue to hoard doses from the rest of the world just in case?

It has never been more starkly clear that the global financial structures are inherently flawed than in the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is to reflect on how the vast majority of East Africans would cope if, for instance, the curfew was maintained for another two years. Apart from the psychological damage this would cause, the economic prospects for the region’s youth, in particular, would be perhaps irreparably damaged (and may already have been after a year of COVID-19 measures). This may be coming across as some sort of conservative pro-business stance, but I assure you this is far from the case. COVID-19 is real, it has killed millions and none of us knows just how deep the damage truly is.

The stark reality is that the economic realities of different nations are, well, different. COVID-19 funds to the tune of billions of shillings were famously “eaten” in Kenya. It is unclear whether the IMF will lend any more stimulus funds to Rwanda. Tourism numbers in Uganda have come dramatically down and are far below the rates seen in 2019, even six months after the country re-opened its borders to foreign visitors. It is a question of what the endgame will be, and how equitable it will be once the world crosses the post-pandemic threshold.

At present, it seems that the global economic systems, those of the neo-liberal ilk, the global powerbrokers, the spectres of the 20th century paradigm, are still winning out. This is frankly a horrid scenario, for if the world has been made to suffer so greatly, the livelihoods and health of billions disrupted, then the greatest shame would be to learn nothing and change even less. If the global “norm” is to revert to the ways of 2019, then truly the COVID-19 pandemic will have been a tragedy that will only grow uglier as, onion-like, its many layers are revealed in the months and years to come.

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Politics

A Dangerous Woman: A Tribute to Nawal el Saadawi

What Saadawi taught me was that the oppression of women – whether in feudal societies or in capitalist ones – is not confined to any religion or region.

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A Dangerous Woman: A Tribute to Nawal el Saadawi

I was in my mid-20s when I read Nawal el Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve, a book that completely changed the way I viewed feminism. Until then, I thought I knew everything about the women’s movement. After all, I had taken several courses in Women’s Studies as an undergraduate at a very liberal university in Boston, USA, in the 1980s, so I thought I knew all there was to know about patriarchy and misogyny. But Saadawi’s book led me to question all my assumptions.

The Hidden Face of Eve could be described as a Marxist analysis of the root causes of patriarchy.  It lays out in clinical detail how advanced forms of agriculture, which produced surpluses that could be sold for profit, created societies where the subjugation and seclusion of women became the norm. Her thesis is simple but devastating in its conclusion: when societies transitioned from subsistence farming and started making a profit off their land, the value of their land increased. The more land you owned, the more power you wielded. So, issues surrounding inheritance – who would be the heirs to the land – became more important. To ensure that the person inheriting your land was your biological son, you made sure that your wife (or wives) had no opportunity to have sexual relations with other men. Because only a woman knows who the father of her child is, it became imperative to ensure that she did not “stray”. Hence the veiling and seclusion of women.

When feudal agricultural societies transformed into urban capitalist ones, the impetus to control women and their bodies did not diminish; it merely took other forms. In some societies, the veil became normalised; in others, women’s “purity” was safeguarded through other means, such as female circumcision or arranged marriages. Women who dared to break these norms were dismissed as prostitutes, witches or mad.

Literary reviewers and feminists have described The Hidden Face of Eve as a book about women’s oppression in the Arab world. The tendency is to see it as an indictment of Islam’s attitude towards women. But it is far from this. On the contrary, Saadawi argued that it is not Islam that has kept women down, but a patriarchal class system that cuts across all religions. It is not men who are the problem, but a system that prevents both women and men from fulfilling their potential. Men too suffer from a patriarchal system that determines what they can and cannot do.

Saadawi emphasised that this system has its origins in the mythical “first woman”, Eve, who dared to eat “the fruit of knowledge” that was forbidden to her. For this “sin”, she was punished, labour pains during childbirth being one among many other penalties she had to endure. Since then, women have continued to be suppressed by men who prefer women to remain ignorant. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – the major Abrahamic religions – all have an Eve story where a woman’s intellectual awakening is considered threatening. Women who “know too much” are viewed as dangerous, potentially promiscuous, women who might become bad mothers or wives.

Men too suffer from a patriarchal system that determines what they can and cannot do.

What Saadawi taught me was that the oppression of women – whether in feudal societies or in capitalist ones – is not confined to any religion or region. That when critics of Islam, like the Somali-born Dutch American author Ayaan Hirsi, blame the religion for treating women badly, they must also accept that the “enlightened” Western/Christian world, which they believe has accorded women more rights, has developed other types of oppression against women that can be equally devastating. Rape and domestic violence are as prevalent in Western societies as in non-Western ones. Violence against women has become normalised because women are commodified in capitalist societies – they are valued purely on the basis of their capacity to please men. The beauty industry has capitalised on this and created a market for fashion and cosmetics. Hence the growing demand among Western women for silicone breast implants and Botox injections, and the acceptance of pornography as a legitimate form of entertainment.

This revelation – that there is no hierarchy in women’s oppression and that patriarchy and the capitalist system upon which it is built is inherently oppressive – completely changed the way I viewed the family and community structures within which I operated. I realised that being born female had already relegated me, my sisters, my mother and my grandmother to an inferior status. That the women who participated in my oppression, including my mother (who was more eager that I get married than that I obtain a university education), were only doing so because patriarchal norms left them with no choice. That when Saadawi’s mother happily watched her six-year-old daughter being circumcised, she did so because she knew that her daughter would only be accepted in her small Egyptian village if she underwent the procedure. “I did not know what they had cut off my body, and I did not try to find out,” recalled Saadawi.  “I just wept and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side.”

Women are commodified in capitalist societies – they are valued purely on the basis of their capacity to please men.

The Egyptian feminist and author, who died in March at the age of 89, and who I had the pleasure of meeting briefly at a literary event in Nairobi a few years ago, was born in the village of Kafr Tahla outside Cairo, where it was normal for girls as young as 10 to be married off. She defied all societal expectations, did well in school, and went on to become a medical doctor, only to lose her job in the Ministry of Health when her book Women and Sex was published in 1969.  Saadawi did eventually marry – three times – and had a son and a daughter.

In 1981, Saadawi was among hundreds of activists imprisoned by President Anwar Sadat, and was only released from jail three months later when Sadat was assassinated. Her imprisonment did not deter her writing or her activism; she remained a strong advocate for women’s rights throughout her life. In 2011, she joined the protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo who eventually brought to an end the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. But her staunch opposition to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which gained prominence after Mubarak’s ouster, had many questioning her democratic ideals when she celebrated the removal of President Mohamed Morsi (who supported the Muslim Brotherhood), in a military coup. (Morsi’s successor and the coup leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is viewed by many as a dictator.)

Saadawi wrote more than 50 books during her lifetime. One of her more well-known novels is Woman at Point Zero, the story of Firdaus, a sex worker sentenced to death for murdering her pimp. In this book, Saadawi shows how patriarchy is relentless in its vilification of women – even those who have allowed their bodies to be used and abused for the pleasure or benefit of men. Women seeking justice for the crimes committed against them find that justice always favours men, including those who have committed the crimes. Women like Firdaus are described as “savage and dangerous”.

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian American journalist, sums up how important Saadawi’s writings were to her and to other women around the world: “Patriarchy fucks us over and it has us thinking we are the insane ones, that we are the wrong ones, that we are the unworthy ones . . . And so to be told that you are not insane or unworthy . . . that is the gift of Nawal El Saadawi . . . .”

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Politics

East or West? What Africans Think of China and America

A majority of Africans favour democracy over other forms of governance but an authoritarian system with a capacity to deliver public goods rapidly on a vast scale cannot be dismissed off-hand.

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What Africans Think of China and America

That a major contest has kicked off between the US and China over their influence in Africa is now abundantly clear, an integral part of the monumental spat between the two superpowers that blew out into the open under President Trump — partly articulated in America’s 2017 National Security Strategy — but whose essentials are clearly being retained by the Biden administration. China is now considered America’s most significant geopolitical competitor and threat, a posture that is reciprocated by Beijing.

Still, it is also obvious that the US is racing to catch up with a China that has dramatically deepened and expanded its relations with Africa since the early 2000s. Ironically, just as the US was checking out of Africa in terms of trade and development and focussing instead on security — and in particular on the so-called “war on terror” — China shifted gear, especially through its giant Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker, China has made a total value of US$303.24 billion in investments and construction in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2005. Indeed, by 2019 one in five major infrastructure projects in Africa was financed by China and one in three was being constructed by Chinese companies. China is now Africa’s biggest trading partner and, under President Xi Jinping, the country has rapidly expanded its cultural, social, military and other relations with African countries. In typical Chinese style, this scale-up has been both huge, efficient and rapid.

In East Africa, it is estimated that 55 per cent of all large-scale construction projects are undertaken by the Chinese who also finance a quarter of them. There has been considerable controversy about the extent to which these projects have contributed to a deepening debt crisis on the continent. The opacity and alleged corruption that surround the accumulation of this debt have also been the cause of deepening concern for policymakers and citizens alike. That said, the infrastructure projects align most closely with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) — currently our biggest “existential project” as Africans. The relationship between Africa and China is complicated. Indeed, relations with all great powers are complex and difficult for developing countries.

The Chinese model

A majority of African countries are aspiring democracies in one form or another. This democratisation stated after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and by 1995, multiparty democratic constitutions had been promulgated across the continent. The US was a prominent driver of this process and at that point, the West’s push converged with the will of a majority of Africans exhausted by the single-party regimes and dictatorships that had ruled since independence. Today we can agree that the quality of this democracy varies considerably from country to country.

What is increasingly referred to as the “China model” is most obviously not a liberal democracy. All serious polling done by respected organisations such as Afrobarometer confirms that a majority of Africans continue to favour democracy — despite its messiness — over other forms of governance. I should think that this is in part because between independence and the early 1990s, Africa tried a wild assortment of authoritarian models of governance. These were stifling at best and disastrous at worst, especially when led by military cabals who had taken power through violent coups.

By 2019, one in five major infrastructure projects in Africa was financed by China and one in three was being constructed by Chinese companies.

The freedoms that have come with our democracies have in turn become embedded in our broader governance DNA, with our young population unable to conceive of a time when their basic freedoms of thought, speech, association, movement, etc., could be dramatically curtailed. And yet, the “China model” of an authoritarian system that combines a high level of state capacity to deliver public goods such as health, education, etc., to the majority of its people rapidly and on a vast scale cannot be dismissed off-hand.

On the African continent, the Rwandan and Ethiopian models have been compared to the Chinese model. The engagement with China, including its controversial debt-related aspects, has been transformative, especially in regard to the development of critical infrastructure. This cannot be argued with. And this transformation has taken place with unprecedented speed, changing skylines across a continent which has some of the world’s fastest growing cities and the world’s youngest, most rapidly growing population.

Still, the opacity and corruption that sometimes seems to typify the accumulation of commercial debt has been particularly troublesome in a range of developing countries around the world. This is still playing out and African countries are in the middle of a delicate diplomatic balancing act between a risen China, a giant and often thin-skinned partner, and a West that is now in aggressive competition with China. We are caught in between. Western nations are also increasingly vociferous in their complaints about human rights abuses in China. The human rights situation vis-à-vis minorities such as the Uyghurs of Xinjiang Province and the peoples of Tibet has for decades been the source of intense advocacy among human rights activists. The recent governance overhaul backwards in Hong Kong and apparently upcoming one in Taiwan have caused similar distress. Understandably, African policymakers have been profoundly circumspect about joining in these calls. This is despite the fact that African states have over the last 30 years gradually become less tolerant of gross human rights abuses on the continent. Coups are generally a no-no in this day and age, and a state that deliberately seeks to destroy an ethnic group would cause even the usually politically judicious African Union to voice strong opposition. This is in part because orchestrated mass violence against particular groups in one country inevitably spills across our fake borders. The 1994 Rwandan genocide was, and remains, profoundly chilling.

China has been steadfast in its policy of non-interference in the governance of other nations, a stance which is deeply appreciated by an Africa that is finding its voice. Supporters of democracy point out that this approach can sometimes end up propping up some of the most incompetent and dictatorial regimes on the continent. The West has its list of similar clients too though. Suffice it to say that China also retains currency among African elites because it has never been a colonial power on the continent despite China’s Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) and his fleets visiting the East African coast several times between 1405 and 1433. China’s engagement with Africa back then contrasts starkly with Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama’s blood-soaked expeditions in the region from 1497 as he sought a plunder route to India. From the 1950s onwards, China also contributed significantly to African liberation struggles, often in direct opposition to the US and its allies.

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From the language and tone over the last few years, one would be forgiven for believing that the US is ready to adopt a Cold War posture with China. There is nothing that causes greater nervousness among African policymakers than the continent finding itself forced into the kind of stark polarity President George W. Bush encapsulated on the 20th of September 2001 when he told the world, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. This time around however, the relationship between China and Africa is very different from the one Africa had with the Communist bloc in the period after independence. Whereas ideology and the practicalities of the struggle for independence were at the heart of the Cold War relationship, for African elites in particular, China today is first and foremost a development partner. Besides, the Cold War posture was also generally bad for basic freedoms.

From the language and tone over the last few years, one would be forgiven for believing that the US is ready to adopt a Cold War posture with China.

Part of the challenge the US faces as it ramps up the contest with China is one of perceptions: the “shithole” countries, as President Trump called them, aren’t that shitty to other countries that have travelled the difficult development road we are on. For urbanised African youth with access to the internet, the America they view and read about today isn’t necessarily the one America’s unrivalled soft power juggernaut, Hollywood, portrays. A significant amount of bandwidth is instead taken up watching black people being murdered by a clearly systemically racist police force and the ensuing consequences. However, it is also part of the fundamental dynamism of US democracy that President Biden and his team have made so many progressive policy U-turns since taking office 100 days ago. Since he took office Biden’s administration has overseen the vaccination of over 130 million Americans – half the population!

Africans still overwhelmingly support the democratic model but feel the relationship with China is a win-win for Africa.

Other critical rising powers

While there has been considerable focus on China, India, Russia, Turkey and other rising nations have raised their profiles in Africa as well.  They have done so without much fanfare but in a manner that has afforded local elites policy choices that were unthinkable as recently as the 2010s. The Russia-Africa Sochi Summit in late 2019, for example, was part of an accelerated engagement by Russia with Africa over the past decade especially in the extractive sector and military trade. Today Russia is by far the continent’s largest arms supplier, accounting for almost half of all military sales to Africa. In 2019, 12 African ministers of foreign affairs visited Russia, and that country’s long serving minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov, held talks with nearly 100 top African politicians between January and September 2019 alone. Bogdanov is said to maintain sustained intensive interactions with African Ambassadors in Moscow. While Russian policymakers emphasise a deepening of “political cooperation” with Africa, they have indicated heightened interest in economic relations — especially in the extractive sector, agriculture, health and education. The speed with which Russia developed its Sputnik V vaccine was startling and its “vaccine diplomacy” in Africa has been more aggressive and successful than that of any other region. Welcome to our new multi-polar world.

What Africans think of China

As I said, Africans still overwhelmingly support the democratic model but feel the relationship with China is a win-win for Africa — with China winning more of course — being  qualitatively different from the relationship with the West.

Source: Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Source: Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Afrobarometer recently polled African attitudes towards China in 22 countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Guinea, Uganda, Nigeria, Angola, Namibia, Zambia among others. In the 22 countries, an average of 33 per cent of those polled thought the US was the best model for development. Twenty-three per cent felt China was the best model of development followed by former colonial powers at 11 per cent and South Africa at 10 per cent. China is emphatically  the preferred model for development in Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali. In Liberia, Angola, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde the US is by far the preferred model. In Kenya 43 per cent of respondents prefer the US model compared to 23 per cent who prefer the Chinese model.

Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Importantly, 62 per cent of all those polled across Africa felt China has a largely positive economic and political influence on their countries while 60 per cent felt the same for the US.

Source: Afrobarometer

Source: What Africans think about China: Findings from Afrobarometer, E. Gyimah-Boadi, CEO, Afrobarometer, February 2021

Indeed, the main takeaways of the Afrobarometer report released in February 2021 include the fact that Africans feel generally positive about China. Significantly, according to the researchers,

“Though new on the block, the attractiveness of China’s development model is second only to the US (especially among older adults). Perceived Chinese influence is on a par with that of the US and well above that of the former colonial powers. Chinese economic and political influence is seen in largely positive terms. Respondents who feel positively about the influence of China also tend to have positive views of U.S. influence as well – suggesting that for many Africans, U.S.-China “competition” may not be an “either-or” but a “win-win” proposition. Popular awareness of China as a lender/giver of development aid to African respective countries is unmatched by the common place talk of Chinese “debt trap” diplomacy in Africa…
Be that as it may, a plurality of Chinese loan aware Africans perceive fewer strings attached to those loans/development compared to other donors. 
Awareness of repayment obligations to Chinese loans/aid is however high among those who know about Chinese loans/aid to their country – suggesting the need for more information sharing about Chinese aid. 
Indeed, awareness of Chinese loans to the country generally goes hand in hand with expression of concern about the entailed indebtedness…”

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The former top Singaporean diplomat, academic and author of Has China Won?, Kishore Mahbubani, argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed the shift of global power from West to East. He points out that from 1AD until 1820 the world’s largest economies were India and China and that the last 200 years of Western domination are a historical aberration. All aberrations ultimately end. We are living through these tectonic changes. Exciting times. Nothing expresses the contradictions that this means in our daily lives than the way our urban youth use their mobile phones and American platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as instruments of accountability in a complex age.

It is ironic too that the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman that caused such powerful global outrage last year was filmed by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier using her iPhone made in China and uploaded onto American social media platforms not allowed in China, provoking a powerful reaction that continues to reverberate around the world.

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