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Will an Unga Revolution Follow in the Wake of the Coronavirus?

7 min read.

Unga has been an effective rallying call to agitate for food rights, but Kenyans are yet to fully realise that access to food is a fundamental right that they must aggressively fight for.

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Will an Unga Revolution Follow in the Wake of the Coronavirus?

Writing for the Route to Food blog on 8 January 2019, University of Nairobi don Celestine Nyamu Musembi and Patta Scott-Villiers, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex University, said: “Though Kenya’s (im)moral economy was forged at a time of colonial rule, the pattern of the weak response to undernourishment has persisted. Kenyans on low income do not feel that they have a right to not feel hungry, despite the words of the constitution.”

And what do the words of the 2010 Constitution state? They guarantee food for all – that no Kenyan should go without food. That food is a basic need and an undeniable human right. Specifically, Article 43 (1) (c) states that, “Every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.” This state of affairs, of poor and underprivileged Kenyans not “knowing” that they have “a right to not feel hungry”, has been particularly evident during the global coronavirus pandemic.

The onset of COVID-19 in Kenya in March 2020 exacerbated an already bad situation insofar as the food crisis was concerned. By February, the government had already been sending warning signals indicating that the maize reserve was depleting and could not last for the next six months. The pandemic is a phenomenon Kenyans of all shades have never experienced before; when it hit them, it hit them really hard, leading to many poor people losing their sources of livelihood.

It is estimated that 820 million people, 10 per cent of the world population, are suffering chronic hunger caused by the devastating COVID-19 outbreak, the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Many of these people, in Kenya as in the rest of the world, come from the working class.

The COVID-19 containment measures imposed by the government caused a majority of Kenyans — those who live in the ghettoes and the crowded suburbs of Kenya’s towns and cities — to lose their daily (casual) jobs, their kadogo economy businesses and other self-employment hustles; they started going hungry. This was Julia Renner’s central thesis when she presented her paper Kenya’s Government Under Pressure: Lockdown increases Hunger and Unrest at the Alumni Network Sub-Saharan Africa ANSA Conference 2020 in Passau, Germany.

We want food

Sections of Nairobi’s underclass and those living in low-income areas attempted to organise food protests in the hope of prompting the government to help them with food rations. On 11 May 2020, Eastleigh residents woke up to demonstrations, with people waving placards reading “We want Food”. The demonstrators were peaceful, and their message was targeted at the national government which has the capacity to provide relief food. The government’s usual response towards any demonstration is to come down hard on the protesters; the demonstration was scattered by armed police within hours.

In their blog Musembi and Scott-Villiers further stated that “Moral economies emerge and are renewed each time there is a subsistence crisis when state responsibilities and the rights of citizens are made clear in formal responses. These episodes leave an imprint in people’s hopes and expectations that can last for decades. Kenya’s contemporary moral economy was forged during the colonial famines of the early 20th century. One of the most severe was between 1943-45 [in the thick of World War II], when the rains failed in successive seasons . . . .”

Unga Revolution

But have Kenyans always been docile when it comes to agitating for food rights? Not always.  The 2011 food protests dubbed the Unga Revolution proved that when pushed to the limit, poor and low-income Kenyans can mobilise and organise themselves to fight for their right to affordable food

Unga is the Kiswahili word for the white maize flour which is used to make ugali – a thick gruel that is the staple food in many homes in Kenya. Up until President Mwai Kibaki’s reign, this was the most affordable staple for low-income households. When he came to power in 2003, a two-kilogram packet of unga cost KSh30. By 2011, during Kibaki’s second term —which was a coalition government between him and Prime Minister Raila Odinga — the price of unga had shot up to KSh120.

Granted, the country was going through a devastating draught and there was a global rise in food and oil prices, which led to Kenya experiencing a 14.5 per cent inflation that obviously hit the Kenyans hard, especially the urban poor. Yet, it is in times of such crises that the government should act to cushion the poor and underprivileged by providing them with the necessary basic foodstuffs.

But truth be told, the Unga Revolution was not a spontaneous reaction to soaring food prices, or to Kibaki’s insensitive government policies and attitude towards the poor. It was the expression of the accumulated anger and frustration of a people talking to a “deaf” government over a period of time. By the end of Kibaki’s first term the price of unga had nearly tripled; a two-kilogram packet of maize flour was now costing KSh80. The plaints were audible, and the people hoped the government would hearken to their cries.

The bangled 2007 presidential election led to internecine warfare in Kenya’s breadbasket, mainly in the central and north rift regions where most of the country’s maize is grown. The post-election violence (PEV) displaced about 600,000 people, most of them farmers, and many lost their lives. Predictably, the country experienced a severe maize shortage in the aftermath of PEV; 35 million bags of maize had been destroyed in the violence. Hunger loomed.

It is in times of crises that the government should act to cushion the poor and underprivileged by providing them with the necessary basic foodstuffs.

Because of the looming hunger, there were “maize” protests in 2008 that pressurised the government to re-evaluate its “maize policies” by, among other measures, asking the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) to import three million bags of maize to plug the gap.

The high maize prices in 2008, the shortages and the hoarding, were threatening to get out of hand. A woman alighting from a matatu at the infamous Kibera slum was spotted carrying supermarket shopping that included packets of unga. Rowdy youths accosted her and relieved her of the packets of maize meal. In Mathare and Mlango Kubwa slums, the ghetto dwellers would not wait to die of hunger; they invaded homesteads that reared pigs, grabbed the animals and slaughtered them.

So, by 2011, there was already a groundswell of angry and hungry citizens because prices of foodstuffs had not stabilised or come down as they had hoped, in particular the price of maize meal. The coalition government did not seem to have any strategic plan to ensure that poor Kenyans did not go hungry because of unaffordable maize meal prices. Cobbled together as a result a peace accord supervised by Kofi Annan, the Kibaki/Raila government seemed unable to tame the ever-soaring prices.

The Unga Revolution started as a movement among the urban poor in the slums of Nairobi. By sheer coincidence, the build-up of the protests began against the backdrop of the Arab Spring that was taking place in the North African countries of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Locally, the protests reached a crescendo on 7 July 2011, Saba Saba Day, a date associated with the pro-democracy second liberation movement of the 1990s.

Today, Saba Saba Day is commemorated by Kenyans to remember the day President Moi cracked down on opposition figures and on Kenyans in general, and by brute force stopped them from congregating at the hallowed Kamukunji grounds to agitate for plural politics.

Spearheaded by Bunge la Mwananchi (the people’s parliament), the Unga Revolution gained momentum as a grassroots movement. It organised the people from the slums of Huruma, Kariobangi, Kibera, Mathare and Mlango Kubwa among others, to come together and press for fairer maize meal prices. Gacheke Gachihi who was actively involved in the protest remembers how the organising and even the framing of the term revolution came about.

“The first meeting of the Unga Revolution took place in Kwa Negro in Mathare. We’d sourced some funds and printed 1000 leaflets written ‘Unga KSh30’ and distributed them in Mathare, Huruma and Kibera slums. At the Kwa Negro meeting, we demanded from the government that the price of unga drops back to what the people were used to: KSh30. We also used the meeting to signal to the government that we were serious on confronting the state on the matter of affordable foodstuff prices for the underclass.”

Following that meeting, Bunge la Mwananchi plotted how they would organise a protest march into Nairobi’s central business district. They also agreed that they needed to properly frame their message for it to have greater visibility and impact.

“That’s how we came up with the term Unga Revolution. I think I coined the term,” recalls Gacheke. “So, from the Unga KSh30 leaflets to Unga Revolution, we radicalised our message and hoped that the people, our people, would join us in demanding from the government, an overhaul of the maize meal prices.”

But even though on 7 July 2011 the Bunge la Mwananchi-driven Unga Revolution was prevented by a combined force of the police and the paramilitary from accessing downtown Nairobi and proceeding to Harambee Avenue where both the Office of the President and that of the Prime Minister were situated, it captured the national imagination and helped to spur a modern food rights movement in Nairobi and throughout Kenya. “The unga campaign was a major force. It led the government into asking the maize millers to start packing the five-kilogram unga bags for the rank and file,” said Gacheke.

A year after the Jubilee team of President Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto took power, in March 2013, food activists were back in town. This time they were demanding that the government reject a bill proposing 16 per cent value added tax (VAT) on essential food commodities. Their campaign was dubbed No Unga Tax. The activists printed 100,000 posters and plastered them across downtown Nairobi.

In May 2018, food activists took to the streets once again: “The government must subsidise the cost of food. It is not fair for the poor to be suffering with high food prices, yet the government has not increased salaries,” said an angry Tom Aosa, one of the protest organisers. “On Monday [June 1, Madaraka Day, a public holiday] your families will eat chicken, meat and chapatis. What do you expect us to eat if we cannot afford to make ugali?” shouted a protester.

Food protests have throughout history been instrumental in shaping government policy regarding access to adequate food for all. And while unga has been used effectively as a symbol to rally Kenyans into agitating for food rights, Kenyans are yet to fully realise that it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that its citizens are fed, and that access to food is a fundamental right which they must aggressively fight for, just as they have in the past fought against the curtailment of their right to freedom of association and freedom of speech. Will the coronavirus pandemic reignite in Kenyans the spirit of the Unga Revolution?

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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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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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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