Four years ago, David Njenga graduated from University of Nairobi (UoN) with an upper second-class honour’s degree in biochemistry. A year to the August 2018 presidential elections, his mother reminded him that electing Uhuru Kenyatta for a second term represented his best chance of getting a job. Apolitical and not one to argue with his mother, he cast his vote for President Uhuru. Four years on, he has yet to find employment.
Ambitious, intelligent and optimistic, Njenga’s hopes of getting a job, any job, are fading fast. From his class of 103 students, only five have found steady work, and many of his former classmates are engaged all manner of hustles – the latest politically twisted jargon for one’s means of eking out a living. Njenga told me that the five that had found work had powerful connections in President Uhuru’s Jubilee government.
“One of them is a pastor’s daughter whose father is one of the evangelical pastors who attends the national annual prayer breakfast with President Uhuru,” said Njenga. “The pastor’s daughter is my friend. I used to help her with her class assignments and writing term papers, so occasionally she will call me to have lunch.”
Njenga’s background is a world apart from that of his friend, the pastor’s daughter, but she befriended him at Chiromo campus because of his big brains; symbiotic relationship is the best way to describe their platonic friendship – he wrote her schoolwork and she regularly bailed him out financially. “C’est la vie,” said the 25-year-old Njenga. “She’s the one who got a job and I’m still writing assignments and term papers for rich students.”
I asked Njenga about the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a document that, if implemented, is supposed to ameliorate the lives and prospects of his peers. “Have you read the report?” He gave me a blank stare, the kind of stare that says, “You even have the temerity to ask me that question?” “Should I be reading a political document or researching about my students’ homework? If my parents had powerful connections, I’d not be suffering like this. That’s all what matters in today’s Kenya. My degree counts for nothing, I might as well have ended up being a plumber.”
Njenga was among the students who graduated top of their class, but even hoping to get a job in the corporate sector has become a flight of fancy. “It is the same as in the government – you must know people.” Njenga said the situation got worse with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. “Many companies have used coronavirus as an excuse to sack their employees. How then do you go to ask for a job when people are being laid off? We’re on our own and all what Uhuru is interested in, is how to succeed himself and safeguard his family’s empire and political interests post-2022.”
He gave me a blank stare, the kind of stare that says, “You even have the temerity to ask me that question?
Still living in his mother’s house — “I never imagined I’d still be staying with my mother, four years after campus.” — Njenga said none of his former campus mates cared about BBI: “They’ve not read it, some really don’t know what it’s all about, I mean even as students, we couldn’t find time to read stuff on our degrees. Can you imagine me finding time to read an obsequious document? For what?” But the real issue, I gathered from Njenga, wasn’t even finding time to read the BBI; it was the disdain that he and his former campus mates had for President Uhuru and his government, their disconnect with the political processes in the country, their lack of interest in how government is run or ought to be run.
“What can Uhuru claim to have done for the country, for the young people in the eight years he has been president?” posed Njenga. “I’m worse off than when I entered campus, the country is reeling in utter corruption, the economy is tumbling down, people now steal openly from the government and he has no idea how to fix anything. The youth’s biggest problem is the economy. We don’t care about anything else. The president said he knows how much is stolen from the state coffers every day, yet he doesn’t know what to do about it. Why is he the president then?”
Njenga said he voted for Uhuru because his mother asked him to. “I was just doing my duty and of course, it was a tribal thing.” The biggest problem with the youth, reckoned Njenga, is that they will vote for you tribally, if they have to, but if you won’t fix the economy, they will have no time for you. “This is where the Kenyan youth is right now with Uhuru’s incompetent government. Many of them contemplate migrating daily, to seek greener pastures wherever they will find them.”
Mwangi Waithera, 29, is just like Njenga — he voted for Uhuru because his beloved mother told him to. “I don’t care about politics, I wasn’t going to vote because politics is not my thing, but my mother repeatedly reminded me, even on the material day, that I should vote for the president.” A mitumba (second-hand clothes) seller with assorted customers — civil servants, lawyers, college students, among others — he has seen his business dwindle since 2017 when President Uhuru was voted in for a second term. He has listened to his customers, usually men of his generation, come to grumble in his tiny downtown shop.
“Do you know our salaries now come late?” laments one of Mwangi’s client, a civil servant. “Nobody cares about this BBI nonsense in the ministry offices,” he said. “Uhuru can afford to pay hundreds of millions of shillings to some so-called consultants to write a useless document called BBI, but our meagre salaries are being delayed up to the 10th of the following month?” The civil servant told Mwangi that his colleagues scoff at the report and have no time for President Uhuru. “He is the most colourless president Kenya has ever had. He is not respected among the younger cadre of the public officers, even worse among the older civil servants.”
Njenga said he voted for Uhuru because his mother asked him to.
One of Mwangi’s customers, a lawyer, showed up one evening as we were talking in his small shop. Barely 30, Denis voted for President Uhuru twice. “That’s how much I believed in him. I couldn’t stand anybody criticising him. I couldn’t countenance Raila being the President, so I made sure I voted again on October 26. I wasn’t going to let down my parents on this. They had warned us children on how we should vote.” said Denis, adding, “My parents told all four of us children that the greatest disaster that would ever befall this country was allowing Raila to be president. ‘I know some of you have liberal ideas’ said my father. The liberal ideas remark was a stab at my brother, who had voiced his disenchantment with President Uhuru’s first term performance.”
Then the “handshake” happened and his parents baulked. The children often meet for dinner at their parents’ home, a middle-class couple from Kiambu County. “During one of those dinner meetings, my ‘dissenting’ brother asked my parents, ‘so what is going on?’” The bubble had bust — the economy was tanking and the handshake with the devil had taken place. “For once my parents didn’t seem so sure and my younger brother looked like he could have been right after all,” said Denis.
But Denis’s parents knew things were going south when their firstborn lawyer son started struggling. He postponed his wedding. He was increasingly going back to his parents to borrow money. “I’d so much expectations, I did a few ‘stupid’ things with some of my cash. I knew good times were coming, so I didn’t worry, we’d re-elected Uhuru and I believed big legal work was beckoning.” Denis said that today some of his lawyer colleagues are doing so badly they literally chase for work that pays as little as KSh3000.
Denis is so angry with President Uhuru, he told me, that he “is done with voting. It’s a complete waste of time and energy. I’m also very angry with my parents for misleading us, only that I can’t pick it up with them. But my bold brother did, especially on their berating of Raila. ‘Please dad, explain to us why Raila is suddenly now a darling of Uhuru?’ My parents looked abashed. ‘Uhuru has been such a huge disappointment’ is all they could muster to tell us over dinner.”
As a lawyer, Denis told me he had taken the trouble to read the BBI document. “It is a document meant to entrench President Uhuru’s powers. Some of my colleagues and I easily saw through it. By the way, I know some of the lawyers who participated in its writing. For them, it’s all about making hay while the sun shines. They were paid handsomely – any lawyer likes to make real good money quickly.”
Denis’s declaration that he will never voting again has become a standard response among the youth I interviewed; they vowed that they would not expend their energies engaging in a predetermined outcome again. “I voted for the first and possibly the last time,” said Njenga. “Everybody knows what happened during the elections, the refusal to open the servers, even my mother knows the games that were played, but we can’t discuss that. Her vote has since shifted to Ruto.”
I asked Mwangi whether he had read the BBI document. “I’m a busy person and my work doesn’t allow me to engage in meaningless ventures,” he said dismissively. “I hear we may have to vote for it in a referendum. On that day, I’ll stay at home if I can’t open my shop, and that’s what I’ll do in 2022, during the elections.” Mwangi said he would never again wake up early to please both his mother and Uhuru. “I’ve learned my lesson, I’ve no time for politics, let me concentrate on my life and business.”
Denis told me President Uhuru was keen on a referendum “so that he can extend his term. I’ve become the wiser. At the dinner meetings, I’ve become bold like my brother. My parents are no longer as enthusiastic about Uhuru as they were before. They are completely miffed with him. They cannot explain, leave alone understand, how Raila is now supposed to be the darling of the Kikuyu people. My parents form part of the generation that took the Gatundu oath of never ceding state power to Luos.”
The graduate touts
Allan Kinuthia is, just like Njenga, a UoN graduate. Kinuthia graduated from Kabete campus in 2019 with an agricultural economics degree but he is a matatu tout. He started touting when he was a student “because I needed to raise some money for myself. Then it was a hobby and a hustle.” He voted for Uhuru and Jubilee in 2017. “I did it because that’s how my family voted. I voted on tribal basis, I couldn’t care less. If it worked for my family, why couldn’t it work for me?” Three and half years later, the truth of the matter is that it isn’t working for the family, much less for him. “There was this expectation by my family that, by the time I was graduating, I’d get a job – what with having voted for Uhuru and I having an economics degree,” said Kinuthia. “So even as I touted, I knew it was just a matter of time. I looked forward to a salaried job.”
“I’ve written countless job applications and I’ve given up,” said Kinuthia. “Jobs are there for those who are well-connected, not for people like me.” So far, none of those who were in his class has found a job. “As people trained to be professionals, it is important to get a job, practice what you learned in college, even as Kenyans keep on telling us students that we should think outside the box, meaning we shouldn’t always think of getting a salaried job.”
A happy-go-lucky, jolly fellow, Kinuthia tells me that the other touts are always taunting him; here’s a university graduate who is facing the reality of life outside the cosy world of college. “What do you think of BBI?” I asked him. Have you read the report? “No and I don’t have the time to,” he replied. So, how will you know whether it’s good for you or not? “You think I’m touting because I’m having fun? Uhuru is a failure. I studied economics; we’re where we are because of his incompetence. After taking the country down, Uhuru is busy crafting how to remain in power. That’s what BBI is all about.”
When not touting, Kinuthia is an online writer. “One time, I met a fellow student at UoN, who saw me touting in Kikuyu town. He asked me, ‘do you tout all the time? I can open an online writing account for you. Would you like to write and earn some decent cash?’ I took the deep end, learned the ropes and I’m doing it. My friends I was with in college don’t know or care about BBI, just like I don’t want to know about it. To many young people, Kenyan politics is b***s*** Instead of addressing the massive theft, BBI document is apparently advocating for more executive seats.”
Noisy and every inch the tout, Jimmy Kanogo is actually an entrepreneurship graduate from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT). Until you engage him, it is impossible to tell he has ever stepped inside a lecture hall. “But it is what it is”, said Jimmy. After graduating in 2018, he quickly realised there were no jobs for graduates. “Those days are long gone, even medical students are nowadays not assured of getting a job.”
“Jobs are there for those who are well-connected, not for people like me.”
“Have you acquainted yourself with the BBI report,” I asked him. “Don’t get me started,” Jimmy said. “What is BBI? My elder brother graduated from university in 2016, he has yet to get a job. How does BBI contribute to the GDP in our house? My parents thought that once they sent us to university and we graduated, we’d be a relief to them. We thought so too, but look at where we are,” moaned Jimmy.
It was the same story repeated in many Kikuyu homesteads: vote for Uhuru, he will straighten the path for you young guys, their parents told them. “And of course, we listened,” said Jimmy. “He lied to our parents, he lied to all of us, they are so angry they keep on cursing and vowing revenge. My mother can’t believe I’m indeed a tout, that after going to university I’ve been reduced to the level of the ne’er-do-wells, whom she always sees hanging around matatu stops and who she has utter disdain for.”
Jimmy said he struggled to read long essays throughout his university studies, “so you’ve to be nuts to expect me to read a document that has no relevance to my life. To fix the economy, you need a report? To curb massive looting, you need a report? To provide youths with jobs, you write a report? What is it that Uhuru wants?” His questions are rhetorical questions but it is obvious that the drafters of the BBI document have lost Jimmy and his peers.
“It’s been a long time since I saw my parents quarrelling, now they seem to quarrel so often,” said Jimmy. “My father cannot believe the money he leaves weekly for my mother is finished so quickly. ‘What’s these you are buying?’ he angrily asks her. Life has become triple difficult and it’s not a pleasant thing to see your folks quarrelling over cash. It isn’t that my mother is overspending or buying things she has not been asked to. But I also understand where my father is coming from.”
Jimmy isn’t interested in BBI, in Kenyan politics, in elections, in referendums. “My survival is my utmost interest. Let Uhuru do whatever he wants to do with power, but one thing is guaranteed – I’m never trooping to a voting booth again.” Jimmy said he wasn’t even really expecting to be employed per se, “but I’d hoped that by the time I was leaving university, the country’s economic climate would be such that it would allow for creativity and imagination for some of us to set up shop.”
Peter Chege is the opposite of Jimmy: slight of build, quiet, reflective, speaking only when spoken to. A UoN graduate, it is difficult to believe he touts, yet he does. “What options did I have?” he asks. Peter graduated in 2019 with a degree in sociology. The following year COVID-19 struck. Peter is from a poor peasant background and this meant that he had to quickly decide what to do with his life post-university. “My parents had struggled to put me through university; they were, in a manner of speaking, through with me.”
So he came down to Limuru, where he had friends among the manambas (conductors) and matatu drivers. They took him under their wing and taught him the ropes. “Can you imagine the people who inducted me into the industry are guys who left school either at primary level or at most secondary school?” When I asked him what BBI means to him, he said, “It means nothing, I don’t know what it is. I hear people talk about it. I keep away from such discussions. I don’t want to be upset and left with a foul taste in my mouth.”
Until you engage him, it is impossible to tell he has ever stepped inside a lecture hall.
Peter told me that his friends at the matatu stop taunt him: “Peter, please tell us, what’s the use of a university education? The drivers, manambas and fellow touts are the ones who like discussing BBI. So they ask me, ‘Peter, you’re the one who’s educated amongst us here; can you explain this document for us? If Peter is the most educated among us, and he isn’t interested in the report, why should we be interested?’” Peter and his matatu friends are agreed on one thing: none has read the report, and they will never read it, but they know one thing for sure: “BBI is about power arrangements and dynamics by the political elites that want to hold onto it, even as they organise us for 2022. It has got nothing to do with us. It is a route being mapped by Uhuru and his cabal to retain power.”
Apologists for Uhuru
“Raila has been played,” said Victor Oluoch, “but you know what? We can’t say it loud; this is supposed to be an ethnic project, so no Luo should be heard badmouthing it. But there’s a discomforting disquiet around the issue; all’s not well on the home front. We welcomed the handshake and its appendage the BBI in 2018, but three years down the line, we are not sure any more.” Victor, a 33-year-old IT specialist, said the handshake had stopped the killing of Luo youth by the state security apparatus and rescued the community from being used by all and sundry as the bogeyman of opposition politics.
“Opposition politics in this country [is] anathema: you’re anti-development, anti-state, anti-communal cohesion. The Luo community were branded all these and it reaches a point where you say, ‘Ok guys, somebody else can carry the cross,’” said Victor. “So we welcomed the handshake and its relative the BBI. We were also quietly told that BBI would bring development to Luoland and we said hoorah, why not? The many years of fighting the state had denied the region development.”
Development is a loaded word; it can mean many things. “But whatever it meant, we the Luo people needed it,” pointed out Victor. “Therefore, it was very odious to hear Raila say the other day that the developments that have apparently been taking place in Nyanza counties, courtesy of the handshake, were after all not meant to be a favour, but a countrywide thing. I didn’t understand where that came from, but certainly, it is not the only misgiving that some of us now have with BBI.”
On 7 June 2021, Raila was quoted as having said, “None of the projects launched or mentioned during the Madaraka period are owned by or meant to serve Kisumu alone. They are meant to, and will serve the entire Kenya.”
The ongoing development projects in the Nyanza region are something that BBI supporters in the region are pointing to as a positive. Ojijo Orido said to me that, over and above everything else, BBI was good because it had brought development to Nyanza. “Factories are being opened up, roads are being built, the port is being resuscitated, the railway line is alive once again, the airport is being expanded . . . development is now being shipped to Nyanza more than everywhere else in the country. We Luos have benefited from BBI and that’s why we support it.”
“But was that the real agenda of the handshake and its aftermath the BBI?” asks Victor. “I’ve taken the trouble to read the document. Nothing could be further from this proposition. Instead, the report, which has mutated a couple of times, proposes other things.” The issue of an additional 70 constituencies, for example, is very troubling, said Victor. “How is it that Nairobi and Mt Kenya region end up with more than 33 new constituencies, while the entire Nyanza region gets less than 4 extra seats? Is this not gerrymandering?”
Victor said the handshake had stopped the killing of Luo youth by the state security apparatus.
According to the BBI proposal, the extra constituencies will be distributed as follows: Nairobi 16, Kiambu 6, Nakuru 5, Meru 2, Embu 1, Kirinyaga 1, Murang’a 1 and Laikipia 1. In contrast, Homa Bay has been allocated 2 seats, Siaya 1 and Kisumu 1. The rest of the new seats are to be distributed across the rest of the country.
Yet Victor told me that among the Luo people this disturbing question is not supposed to be raised. Why? “Oh, you know, I’ve heard it being whispered in Raila’s inner sanctum that mzee has been promised the big one, so it’s imprudent to bring up the offending question. So, what’s BBI really about? Is it about “favoured” development, which Raila is now denying? Was it about ensuring the Luo youth are not gunned down? Is it about being promised the ‘big one’?”
Woe unto the Luo people if BBI doesn’t succeed, warns Victor. “Because it will mean the Luo youth could again be fodder for the police, development will be stopped forthwith and the promise of the ‘big one’ will vanish just like that. Is that how we should be conducting our national politics?”
“It is unfortunate the Luo people have become the biggest apologists for President Uhuru’s incompetent government,” said Ken Owiti. “We behave as if the indiscriminate killings of our people didn’t occur in 2017. We’ve forgotten all the violence that was visited upon the Luo people, prior to the repeat presidential elections on October 26, 2017. We have all forgotten the Baby Pendo incident. We can’t continue to live in the past, some of my folks say, but what does the future hold? The future of the Luo people is pegged on Raila cosying up to the system and being promised the presidency. That’s all.”
Ken showed me a video clip of Orido, a journalist, waxing poetic about President Uhuru’s development record. In the clip, Orido cites Outer Ring Road as an example of the strides President Uhuru has made in developing Kenya. “Is that all what Orido can talk about? Outer Ring Road is a project started under President Kibaki. Development is not a favour to Kenyans; it’s their right because the money borrowed to build and expand these roads is used in their name. But anything to prove you’re a BBI and a Raila cohort.”
The self-flagellation of the Luo people during President Uhuru’s visits to Kisumu has been a trifle embarrassing, said two Boda Boda riders. “What point have we been trying to convey? That we’ve forgotten the brutal violence that took place in Kibera and Kondele not too long ago? That we’re now loyal followers of President Uhuru and his inept government? That we’re a pragmatic, forward-looking people? That we should forgive and forget? Just like that? No questions asked?” The boda boda riders said that among a section of the Luo people, the force of reason seems to have been trumped by reason by force. “If you raise these critical questions, Raila’s adamant followers threaten you with violence, ‘you must be a Ruto supporter – are you a Luo? Who are you to question Raila? BBI is Raila and Raila is ours’.”
Raila’s magnetism among the Luo people is waning, especially among the younger generation, said Otieno Magak. “His politics has ceased to be spellbinding and the handshake didn’t help matters. You can’t question BBI. To question BBI is to question Raila. You can’t ask how supporting BBI, wholly, unquestioningly, will translate into determining the price of sugar in your house. You must support it because Raila has said so. If you prod, nasty epithets are thrown at you. You’re deemed a traitor to the cause, you can be physically attacked.”
Woe unto the Luo people if BBI doesn’t succeed.
The Luo people are being corralled into supporting BBI because this could be the “bullet”, pointed out Magak. “How many ‘one bullets’ can one possibly have? How many times can you promise a political tsunami? The younger generation of Raila supporters are saying ‘we’ve done our civic duty. We’ve lent our unwavering loyalty to him and his political cause, but there comes a time when we must think about our own future and our own future cannot be tied to an aging opposition doyen.’”
Magak said to me that indeed there is a quiet movement sweeping across the Luo nation, of the millennial and generation Z that is keen on charting their own political path away from BBI, away from Raila’s stranglehold, away from the politics of patronage. “Raila has really fought hard, no one can take that away from him, even his greatest detractors concede the man has been resilient, even as he has been cheated out of victory several times. But BBI is a con game which, if it backfires, will have much wider ramifications on a community that has never sat well with status quo politics.”
As BBI proponents and antagonists square it up in court, engaging in legalese and subterfuge, Kenya’s largest voting constituency, the youth — disillusioned, dispossessed, disaffected — have given the report a wide berth.
The 2 June 2021 decision of the seven-judge bench to issue their ruling on 20 August 2021 doesn’t augur well for BBI said Magak. “Whichever way you may want to look at it, at the end of the day, one party seems to have been lied to all throughout. It is significant to note that immediately after the judges gave their date, after the final submissions, the IEBC chair reiterated, soon after, that the general elections will be held on 9 August 2021. It is not for nothing that Wafula Chebukati found it prudent to remind Kenyans at this juncture that the election calendar is on course. But don’t take my word for it.”
This article is part of The Elephant BBI Judgement Series done in collaboration with Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBF), Dialogue and Civic Spaces Programme. Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the HBF.
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Return to the Land of Jilali: Reflections From Kenya’s Northern Frontier
As the rest of us figure out how to cope with the long-term changes now overtaking the biosphere, the world’s most resilient survivors will play an influential role in the collective response.
The locusts appeared near the barrier to the Lake Turkana Wind Farm. They did not form a massed cloud and they did not appear to be that interested in feeding on the semi-desert vegetation. But they were everywhere, a diffuse scattering of red juveniles that gave the sky a slightly speckled cast over the next five kilometres of road.
Desert locusts were one of the obsessions of colonial administrative officers, many of whom sought to preserve the Northern Frontier District in its natural state to protect its ancient communities and abundant wildlife. The preoccupation with the region’s eco-cultural integrity was predicated on two basic assumptions: 1) if allowed, local herders would degrade the range beyond repair through overgrazing; and, 2) should the vast region be treated like the rest of the colony, outsiders would flood in and corrupt the cultural ecology of the region’s ennobled nomads.
An assortment of explorers, wanderers, and opportunists had crisscrossed the northern region during the latter decades of the 19th century. Ivory hunters brought up the rear, followed by Kamba and Somali competitors in search of the region’s last untapped population of tuskers. By the turn of the century the Rendille and Borana had also become involved in the trade, albeit reluctantly.
The paternalism of British colonial administrators serving in remote areas was in part response to the unrestrained mercantilism of their freelancing European predecessors, but it also reflected their recognition of the local communities’ expressed desire to maintain their way of life.
The local pastoralists didn’t mind the relative isolation in the beginning. They mainly wanted to be left alone in their vast, wide-open spaces. For the most part, the colonial administration respected this. But as Kenyan independence approached, isolation gave way to calls for secession.
The Kenyatta government’s sovereignty over the potentially turbulent northern rangelands started badly after the rejection recorded in the 1962 pre-independence referendum. The Shifta insurgency commenced under the shadow of emergency laws gazetted several weeks after Uhuru. This extended a state of occupation across a large swath of territory including Lamu and Tana River Districts. Shifta banditry followed.
It has been a long way coming back from this inflection point.
For ruling elites based in the region’s capitals, the rangelands mainly offered the hope of the hidden resources lurking underneath the surface. Governing the rangelands of the former NFD, the northern Rift Valley, and the North Eastern Province became a holding game—an exercise based on the probability that returns on the investment in controlled conflict management would materialise someday.
It took over five decades for the first manifestations of that pay-off to appear. It began with official recognition of the rangelands’ importance for the livestock sector’s commercial value articulated in a speech President Kibaki made after winning the 2002 elections. Prospecting for oil, natural gas, and wind power came next. This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.
The Land of Jilali
None of this was on the radar as the new millennium approached. The La Niña drought that followed the deluge of the 1998 El Niño had restored the political ecology narrative dominating the rangelands since the colonial era. Desertification was back, and the primary culprit were the proto-modern nomads, with some help from capricious nature.
Two decades ago, I had crisscrossed the expanses of Marsabit without hearing any mention of Schistocerca gregaria, or nzige, to use the Swahili term for the locusts. Years of conversations across northern Kenya had not yielded a single mention of the scourge. But then again, the last outbreak was seventy years ago. At the time, I was part of a team of Kenya researchers based at Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre investigating desertification and its potential mitigations.
In The Land of Jilali, an account of our field trips across the district, originally published in 2001, the spectre of deepening drought and famine followed us everywhere we went.
The essay featured multiple references to dark rockscapes, arboreal denudation, and the expanding discs of desertified land ringing the settlements. Permanent manyattas elsewhere displayed a similar pattern. The environmental crisis was undermining traditional livelihood strategies, fulfilling the prophecies Western scientists had promulgated after the Great Sahel drought of the mid-1970s.
This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.
The conclusion to The Land of Jilali traced the problems to the economic stasis resulting from the decades of laissez-faire policy, widening the separation of the NFD from the highlands to the south.
Our verdict: the problem is not so much environmental degradation as lack of economic diversification. There are untapped resources in these remote regions, including nutrient-rich salt from the Chalbi, gum arabic, stunning landscapes for the high-end adventure tourist. But exploiting them has been constrained by a combination of poor infrastructure, restrictive laws, a lack of services, and the social prejudice engendered by separation. Isolation has bred war parties that roam the land with the unpredictability of rain-bearing clouds.
Now it is 2021 and I returned to retrace some of the steps recorded in the Land of Jilali narrative. The world has witnessed massive shifts and changes over the past two decades. At first glance, however, Marsabit appears to be insulated from many of the trends. The lowland range looked relatively unaltered, certainly less degraded than scientists like Hugh Lamprey had predicted back in 1976 when he claimed the Sahel was advancing at a rate of over five kilometres per year.
At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland. Lamprey’s warning came with a scenario of social collapse overtaking the unstable grasslands and fragile drylands due to surging population growth.
The northern rangelands played their part by recording the country’s highest birth rates over the last two decades. But everywhere we went the tree cover was improved, the pasture ok, and although the peripheries of settlements remain bare, the vegetation and tree cover within them has expanded.
Among other things, these trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.
The areas adjacent to the recently tarmacked road that now connects the northern slopes of Mt. Kenya to Moyale on the Ethiopian border conveyed an impression of environmental stability. Highway towns like Archers Post, Merille, and Logologo are larger but look much the same except for the expanding band of small block houses spreading out into the bush behind them. The stacked sacks of charcoal along the roadside are gone.
These trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.
Although such landscapes can be deceptive, the environmental stasis conveyed by these roadside settlements appeared to be in step with the fast-moving tropes of Kenya’s transition from an agrarian society, where the majority of the population is no longer directly dependent upon rainfall and vegetation.
The data accumulating over time would come to show that the state of vegetation and population growth is not necessarily congruent with long-term land change. But at the beginning of the 1980s, the negative trends documented by researchers working across the Sahel had the unchallenged certainty of Western science on their side.
The Age of IPAL
The Great Sahel famine of 1974-76 struck from the shores of the Atlantic to the Horn of Africa. The death and devastation wrought magnified the significance of the drought and portrayed the famine as the harbinger of a larger environmental crisis. The 1976 United Nations conference on desertification in Nairobi officially established environmental degradation as the leading issue threatening the planet.
It was science to the rescue. Externally conceived schemes to combat desertification, seen as a root cause of the increasing incidence of drought, dominated the response. Lamprey’s picture of a man getting ready to cut down a solitary tree stranded on a barren plain of dark rocks had made Marsabit an international exemplar of desertification, and the goat by the man’s side became the movement’s poster child.
Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity. The government sought to exploit the shock by promoting an audacious shift from livestock to investment in marine fisheries. Its proactive efforts faced formidable headwinds. Two ambitious interventions to kick-start an industrial fishery from above were eventually overtaken by the internal dynamics of Syad Barre’s doomed government.
Some of the fiberglass boats from these projects turned up later in the hands of the vigilantes and pirates patrolling the country’s offshore waters.
In Kenya, the call to arms led to the establishment of the Integrated Project for Arid Lands in Marsabit. Initiated under the aegis of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1977, IPAL was designed as a multi-disciplinary, human-focused project that improved on the design of the integrated project template of that period. Over the course of its three phases, the research compiled useful baseline data on vegetation change and climate patterns, livestock disease vectors, studies on the dynamics of traditional range management, and the sociology of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.
Little changed on the ground in the interim. The rains had returned, and the new jobs IPAL created were welcome. The project’s facilities and research mandate were transferred to the Government of Kenya in 1984. Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre in Marsabit came into existence as the stepchild of IPAL.
Now the ward of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), KARIMAR, as the Centre became known, continued to actively conduct field research, but the scientific output generated by the Centre’s researchers was compromised by the way the Institute worked. Because salaries, which were pegged to civil service pay scales, were low, the per diems for time spent in the field were high to compensate. KARIMAR staff spent a lot of time crisscrossing the landscape collecting data, much of which remained on the shelf.
At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland.
During my time at the Centre, its research focused on animal health, typologies of camel productivity based on indigenous technical knowledge, the ongoing problem of environmental degradation, assessment of optimal dosages of herbal livestock remedies, meat and milk preservation, and sociocultural changes in the area’s growing settlements.
Most of the data did not make its way into publications. But the Centre did operate strong outreach activities, sharing the research findings through periodic meetings with Marsabit’s lowland communities. This was a positive move away from the ivory tower knowledge model, even if the uptake of the technological prototypes on offer was not high.
KARIMAR outreach coincided with the surge in local associational life in the form of the Community Based Organisation and other variations on participatory development like the environmental and security committees. All of this contributed to the onset of a more auto-catalytic, or self-starting developmental phase. This was aided by the rise in education and the increasing movement of locals beyond district and national borders.
The small settlement of Ngurunit, situated at the base of the Ndoto Range, was originally a base for the region’s ancient hunter-gatherer community. It became one of the primary focal points for small-scale projects in vogue at that juncture, and the most noteworthy was the Salato Women’s Group.
Salato was a prime beneficiary of the donor support for gender-based projects at that time. It ran one of the several mini-dairies supported by KARIMAR, and was producing nyiri nyiri (a variation on dried meat jerky preserved in oil, traditionally made for ceremonial occasions like weddings) for local export. At its height Salato was operating a bakery, selling crafts, facilitating a camel restocking plan, and was racking up citations in the local press, and in developmental and academic publications.
But Salato, once the exemplar of local women’s entrepreneurial zeitgeist, was gone when we passed through Ngurunit. No one was interested in talking about it, as if its fate had always been common knowledge—there were always frictions among its leadership. Only the citations remained. The KARI research station was also kaput, which made me very sad.
The facility’s main veranda was one of those places in Kenya sanctified by the volume of fascinating and esoteric discussions it had absorbed over the past several decades. Those conversations about the region’s history, culture, politics, and economy were part of a vernacular narrative that, from a complex systems perspective, was often more revealing than the insights generated by the formal research.
The Age of LAPSSET
LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior. Traders fanned out across the basin spanning Malawi and Tanzania, northern Kenya the lowlands of Ethiopia, and the borderlands of southern Sudan in search of ivory, human captives, and other high-value commodities.
The name of the game was extraction, and the tales of treasure in the African interior percolating into Europe attracted western explorers. In the western Sahel, the locals set the terms for explorers attracted by the gold-clad city of Timbuctoo, as Mungo Park famously describes in his journal. The Scottish explorer was harassed, threatened, and detained in a pen with a pig by a Berber chieftain. He was so spooked after being released that by the time his boat finally approached the mythical city, the explorer sped by with all guns blazing.
Mungo Park met a watery death during the final leg of his journey down the Niger River; his journals were retrieved by his faithful guide, preserving his fascinating account for future generations. Many others perished crossing the Sahara or while trying to enter the interior from the West Africa coast, which became known as the White Man’s Grave.
Historically, the western Sahel had given rise to states that integrated herders and agro-pastoralists into the region’s cross-Sahara trade-driven economy. The Sahel zone remains integral to the politics and economy of the new countries created by the colonial disruption. The opposite pattern prevailed in the eastern Sahel, where populations were still on the move during the 19th century, and the region’s stateless pastoralists remained on the periphery after colonial intervention favoured the promotion of agricultural economies.
Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity.
Explorers venturing into the interior of East Africa faced formidable changes, but less hostility from the natives. The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation that followed insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.
The LAPSSET project and its elaborate grid of proposed roads, pipelines, airports, railroads, the new Lamu port at Magogoni, and “tourist” cities is a prime example. Designed to open up the region for capital penetration, the fantastic scheme hatched by the Kibaki government’s planners was never tabled for debate in Parliament, or formally introduced to communities on the ground. But the Lake Turkana Wind Power and two berths at the Magogoni Port are the only projects that have come to fruition so far.
Renewable energy is one industry that can actually mesh with the region’s pristine environment. The wind farm initially appeared to be the kind of project residents and proponents of rangeland development would approve of. The LTWP offered the hope that it would promote greater integration of the area’s inhabitants into the national economic grid. Instead, the outcome reinforced the skewed state-society power relations defining the last century of highland-lowland relations.
Sarima sits beneath the escarpment descending towards the lake. The corridor framed by Mt. Kulal to the north and the Ndoto Range in Samburu forms a powerful wind tunnel that inspired a Dutch expatriate to undertake a basic feasibility study. He established that the winds in this area, known in Rendille as Kurti Haafar or the Hill of the Winds, are stronger than anywhere in Europe.
The quasi-legal acquisition of the land lease from the Marsabit County Council in 2007 through political brokers and the convoluted implementation process proved to be a recipe for conflict and unrelenting contestation. What could have been a relatively non-intrusive and mutually beneficial investment based on an initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare electricity plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.
The environmental and social impact assessment was completed in 2009. The World Bank bailed on the project in 2012. This removed some of the more cumbersome hurdles to implementation, like the poor terms of the project’s power purchase with Kenya’s Ministry of Energy. The World Bank’s withdrawal also expedited financing for the consortium of private investors, who expected to have the 310-megawatt facility operational by 2014.
Africa’s largest wind farm was finally completed in 2017, but due to tendering scandals and the usual delays, it took the better part of two years to connect the wind turbines to the national grid. As predicted by the World Bank, the Kenya Treasury committed to pay the LTWP investors €127 million (KSh14.5 billion) for the unused electricity generated during this period, which inflated the cost of the project’s electricity for the Kenyan consumer.
LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior.
Projects that tick most of the developmental boxes tend to engender controversy in Kenya’s marginalized areas. The Turkana County government fought a protracted battle to increase their small share of the expected revenues from the oil found there. In Lamu, civil society advocates have been forced to fight for basic compensation in court for the land and livelihoods lost to the Magogoni port. Marsabit County received nothing in return and was denied access to the electricity that the Project Consortium’s application boasted will light up 2.5 million Kenya households.
A case brought by Rendille activists contesting the land allocation and petitioning for its reversion to community land upon expiration of the lease has been delayed, even after being accepted for review by Kenya’s Supreme Court. The encroachment of Turkana and the preferential hiring of Samburu for the 339 permanent jobs created by the project has, however, complicated the case predicated on the rights of all of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.
The pastoralists’ lawyers argued that the allocation failed to follow the guidelines mandated in Kenya’s Trust Lands Act, and it represented an even more serious violation of the community land principles embedded in Kenya’s new Constitution.
For their part, the LTWP Consortium’s lawyers argued that the law grants communities the right to access communal grazing resources, but not formal ownership of the land. This blatant revisionism anchored their dismissal of any local claim to the benefits accruing from the utilisation of the wind passing over the land in question.
Such cynical ploys contribute to why citizens of Kenya B remain poor and the value of their production low by the standards of Kenya’s agricultural majority. But communities in the areas that first experienced Uhuru under the draconian emergency laws like the Special Districts Act are now awake and increasingly organised. They are also armed. None of this augurs well for the belated integration of these areas under the extraction and carbon-based investment model the Kenya government is promoting under its Vision 2030 blueprint.
Return to the Land of Jilali – Part Two
The View from the Lake, Then and Now
We approached Sarima on an overcast morning. The day before we had been warned of a clash between Samburu and Turkana. The incident claimed a boda boda rider transporting miraa and a Samburu moran, the victims adding to the growing body count resulting from an extended series of conflicts erupting across local ethnic fault lines. Upon approaching the edge of the project’s land we passed small groups of elders walking towards what was apparently a peace meeting being convened in a glade of acacia.
The configuration of the wind farm, unlike the lines and grids of similar projects elsewhere, consisted of clusters of the tall white towers scattered in an uneven pattern across the landscape. The blades of these giant pinwheels appear to spin at a lazy pace out of synch with the fiercely gusting wind.
The once rugged road has been paved up to the final stretch to the Lake, and the road following the shore to Loiyangalani has been improved. This made for a leisurely, two-hour drive to the town that has always struck me as one of Kenya’s most eclectic settlements.
When I first travelled this route for the first time in 1975, it took nine days traveling by public means and hitchhiking to make it to the lake. Two days were spent on buses and seven were spent hanging out with the locals on the side of the road in Baragoi and South Horr during the day. The traffic never exceeded five vehicles a day: the typical sample comprised of lorries, GK Land Rovers, and the occasional private vehicle which would speed raising a cloud of dust.
After three nights camping in a laaga on the edge of town, we got a lift to South Horr in a pick-up transporting goats. South Horr was at that time a small hamlet of some fifteen shops and storage structures set in a woody glade. Most of the Samburu herders carried semi-precious stone knotted in their shukas. We failed to see why they spent their days loitering along the road, until a German-speaking man stopped, methodically inspected the rocks with a special eyeglass, made a few purchases, and sped off after spurning our request for a lift.
It was at that point, on our fourth day in South Horr, that we decided to walk the final 90 kilometres to Loiyangalani. Local sources told us there is a 25km stretch of savanna woodland before entering the desert. So we hatched a plan to do half the walk at night, find a tree to rest under, and complete the remaining distance the next day when the sun was low.
The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation subsequently insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.
We packed some sugar, tea leaves, posho, and purchased a small spear at a high price from a one of the rock-hunting Samburu morani. We should have employed him as a spear-carrier and guide instead, but we had no idea what was awaiting us ahead.
The next day, forty minutes before our planned departure, a European tour group stopped and told us they would make room in their Landcruiser if we did not mind being squeezed. We accepted this offer with great relief.
The vegetation thinned out after passing the Kurunga River, confirming the intel we had collected. The Sarima corridor was near-treeless at that time; it certainly was not the “lush plain” described in the LTWP literature, and the Turkana village that has been a magnet for inter-communal conflict since the project began did not exist. We disembarked further down the road so the car could negotiate the staircase, a series of terraces that for decades enabled vehicles to bump their way down this most difficult section of the escarpment.
It was five o’clock yet still incredibly hot. Fifteen minutes under the sun amidst this sea of rocks, the Jade Sea beckoning in the distance, was enough to see us consume half of the water we were carrying. This point roughly marked the rest stop of our walk, and there was not a single tree with a canopy offering respite from the sun in sight. The rest of the route to Loiyangalani was even harsher, bereft of any sign of shade or habitation.
Like the fate of many of the meticulously planned expeditions passing through the region in the late 19th century, we would have survived the trek, but only barely. With this realisation came renewed respect for the long-time inhabitants who figured out how to survive and prosper in this stark and rugged land.
Now I was retracing these steps, forty-five years later. Acacia nilotica and seyal dotted the once barren lakeside. The lake had receded into the distance when I visited here during the turn-of-the-millennium La Niña drought. Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had now returned. The large informal settlement that had sprung up on the extended beachfront was gone; the only reminder of the lakeside suburb was a partially submerged bar and restaurant.
An initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.
Some things only change slowly: I took a picture of a small raft of doum palm trunks, the archetypal vessel the El Molo use to fish these turbulent and croc-infested waters. But Loiyangalani was otherwise vibrant, and undergoing a makeover.
The piles of rocks for sale on the lakeside approach were new. I used to see the sight of animals foraging on this denuded shoreline as confirmation of the desertification narrative—until closer inspection revealed that the rocks hide spikey shoots of grass shielded from the burning sun. Now the Turkana boys herding goats are diversifying their income by selecting stones with the right size and shape for constructing houses to sell to the new builders.
Loiyangalani now features facilities that provide reasonably priced accommodation and meals for the groups of down-country Kenyans who are now exploring the Marsabit lowland loop. Ngurunit and South Horr also have similar tourist bomas, enabling access to the remote vistas along a route that was formerly the province of low-budget travellers touring in mini-mog trucks. Many of the settlements are setting up mini-grids based on solar power, obviating the need to access the LTWP electricity. Off-grid technologies for harvesting the sun provide a low-cost alternative to the government-investor ‘owned’ wind.
The roads are better; I stood next to where the staircase used to be and watched a Toyota Vitz drive down to the Lake. Such examples of change offer hope that, after decades of media-framed perceptions of the north as a crisis-prone region, other Kenyans see the north for themselves and empathise with their neighbours’ quest for an equitable return from their land and natural resources.
The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development. Before leaving Loiyangalani, we learn that elders attending the peace meeting produced the foils from the box lunches provided to the security personnel at the site of the attack as evidence showing that LTWP guards were behind the raid two days before.
The Land of Jilali Revisited
This brings us to a revised verdict based on a long view of developments in the Land of Jilali.
The desertification thesis, which emerged out of the French occupation of the western Sahel, traces the blame to culturally conservative herders and management practices like the use of fire and overstocking. The Francophone desertification thesis was exported to the Horn of Africa following the great famine of the mid-1970s. Since then, scholars like Tor Benjminsen have exposed the combination of opportunism and flawed science used to delegitimise the adaptive and resilient practices of pastoralists developed over the centuries. His article on the subject documents how since the 1920s the myth has been revived during protracted droughts, only to fade away during the resumption of normal rainfall.
A contrasting case of extreme climate set the locust invasion in motion. Two cyclones in quick succession had pushed far beyond the normal range for such storms. This supercharged the expansion and reproduction of the locusts, the unusually high rainfall launching the jump from the insects’ southern Arabia breeding grounds while optimising conditions across the Horn of Africa for their spread.
Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the Lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had returned.
The media duly repeated claims that the locusts represented an existential danger to the Horn of Africa, threatening millions of producers with starvation. Documentation of the devastation to agricultural and pasture resources has been less forthcoming. This tallies with reports from sources in affected areas, who verified the appearance of swarms, but claimed the damage to crops and pasture was minimal.
Did we once again fail to fully comprehend a non-linear ecological event?
The 2020 locusts appear to be recyclers who fed off the excess vegetation generated by the heavy rains, while providing a temporary source of protein for birds and wildlife and local communities who convert the insects into a healthy version of fast food. The locusts are also a rich source of chemicals known as phytosterols that boost immunity and help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The response to combatting the locusts did provide a positive example of international cooperation, even though the use of insecticides was a greater threat to human health than the vegetation they consumed. The nzige invasion dovetailed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed the cupidity and corruption of the state-based cartels who exploited the international response to the virus for personal benefit.
The retrogressive behaviour of the region’s states comes with important implications for the Horn of Africa, which is entering a new phase of political economy after several decades of communal conflict, unencumbered market economy, and donor-supported democratisation. The expanded scope for global capital under this arrangement represents the latest challenge for the region’s pastoralists’ fight to own their future.
Explorers and military map makers’ accounts dominated the first phase of modernity in the north. Their descriptions of the region as Africa’s last remaining Garden of Eden dovetail with the Lake Turkana version of the Eve hypothesis. The environs where our earliest ancestors frolicked entered the twentieth century as a rangeland ghetto sustaining decades of socioeconomic malaise.
The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development.
The second, developmental phase of modernity was driven by Western science. Researchers amassed a large body of useful information, including the baseline data sets underpinning remote sensing and survey methodologies that now support the monthly reports on the frontier counties’ vegetation and human food security. Jilali is now a data-defined phenomenon. But they also failed to identify the critical dynamics operating on the human-environmental interface.
The new school of range ecology eventually rectified the biased assumptions responsible for the procession of failed drylands policy experiments. Recognition of the inherent uncertainty of such non-equilibrium environments went a long way towards rehabilitating the pastoralist’s opportunistic utilisation of ephemeral resources availed by the unpredictable climate. Strategies combining maximisation with resilience are common to the diverse plant, animal, and human populations who colonised the Horn of Africa’s arid and semi-arid lands.
This occurred under wetter conditions, when Mauretania still had swamps and giraffes roamed lower Egypt. Then they spent the last 800 years adapting to the increasingly drier environment.
Climate is the great driver of life on earth. Generations of environmental stability culminated in the European expansion. The societal operating system it imposed on the world has run its course, relegating a large portion of humanity to a precarious existence on a non-equilibrium planet. Humanity needs a new civilisational operating system.
We do not know how the world’s most resilient survivors will negotiate the current interlude of top-down capitalism. In the end, they will be the authors of this third phase of rangeland development now unfolding. I also expect that their indigenous sensibilities will play an influential role in the collective response as the rest of us figure out how to cope with the long-term changes now overtaking the biosphere.
Pan-Africanism and the Unfinished Tasks of Liberation and Social Emancipation: Taking Stock of 50 Years of African Independence
In the course of re-imagining Pan-Africanism we should reconstruct it as an ideology of the working people, as an ideology of social emancipation and, therefore, inextricably embedded in the struggles of the working people. This is the task that is before the organic intellectuals of the African working people.
The post Vasco da Gama epoch of some five centuries is a story of the ‘West and the Rest’. The West constructed its own story and the story of the Rest. It is a story of plunder, privation, invasion and destruction; it is a story of permanent wars and passing peace. It is a story of the annihilation of pre-European civilisations from the Incas of the Americas, so called after the European explorer Amerigo Vespucci, to the Swahili civilisation of the eastern coast of Africa.
The title of a book describing the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the near-extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines by the British, the white American dispossession of the Apache, and the German subjugation of the Herero and Nama of Namibia, sums it all: Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (Cocker 1999).
The tale of treasures at one end and tragedies at the other cannot be understood, I suggest, without locating it in the trajectory of worldwide capitalist accumulation. No doubt it is a complex story of construction and destruction of cultures and customs; a story of the exercise of brutal power and subtle politics; a spinning of epic mythologies and grand ideologies. No doubt it cannot be reduced mechanically to the capitalist mode of production nor explained in a vulgar way by theories of conspiracy or processes of economics. I am suggesting none of that.
Yet in this complexity and variability, in these major shifts and changing continuities—all of which we as scholars must study and have been studying—there is a pattern. There is a red thread running through it. That red thread is the process of capitalist accumulation seen in a longue durée. While we must, by all means, resist linear trajectories that essentialise the march of progress of so-called Western civilisation, including the stagiest periodisation of vulgar Marxists, we cannot surrender to agnosticism or eclecticism—that the world is not knowable and explainable, however approximately.
Periodising the Process of Accumulation
It is in the context of the trajectory of capitalist accumulation that I want to locate the genesis of the grand narrative of nationalism and Pan-Africanism. To facilitate my paper I am resorting to some periodisation of the process of accumulation. As we all know, all periodisation has its hazards—processes overlap and intermingle; the new is born in the garbs of the old and takes time before it is recognised as such, while the old persists beyond its usefulness.
Keeping that in mind, I am categorising the first four centuries (roughly from the last quarter of the fifteenth century to the first quarter of the nineteenth century) of the African encounter with Europe as the period of primitive accumulation, or, to use the more recent and generic term, accumulation by appropriation. (It should become clear later why I prefer this term.)
The period of accumulation by appropriation
Within this period we have two sub-periods. One is the period of looting of treasures, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, under the name of trade, based on unequal, rather than mutual exchange. This is the period when European powers pursued their singular mission to destroy pre-European long-distance trade— the trans-Sahara trade on the west coast and the Indian Ocean trade on the east coast of Africa—in order to establish their mercantile and maritime hegemony. The pre-European trade systems, both on the west and the east coasts, were governed by Islamic precepts. The gold trade passed through Timbuktu on the west, and through Kilwa on the east, both of which became centres of great Islamic civilisation and learning.
Timbuktu and Kilwa were brutally destroyed by Portuguese privateers. The expeditions had specific instructions to Christianise the ‘natives’ and eliminate Muslim traders.
As the Portuguese privateers were devastating the African coast in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, so Spanish conquerors were discovering the ‘New World’. Vasco da Gama laid the foundation of the European invasion of Africa; Christopher Columbus inaugurated the extermination of the indigenous populations of the Americas and the Caribbean—the first genocide and holocaust in the history of humankind. One led to white hegemony, the other to white settlement. From then on, the fate of the three continents was inextricably linked and found its immediate expression in the triangular slave trade.
The second sub-period, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, witnessed the gruesome Atlantic slave trade, the so-called triangular trade. Half the slaves were transported to the ‘New World’ in the eighteenth century. Millions—fifty million, one estimate says of men, women and children torn from their continent worked the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and cotton plantations of the southern states of America to provide the raw material for Lancashire mills, the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution. The African continent was looted of its treasures in the first sub-period, which also ruined its established mercantile routes. In the second sub-period, the continent was looted of its people, devastating its social fabric and robbing it of its most important resource. This was accumulation by appropriation par excellence—accumulating by appropriating wealth in the first instance, and accumulating by appropriating people in the second.
Timbuktu and Kilwa were brutally destroyed by Portuguese privateers. The expeditions had specific instructions to Christianise the ‘natives’ and eliminate Muslim traders.
Meanwhile, on the European stage, capitalism was bursting its containers (to use Prem Shaker Jha’s term) and reconstructing them. Jha argues that in its 700 years of development, capitalism has gone through three cycles of accumulation.
At the beginning of each cycle it has expanded the size of its container. In the first, it grew from the maritime city-states of Venice, Genoa, Florence, Milan and Amsterdam to the nation-states of England, Holland and France. The quintessence of the second cycle was from the nation-state to the colonising state, as European powers colonised much of the rest of the world. The third was from the island territory of the small nation-state, Britain, to the continental nation-state of North America. Now, in the era of globalisation, on the eve of the fourth cycle, it is poised to burst the very system of hierarchically organised nation-states.
Whatever the merit of this thesis, for our purposes two points can be made. One, that the capitalist container was never self-contained. Arteries penetrating deep into the wealth and treasures of other continents fed the process of capital accumulation in the heart of Europe. Africa was the theatre of the most devastating kinds of appropriation. Two, the ideologies, religions, cultures and customs constructed to rationalise, legitimise and explain the processes of accumulation were centrally premised on the construction of race, in which ‘the Self’ was White and ‘the Other’ Black, the two also being the referents for the in-between. Geography itself was constructed as such, Europe being the land of the White and Africa being the land of the Black. The racist construct found its typical expression in the Other, the Slave—a soulless, depersonalised and dehumanised object.
For planters and slavers, ‘The Negroes are unjust, cruel, barbarous, half-human, treacherous, deceitful, thieves, drunkards, proud, lazy, unclean, shameless, jealous to fury, and cowards’ The Supreme Court of the civilised United States decided in 1857 that ‘Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was not a person, but property’ Fathers, bishops, learned priests and men of conscience found no fault in trading in and owning slaves: ‘… we… buy these slaves for our service without a scruple …’, declared men of religion with conscience. The bottom line was enormous profits made from the slave trade and colossal surplus extracted from slave labour. James Madison, one of the ‘fathers’ of the American Constitution, could boast to a British visitor that he could make 2,000 per cent profit from a single slave in a year. Thus were constructed the universal ideologies, the grand narratives and the totalising outlooks of the Western civilisation, which we are living to this day.
Accumulation by capitalisation
Towards the end of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries, capitalism entered the throes of the Industrial Revolution (1780 to 1840 by Hobsbawm’s reckoning). It was also the period of primitive accumulation within the container. Indeed, the original meaning of primitive accumulation was confined to the process of appropriation of serfs and peasants from land to work in factories. Marx called it the ‘prehistoric stage of capital’. He theorised the capitalist system as if it were self-contained. ‘Accumulate, accumulate! That is the Moses and the prophets!’ was the driving force of capitalism.
By dissecting the appearance of the commodity society, Marx showed how surplus is appropriated from the working class and accumulated to make more surplus, even when, on the face of it, the exchange appears to be mutual and equivalent and no one is cheated or short-changed. (And if cheating does happen in practice, it is only a deviation from the norm.) Accumulation based on equal exchange is what we call accumulation by capitalisation.
The notion of equivalent exchange forms the bedrock of bourgeois legal ideology and philosophical outlook. The edifice of the Western legal system is constructed on atomised individuals bearing equal rights. Atomist individuals of bourgeois society as carriers of commodity relations are all equal. This is also the basis of citizenship where to be a citizen means to have equal claims and entitlements, as against each other and in relation to the state.
Later Marxists, beginning with Rosa Luxemburg, questioned the theorisation of capitalist accumulation based on the assumption of a self-contained system. They argued that so-called primitive accumulation was not simply the prehistory of capital but an inherent part of its history. The capitalist centre always requires a non-capitalist periphery to appropriate from, which translates into invasions of non-capitalist spaces. Capital not only comes into the world ‘dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt’, but also throughout its life continues to drain the blood of the ‘Other’ interspersed by orgies of bloodshed, called wars. Capitalism by nature is predatory and militarist.
Lenin, from a different point of departure, argued that in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, capitalism had become imperialist as monopoly finance capital sought new spaces of profitable investment. At the Berlin Conference of 1885, rapacious capitalist powers carved up the African continent and appropriated its parts as their exclusive possessions, thus heralding another seventy-five or so years of colonialism. The racist ideology of the White ‘Self’ (master) and the Black ‘Other’ (slave) came in handy in the creation of colonies. It was reinforced in religion and anthropology and literature as droves of missionaries preceded and anthropologists followed armed soldiers, to pacify the soulless, indolent ‘native’. The ‘Self’ was now the White colonist and the ‘Other’ was the ‘native’.
The ‘colour line’ thus constructed had its own internal logic and drive. It determined the very life conditions of the colonist/settler and the ‘native’. The settler’s town, as Fanon described it, is a ‘strongly built’, ‘brightly lit’, ‘well-fed’ town. It is a town of ‘white people, of foreigners’. The native town is: a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. It is a town of niggers, and dirty Arabs.
The racist construct of the slave period, assisted by colonial intellectuals, was extended and reconstructed. Differences of custom and cultures among the ‘natives’ became immutable divisions called ‘tribes’. Tribes were conveniently divided and separated in their ghettoes, lest, as colonial paternalism averred, they kill each other given their violent propensity. The separation was thus in the interest of the natives to maintain law and order, meaning to rule (divide et impera—divide and rule). Institutions of indirect political rule and colonially constructed regimes of customary law were created. Colonial identities of race and tribe were formed, and to the extent that they were internalised, self-identification and perception followed suit.
The dual tendency of accumulation continued to operate—accumulation by capitalisation being dominant in the metropole and accumulation by appropriation being dominant and pervasive in the colony. To be sure, it manifested in new forms, through new political, economic, cultural and social institutions. Politics and cultures were reconstructed; so were customs and ideologies. A lot changed. The capitalism of 1942 was not the same as the capitalism of 1492, nor was that of the 2000s the same as that of the 1900s. Yet in these sea changes the heart of the system lay where it had always lain—in accumulation.
New forms of primitive accumulation were devised. Minerals were mined with migrant labour; plantations cultivated by bachelor labour. Women were turned into peasant cultivators. Children’s hands were deployed to weed and harvest. None was paid the equivalent of his or her subsistence as the laws of commodity exchange prescribe. Bachelor wages were paid in cash and kind. The cash was just enough to pay the poll tax, buy cigarettes and the local brew. The other component was food rations. The colonial capitalist rationed every ounce of mealy meal and every grain of bean just to keep the body of the migrant labourer alive, but not his family. (That was the woman’s responsibility.) Rations were meticulously calculated on the basis of expert opinion on the needs of the native’s morphology.
Prison and forced labour, with no wages, constructed the arteries of colonial infrastructure to transport raw materials and food—cotton, coffee, rubber, tea—to the coast and thence to the metropole to satisfy the voracious appetite of the master’s industries and the luxurious tastes of its aristocracy and middle classes. More often than not, prisoners were those who had failed to pay poll tax or wife tax. A flat-rate tax was levied on every adult male native above the apparent age of eighteen. He had to pay tax on each of his ‘apparent’ wives. In addition to flushing out the self-sufficient producer from the land to work on plantations and mines to get cash for tax, taxation raised the revenue to run the colonial machinery of administration and repression.
To be sure, colonial capital by the very nature of capital did introduce commodity relations, thus planting the seeds of accumulation by capitalization
Political economists of the West, who were wont to theorise for the Rest, argued interminably on theories of unequal exchange and uncaptured peasantry to explain colonially created poverty and underdevelopment. Few would see that cutting into the necessary consumption of the ‘native’ crippled the conditions of human existence and its reproduction, resulting in chronic undernourishment, high infant mortality, deprivation and disease. It was nothing short of primitive accumulation of the most primitive kind, which even Marx did not foresee. Instead, he thought that the march of capitalism would bring the backward and tradition-bound natives into the fold of civilisation by integrating them into capitalism. Thence, they would benefit from the proletarian revolution, which would usher humanity to the next stage of civilisation—socialism. His twentieth-century followers even postulated imperialism as the pioneer of capitalism and therefore progress.
To be sure, colonial capital by the very nature of capital did introduce commodity relations, thus planting the seeds of accumulation by capitalisation. The post-independence development theorists—again, of course, of the West—considered these pockets of capitalist relations the driver of modernisation. It required a few and minority scholars of the Rest to theorise on the development of underdevelopment, the relationship between two tendencies of capitalist accumulation and its contradictions. The modern was not modern, they said, nor the traditional backward. Rather, both were part of the capitalist whole in a symbiotic relationship that ensured the drainage of wealth and surplus from the continent to be capitalised in the West. In short, then, accumulation by appropriation dominated colonial capitalism under the hegemony of imperialism. If it produced indigenous capitalists, they were compradorial or semi-feudal in alliance with, and under the shadow of, imperial bourgeoisies.
The Birth of Pan-Africanism
We don’t have to be told that wherever there is oppression there is bound to be resistance (Mao). As C. L. R. James says, ‘one does not need education or encouragement to cherish a dream of freedom’. As happens so often in history, ideologies of resistance are constructed from the elements borrowed from the ideologies of domination. Pan-Africanism was such an ideology of resistance born in the throes of imperialism. Just as the dominant racist construct went back centuries to the slave trade, so did the resistance. For two hundred years the slaves in Haiti, originally named Hispaniola by Columbus, sang their freedom song:
Eh! Eh! Heu! Heu! Canga, bafio té!
Canga, mouné de lé! Canga, do ki la!
We swear to destroy the whites, and all that they possess; let us die rather than fail to keep our vow’.
This was the prehistory of one strand of Pan-Africanism, racial nationalism. The prehistory of the other strand, territorial nationalism, found expression in the Haitian revolution of 1791. None of it at the time, of course, was called by that name. If I may jump the gun, the Haitian revolution was in advance of its times. It was the forerunner of both the logical conclusion of territorial nationalism and citizenship, and their crisis under imperialism, all of which we see in post-independence African states.
The racial construct in the Haitian freedom song is palpable. It could not be otherwise. On the launching of his 1903 book, The Souls of the Black Folk, Du Bois said that the ‘problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line’. Pan-Africanism was born at the turn of the century as a racial, anti-racist ideology. Its founders came from the West Indies, the confluence of the slave trade, from where slaves were transported to the Americas. It is in the so-called ‘New World’ of North America that the White supremacist ideology found expression in its most brutal and dehumanising forms. It is also there that the roots of Pan- Africanism can be traced.
Two names stand out: Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Du Bois’ father and grandfather came from the West Indies. Garvey came from Jamaica. The two men stood in contrast, in their conception and methods. They represented—between them and within them—the two poles of nationalism within Pan-Africanism, one defined by race and culture, the other by geography. Garvey opposed accommodation within the White structures and spearheaded a ‘back to Africa movement’. He thus stood for a territorial home. Du Bois demanded equal racial treatment within the US. He thus stood for equal treatment or citizenship.
Needless to say, both positions were a political construct, even if they did not present themselves as such. Paradoxically, but understandably, the boundaries of both were set by the dominant political and social constructs—White supremacy in one case, colonially carved borders in the other.
In his ninety-three years, Du Bois lived through and embodied the sixty-odd years of the evolution of Pan- Africanist ideology and movement. Between the wars, Du Bois’ Pan- Africanist congresses were essentially small gatherings of African- Americans and African-Caribbeans, with a sprinkling of Africans from French colonies. Demands centred on racial equality, equal treatment and accommodation in existing structures. To the extent that colonialism and imperialist oppression itself was ideologised in terms of White supremacy, the anti-racist, racial constructs and demands of Pan-Africanists were anti-imperialist. It is important to keep this dimension of Pan-Africanism in mind—that in its genesis and evolution the ideology and movement was primarily political and essentially anti-imperialist. No doubt, it drew upon the victim’s cultural resources, as the Negritude construct originally developed by the West Indian Aimé Césaire clearly demonstrates.
The turning point was the 1945 Fifth Congress at Manchester. The moving spirits behind that Congress were George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah. The demand was unambiguous—Africa for Africans, liberation from colonialism. It ushered in the national liberation movement. Pan-Africanism thus gave birth to nationalism. The main question was: would this be territorial nationalism premised on separate colonially created borders, or Pan-Africanist nationalism? This, in turn, gave rise to two sets of sub-questions. If it was territorial, what would be the boundaries of inclusion/exclusion, race or citizenship? And if Pan-Africanist, would it be global, including the African diaspora, or continental, excluding the diaspora? Even if continental, would it be racial/cultural including only black Africans while excluding Arabs? These became hot issues of debates and contentions a few years before and a few years after the independence of African countries.
Needless to say, both positions were a political construct, even if they did not present themselves as such. Paradoxically, but understandably, the boundaries of both were set by the dominant political and social constructs—White supremacy in one case, colonially carved borders in the other.
In one sense, the bifurcation between racial and territorial nationalism symbolised by Du Bois and Marcus Garvey between the wars seemed to re-appear. But the context had changed. There were two new factors: independence on the African continent and in the Caribbean; and the civil rights movement in the US. One introduced state sovereignty into the territorial equation, the other citizenship into the global equation, both setting apparently ‘new’ boundaries of exclusion/inclusion, identity and belonging. In a nutshell, the triangular contestation between citizenship, racialism and territorial nationalism defined the parameters of the Pan-Africanist discourse.
The independence of Ghana in 1957 was an earthshaking event. C. L. R. James described Ghana’s independence as a revolution. For a people who had been humiliated for five centuries, independence was indeed a revolution. For Nkrumah, though, the independence of Ghana was incomplete without the liberation of the whole continent and the liberation was incomplete without the unity of the continent. These two concepts became his passion. With the advice and help of George Padmore, Nkrumah set in motion two sets of conferences—the conference of African independent states, eight in all at the time, and All-African People’s Conferences, a meeting of national liberation movements, trade unions and other leaders. The resolutions of these two conferences were a forerunner of the ‘new’ bifurcation of the Pan-Africanist ideology—the statist Pan-Africanism and its concomitant state-based nationalism, and people’s Pan-Africanism based on solidarity and African identity. Statist Pan-Africanism culminated in the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), underpinned by the discourse on the unity of African states, while ‘All African People’s’ Pan-Africanism was increasingly eclipsed by territorial nationalism. Each one of these, in its own way, reproduced the triangular tension between racialism, nationalism and citizenship.
The tension between the two arms of the bifurcation was well described by a leading Pan-Africanist, Julius Nyerere, as the dilemma of the Pan-Africanist. When Nyerere was writing, in 1966, there were thirty-six in- dependent African states. Each of these was involved in the consolidation and development of its nation-state. ‘Can the vision of Pan- Africanism survive these realities? Can African unity be built on this foundation of existing and growing nationalism?’, Nyerere agonised. His answer was unambiguous. I do not believe the answer is easy. Indeed I believe that a real dilemma faces the Pan-Africanist. On the one hand is the fact that Pan- Africanism demands an African consciousness and an African loyalty; on the other hand is the fact that each Pan-Africanist must also concern himself with the freedom and development of one of the nations of Africa. These things can conflict. Let us be honest and admit that they have already conflicted.’
They more than conflicted. The vision of Pan-Africanism was buried in the statist discourse of African unity and regional integration/ disintegration. More astute nationalists like Nyerere defined the two-fold task of the independent government as nation-building and development. In the absence of a local bourgeois class worth the name, the agency to build the nation and bring about development would be the state. Meanwhile, imperialism continued to cast its long shadow and at times more than a shadow. Assassinations and coups engineered by one or other imperialist power became the order of the day. Patrice Lumumba was brutally murdered and Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown by the machinations of the CIA. Survival became Nyerere’s preoccupation.
Capitalist Accumulation in the Post-Independence Period
Half a century of independent Africa neatly divides into two halves—the first twenty-five years of nationalism and the second of neoliberalism. Underlying the ideologies of development and nation-building, of identities and politics, from Nyerere’s Socialism and Self-reliance to Senghor’s Negritude, lay the contention between accumulation by capitalisation and accumulation by appropriation.
Programmes and policies undertaken in the nationalist period, whether under the ideology of modernisation or socialism (essentially a variant of state capitalism), were meant to bolster the tendency for accumulation by capitalisation. But under the hegemony of imperialism, accumulation by appropriation continued to assert and reassert itself. Using local state or private merchant capital as the intermediary, and trade, aid and debt as the means, natural resources were rapaciously exploited and working people cajoled or coerced into yielding surpluses that inevitably found their way into the capital circuits of imperialist centres. Just as looting, plundering and the triangular slave trade of the previous centuries, called primitive accumulation, had primed the wheels of the Industrial Revolution, so the appropriation of resources and surpluses of the working people of Africa fuelled the Golden Age of Capitalism (1945 to 1971).
Nationalist attempts to construct a self-reliant economy, and inaugurate what Samir Amin calls autocentric development, were sternly opposed or accommodated and absorbed into the imperialist system. Nonetheless, imperialism during the nationalist period was morally and ideologically on the defensive. Educated in the theories of the master and borrowing from the cultures and history of the coloniser, African nationalists attempted to reconstruct their identities and polities in the idiom of nationalism, sovereignty, self-determination and citizenship, the philosophical underpinning of which, as we have seen, is the notion of the atomist individual with equal rights.
It was a valiant struggle but it was ultimately defeated, as the onslaught of neoliberalism amply proved. The nationalist, labelled ‘ethnic’ by the West, either failed or lacked the means and the historical time and opportunity to master the driving force of the construction of the ‘Self’ of the West—accumulation. Accumulation by capitalisation required a relatively autonomous economic space to operate and political self-determination to master. In other words, paraphrasing Cabral, national liberation meant people reclaiming their right to make their own history, whose objective was ‘to reclaim the right, usurped by imperialist domination’ of liberating ‘the process of development of national productive forces’.
This called for nothing less than a structural reconstruction of the economy and reorganisation of the state. None could be done successfully under the Western capitalist domination of the economy and the political hegemony of imperialist ideologies and policies transmitted by local proto-bourgeoisies, so well caricatured by Fanon. The few who attempted were assassinated, overthrown or forcibly removed. The rest had to accommodate and compromise to survive.
The problem was that the ideology of resistance and anti-hegemony— and their institutions of operationalisation—was constructed drawing on the intellectual and cultural resources of the dominant and dominating West. African nationalists failed to construct alternative ideologies and institutions. In the course of the struggle, again, a few tried but they were nipped in the bud in the nick of time. Amilcar Cabral postulated that ‘there are only two possible paths for an independent nation: to return to imperialist domination (neocolonialism, capitalism, state capitalism), or to take the way of socialism’. He did not live to see either the independence of his country or practise his position. Agents of Portuguese colonialism assassinated him as his country was approaching independence.
Chris Hani, who envisaged a new democratic and socialist South Africa, was killed on the eve of the transfer of power. Steve Biko, who redefined Black as a positive identity of the oppressed beyond the colour line, was tortured to death by the henchmen of apartheid. John Garang, who postulated a united New Sudan beyond colour, cultural and linguistic lines, infuriated racial and secessionist elements both in the North and the South and their imperialist backers. We are told he was killed in a helicopter crash. The truth lies buried somewhere in the debris.
The nationalist project was thus defeated and its building blocks shattered. The neoliberal attack was foremost an ideological attack on radical nationalism. Imperialism went on the offensive—economically, culturally, politically and intellectually. Within a period of two decades, Africa underwent three generations of structural adjustment programmes in an orgy of liberalisation, marketisation, privatisation, commodification and financialisation. Pockets of capitalist development based on accumulation by capitalisation have been destroyed as country after country in Africa has been deindustrialised. The few achievements of social services, in education, health, water, old age pensions and other public services, are commodified under such policies as cost-sharing and outsourcing. Fiscal instruments and institutions of policy-making, like central banks, have been made autonomous and commercial banks privatised away from the public scrutiny of elected bodies.
They make policies on the basis of prescriptions handed down by International Financial Institutions and donors. Policies are thrust down the throats of politicians and parliamentarians using the carrot of loans, aid and budget support, whose withdrawal acts as the veritable stick. Meanwhile, voracious imperialist capitals backed by their states and the so-called ‘donor community’ are grabbing land, minerals, water, flora and fauna. I need not go into details because a few African scholars have amply documented these facts—I say ‘ few’, because many have succumbed to consultancies in the service of ‘development partners’.
Chris Hani, who envisaged a new democratic and socialist South Africa, was killed on the eve of the transfer of power. Steve Biko, who redefined Black as a positive identity of the oppressed beyond the colour line, was tortured to death by the henchmen of apartheid.
Let me sum up by saying that the tension of the nationalist period between accumulation by capitalisation and accumulation by appropriation has been resolved in favour of neoliberal primitive accumulation. To be sure, there are new forms in which the process of expropriation is constituted and manifested, but the essence remains. The projected identity of the ‘Self’ in the West is that of a benefactor, humanitarian, investor, advisor, entrepreneur and donor, while the ‘Other’ is the poor and helpless victim of the corrupt, unaccountable ethnic ruler. No doubt, capitalism at the centre is not the same either.
Prem Shankar Jha argues that capitalism is on the verge of bursting its nation-state container and is going global, in the process wreaking havoc and destruction on a global scale. One does not have to accept Jha’s thesis to agree with him that the destruction is real and palpable, its implications felt not only in Africa but also in the West. Yet Africa suffers the most. More wars have been fought after the end of the so-called Cold War than during its existence. Most of these have taken place on the African continent. Within a period of two decades, four countries have been destroyed and the fifth about to be devastated. Two of these are on the African continent. The continent is being militarised as American imperialism spreads its tentacles through the AFRICOM and seeks more and more naval bases on the Indian Ocean rim.
Revisiting the Pan-Africanist Project
The continent is in crisis as is the capitalist-imperialist system constructed by the West over the last five centuries. Some have argued that the fall of Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis following it marked the beginning of the end of capitalism as we know it. Others are taking the position that the centre of gravity and hegemony is shifting from the West to the East, that capitalism is poised to reconstitute itself in new centres. The debate rages on.
Most, at least most African scholars, agree that the national project in Africa has failed and national liberation has been aborted. Some locate the failure of the national project in the crisis of citizenship, others in the failure to liberate the continent from the clutches of imperialism. In my view, the two are connected. Underlying the crisis of citizenship is the failure to master the process of accumulation by capitalisation, which in turn is due to imperialist domination in alliance with local comprador classes.
Whatever be the case, African scholars, intellectuals and activists have been compelled to revisit the Pan-Africanist project. Some of the old debates on racial and territorial nationalisms are reappearing. Who is an African for the purposes of Pan-Africanism? And, therefore, who constitutes the nation for purposes of national liberation? For Kwesi Prah, Bankie Bankie, Chiweizu and others, ‘African’ is defined by colour, culture and custom. For Archie Mafeje, Steve Biko, Walter Rodney, Taju- deen Abdul-Raheem and others, African or Black is not a function of colour, race, biology or morphology but a social and political construct, which ought to be historicised. Mafeje affirms, ‘… Africanity could not possibly mean the same thing to succeeding generations of African intellectuals’. And the fact that the first and second generation of Pan-Africanists may have borrowed from racial and cultural categories to deal with the problematique of white racism in a colonial setting ‘does not commit later generations of Pan-Africanists to the same conflation between race/ colour and culture’.
In the view of many African scholars, intellectuals and activists, we need to revisit and reconstruct the Pan-African project to address the unfinished task of national liberation from imperialism and take us beyond, to the emancipation of the working people of Africa from the hegemony of capitalism. In doing so, we would of course borrow from the intellectual and cultural resources of humankind as well as the experiences of the struggles of the people of the continent. In constructing a ‘new Pan-Africanism’, which would go beyond colour and national lines, we need fundamental paradigmatic shifts. The African intellectual community is deeply involved in these debates and I need not go into details. Suffice it to say that the insurrection of Pan-Africanist ideas has begun, hesitatingly but definitely.
As we engage in re-imagining and re-theorising Pan-Africanism, we need to make several epistemic breaks while at the same time re-construct some of the elements of historical Pan-Africanism. As we engage in the intellectual task of re-imagination and re-theorisation of New Pan-Africanism, I suggest the following elements may provide some of the building blocks for its reconstruction.
Needless to say, the list is not exhaustive nor cast in stone, for the task of theoretical praxis cannot be isolated or detached from the praxis of real-life struggles of the working people.
First, we must always keep in mind that historical Pan-Africanism was a political ideology and anti-imperialist from its inception. At no time has Pan-Africanism been a theory or ideology of economic regional integration. ‘Politics first’ was the fundamental precept of Pan-Africanism. Politics was in command, economics followed, not the other way round. In his gradualist, pragmatic approach to building Pan-African unity, Nyerere believed that regional integration, of whatever kind, could become the building block of African unity. Nkrumah opposed it. He called it Balkanisation on a large scale. History has proved Nkrumah right and Nyerere wrong.
As we engage in re-imagining and re-theorising Pan-Africanism, we need to make several epistemic breaks while at the same time re-construct some of the elements of historical Pan-Africanism
Second, hitherto, Pan-Africanist anti-imperialism has been racial or national, and not about class. Even in intellectual discourses on Pan-Africanism, class is largely absent. Pan- Africanism has been much more an ideology of national liberation than social emancipation. Nkrumah began to talk about Class Struggle in Africa only after he was overthrown and exiled in Guinea. Even then his analysis was rather schematic. It is understandable that in the post-World War II anticolonial struggles in Africa, nation and nation-building were privileged. In effect it meant the building of the nation-state in which the nation and state were conflated. What is more, the nation-state was conceived in the image of the European nation-states. Nyerere candidly admitted so much.
‘I was not seeing Ujamaa [socialism] outside of the nation-state. I’ve questioned many, many, many things from Europe, but I’ve not questioned the nation-state. I can- not think, how do I think in terms of not the nation-state? … My questioning did not reach the nation-state. My questioning focused upon the borders.’
In Pan-Africanism and national liberation, nation was privileged over class. It needed the frontal attack of neoliberalism on the nation-state and nationalism to bring home the fragility of the nation-state. For all intents and purpose, the postcolonial national project has failed. The more recent rise of narrow nationalisms and populisms has further questioned the viability of the ideology of nationalism. So long as imperialism exists, no doubt, the national question remains. But can we continue privileging the nation over class even in the context of anti-imperialist struggles? Is it not time to subordinate the national question to the social question?
Third, therefore, in re-imagining Pan-Africanism, accent should shift to class and class struggle, and the unfinished tasks of national liberation should be clearly and audaciously defined as anti-imperialist in the context of and as part of the class struggles of the working people. The biggest active component of the working people in the concrete conditions of Africa is women— whether as peasants in rural areas or as construction workers, market women and food vendors in urban areas. Working women suffer the double burden of oppression and exploitation, capitalist and patriarchal. They subsidise capital both as producers of commodities and reproducers of their families. Thus, the struggle of the working people against capital is intertwined with the struggle against patriarchy.
Fourth, hitherto, Pan-Africanist ideology has been state-centric. The nation-state has been at the centre of Pan-African political and intellectual discourses and imagination. What is more, it is the state that is seen as the agency of Pan-Africanism. Here we need a paradigmatic shift from the state to the working people, both as the carriers of the Pan-African ideology as well as its implementers. African intellectuals must deliberately and consciously effect such a shift.
Finally, in the course of re-imagining Pan-Africanism we should reconstruct it as an ideology of the working people, as an ideology of social emancipation and, therefore, inextricably embedded in the struggles of the working people. This is the task that is before the organic intellectuals of the African working people.
I have given the story of Pan-Africanism as a grand narrative of nationalism and national liberation. I have shown its internal contradictions and movements. I have tried to locate my narrative in the trajectory of capitalist accumulation and imperialist domination, without, hopefully, making it mechanist and deductive. And I have called for a reconstruction of a new Pan- Africanist grand narrative to face the unfinished tasks of national liberation and move forward to the tasks of social emancipation. Throughout the history of humankind, masses have been moved by the grand narrative of liberty, freedom, justice and emancipation to bring about change—sometimes revolutionary, at other times, not so much. Humanity stands at a crossroads. It is crying out for fundamental change. We need an alternative utopia to live by and fight for if we are not to be consumed by the death and destruction wrought by the barbaric system of the last five centuries. The worst of that barbarism has been felt and continues to be endured in Africa. In reconstructing Pan-Africanism, Africa is calling all ‘at the rendezvous of victory…’. With Aimé Césaire we can all sing: (and) no race possesses the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force, and there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.
This article was first published by CODESRIA in the CODESRIA Bulletin Online, No. 18, June 2021
The West and Its African Monsters Syndrome
The language of colonialism has remained a determined and fixed feature of mainstream accounts of Africa. The racist imagery of Africa remains unchanged and essentially monstrous.
There is a new book out on Rwanda that, for various reasons, has made quite some “waves”: Michela Wrong’s Do not disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad (published end of March 2021). It is about a controversial topic: the politics of the government of Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and President Paul Kagame. The book blurb reads:
Do Not Disturb is a dramatic recasting of the modern history of Africa’s Great Lakes region, an area blighted by the greatest genocide of the twentieth century. This bold retelling, vividly sourced by direct testimony from key participants, tears up the traditional script. The new version examines afresh questions which dog the recent past: Why do so many ex-rebels scoff at official explanations of who fired the missile that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi? Why didn’t the mass killings end when the rebels took control? Why did those same rebels, victory secured, turn so ruthlessly on one another? Michela Wrong uses the story of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s murder.
Wrong also published a Guardian opinion piece a few days ago that begins as follows:
There are moments when the international community’s perception of a leader shifts into a new configuration, often for reasons that can’t be entirely logically explained. Myanmar’s Aung San Sui Kyi reached that tipping point during the Rohingya crisis, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has been undergoing the same transition since war broke out in Tigray, and the same process is taking place with the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Today, he is welcoming the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to Kigali, his spotlessly tidy hillside capital. . .
The piece closes with:
In February, Rwandan officials attending the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva seemed taken aback by the bluntness of the human rights concerns aired by US and UK delegates. Kagame was not included among the five African presidents invited to Biden’s climate summit in April, and Rwanda was bypassed on Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s virtual visit to Africa. A lot of this recalibration can be explained by the sheer passage of time. Kagame has now been at the helm for 27 years, and such longevity carries its own message. As one development official told me: “Anyone who is in power that long, well, you have to regard them as a dictator, don’t you?”
Like her book on corruption in Kenya, Our Turn to Eat, published back in 2009, Wrong’s new book has been received with enthusiasm in the UK and US. Various high-end webinar and podcast book launches have already been held in, among other places, the UK, the US and South Africa, with, for example, the Royal African Society/SOAS, the Foreign Press Association USA, the South African Institute of International Affairs, or Public Affairs Books (see also for other launch talks here, here, here, here, here, here and here; further reviews and launches are publicised at fast speed). The book was much praised by various launch hosts and speakers. On one event page one can read: “Near the end of this episode, host of the Departures podcast Robert Amsterdam tells his guest, ‘This is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read on Africa, and I’ve read a lot of books.’ Such is the esteem we hold for Michela Wrong.”
And one can find headlines like this Reuters one in the ongoing launch phase of the book.
So, there is great interest in the book. The cover carries praises by John Le Carré who assesses the book to be “A withering assault on the murderous Rwandan regime of Paul Kagame – very driven, very impassionate”, and, according to the longer review available online, “a melancholy love song to the last dreams of the African Great Lakes”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu evaluates the text to be an “extremely important and profoundly disturbing book”. More appraisals are listed here with the Rwandan government being described as a “murderous” and “profoundly criminal regime”, and Kagame as a “ruthless dictator”.
Further, Edward Clay, who was the UK’s Ambassador to Rwanda from 1994 to 1996, the British High Commissioner in Uganda from 1993 to 1997 and in Kenya from 2001 to 2005, writes in the last paragraph of his review: “Wrong concludes with reminders of why her book’s title is apt. The heroic days of the RPF have yielded to duplicity, treachery, betrayal and assassination. Why did those who later fell out with the regime serve so long as its defenders, apologists and executives; and why is the obscure Kagame of 1990 still standing tall thirty years on?” Finally, at a book launch hosted by Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association USA, he asks Wrong towards the end of their talk: “Is there hope, is Kagame going to appear before the International tribunal?” Clay’s book review was published on DemocracyinAfrica.org and assessed to be a “great read” by scholar Nic Cheeseman, the website’s founder. Cheeseman also expressed in a tweet: “Can’t wait to hear Michela Wrong talk about her new hard hitting book on Rwanda”. (bold in original). Do not Disturb was the website’s “Book of the Month” earlier this year.
Great read! Edward Clay, former UK High Commissioner to Uganda and Kenya, reviews Michela Wrong's new book on Rwanda, Do Not Disturb. The latest in the excellent #BookClub series over at @AfricaDemocracy. Check it out now. @michelawrong #DoNotDisturb https://t.co/xyxutTklMJ
— Prof Nic Cheeseman (@Fromagehomme) March 23, 2021
Can't wait to hear Michela Wrong talk about her new hard hitting book on Rwanda – Do Not Disturb – on the next Resistance Bureau show on Tuesday 9 March. Join us to hear its key messages. @michelawrong @public_affairs #Rwanda #Kagame
— Prof Nic Cheeseman (@Fromagehomme) March 4, 2021
The book has received criticisms too and they include charges of naivety, one-sidedness, partisanship, propaganda, demonisation/character assassination of Kagame, revisionism, and racism (see e.g. here, here, here and here). In the first part of his three-part review, Ugandan analyst and journalist Andrew Mwenda writes that Wrong’s book continues with a line of analysis that pathologises African political actors. The matter here is state violence (particularly extra-territorial killings). Mwenda argues that this political phenomenon needs to be analysed as a matter of foreign policy choices (and, generally, political repertoire) not as a psychological/cultural phenomenon. Mwenda further argues that these practices are analysed, interpreted and judged differently by many Western scholars, depending on whether the protagonists are Western or African leaders:
Many countries have always acted extra-territorially depending on their judgement of the nature of the threats they faced. During the cold war, the Americans, French, British, and Russians intervened in other countries using coups, civil wars, and targeted assassinations. The Americans attempted to assassinate Castro 76 times yet he never sought to attack the USA, just to be independent of it. After 9/11, the America government adopted a policy of preemptive war to any threat anywhere. The American state has carried out coups, assassinations or sponsored civil wars and terrorist activities in Iraq, Syria, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Grenada, Vietnam, Libya, etc. Would Wrong accuse any U.S. president of being a violent psychopath?
This is the problem I have with many Western scholars, journalists and diplomats. When something is done by their countries, they focus on the national policy that informs the decision, not the personality of the leader who made it. They can criticise the policy but rarely do they attribute it to some mental or psychological pathology of the leader. When the same thing is done by an African leader, they ignore the circumstances that informed such a decision and accuse the individual leader of madness or psychopathy. I hate to use the word racism. But if this is not racism, what is it? Wrong . . . presents such policy [Rwanda’s extraterritorial operations] as the product of . . . Kagame’s psychopathy.
Mwenda here opens up the question of comparison about political violence in general and state violence (and state crimes) in particular: how does the Rwandan case of (especially extraterritorial) state violence compare globally — and particularly vis-à-vis Western states such as the US — on a continuum of “degrees” of state violence abroad?
The racism charge in the debate emerges, amongst others, due to the opening chapter of Wrong’s book, which she has reproduced on the Lit Hub website. It has been commented on, in particular by Mwenda (see also e.g. here) and reads as follows:
Rwandans kept telling me that deceiving others, being economical with the truth, was something their community reveled in, positively prided itself upon. Especially when dealing with Western outsiders. A proof of superiority, not shame, when successfully achieved. So much so, that the practice had worked itself into the language. . . . One of Rwanda’s prime ministers, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, shocked the head of a UN peacekeeping force by telling him: “Rwandans are liars and it is a part of their culture. From childhood they are taught to not tell the truth, especially if it can hurt them.”. . . A successor told me the same thing over coffee in a Brussels hotel lobby many years later: “In Rwanda, lying is an art form. When you, as a white journalist, leave a meeting, they will be congratulating themselves: ‘We took her for a ride.’ Lying is the rule, rather than the exception.” It was an accusation tossed into conversations with Tutsis and Hutus, Rwandans and Ugandans, diplomats and military men, lawyers, and journalists. “You spoke to so-and-so? Oh, he’s the most terrible liar.”
Wrong details some of her views regarding political violence/qurium/theelephant.info/culture.html in the case she takes into focus in a talk here (e.g. min 8:57 onwards, and especially min 17:52 onwards), and also offers a comparative commentary regarding Rwanda vs the West/US here (min 4:33 onwards). Wrong reacts to the criticism concerning the points about “lying . . . as part of Rwandan culture” and “culture of deceit” in a book launch event in June hosted by Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor, Channel 4 News (see min 16:19 onwards).
We are shocked to see that the Royal African Society are providing a platform to Michela Wrong. Ms Wrong has a history of using racist and offensive language when discussing the African continent and its people. Wrong’s most recent work, Do Not Disturb, is saturated with offensive stereotypes and underpinned by her argument that in Rwanda, everyone is a liar. In her introduction, she writes about Rwandans: “Deceiving others was something their community revelled in” and “In Rwanda, lying is an art form”. These are long-established tropes which were used in the past to demonise Tutsis. One of the architects of the genocide, Theoneste Bagosora, in his 30-page booklet inciting hatred towards the Tutsi said: “The Tutsis are the masters of deceit” and “Inveterate liars”. Wrong also quotes Ewart Grogan. Grogan, who Wrong refers to as an ‘Adventurer’, was in fact a colonialist who worked for Cecil Rhodes and was convicted for beating Africans in the street. She makes no mention of this, or the fact that Grogan said that in fact all Africans are “fundamentally inferior”, choosing instead to select his quote: “Of all the liars in Africa, I believe the people of Ruanda are by far the most thorough” to support her contention that Rwandans could not be trusted. The neo-colonial undertones to her work are barely concealed.
This is not the first time that Wrong has used outdated, offensive, and unnecessarily graphic language when discussing the continent. In one of Wrong’s previous works, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, she said: “Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint: Hutu mothers killing their children by Tutsi fathers in Rwanda; the self-styled Emperor Bokassa ordering his cook to serve up his victims’ bodies in Central African Republic; Liberia’s rebels gleefully videotaping the torture of a former president”. In the same book, Wrong stated that: “There were more recent signs that La Sape was being infected by the ‘slob’ look embraced by America’s blacks, all outsized jeans, baggy dungarees and shorts that drop to calf level”. At other points, she paints a picture of Rwandans as a people conditioned to kill from birth. When describing a typical Rwandan “peasant”, she suggests that “If instructed to kill you, he may well pick up a machete, because the value of obedience has been impressed on him since birth and, above all, no one wants to stand out from the crowd”. Her contempt for Rwandans, who in her mind are all one and the same, is plain to see.
We are shocked that in 2021, and in the era where racism and discrimination in all its forms is being challenged around the world, these views are published and promoted without challenge. . . . We call on the Royal African Society to immediately review their decision to provide Ms Wrong a platform and commit to challenging her racist and offensive views about Rwandans and Africans more widely.
The written reply of the Society’s Director, Nicholas Westcott, to the petitioners includes these lines (emailed to us by Westcott with permission to publish):
We are very conscious of the sensitivity of many issues in Rwanda’s history, and especially the question of the genocide. I have read Ms Wrong’s book (and indeed her previous books), and I feel your selective quotations distort her message and misrepresent her views. There is certainly criticism of the current government, but not in a form that can justifiably be described as racist. The meeting we are holding to discuss her book is open to the public, so those who disagree with Ms Wrong’s views are welcome to participate and express their own opinion, raise questions or explain their disagreements. . . .
We do not provide a review of the book. Rather we wish to problematise two headlines of the book reviews in the UK press — in the Times and the Spectator. In the review title there is reference to Kagame as a “monster”. The titles read: “Do Not Disturb by Michela Wrong review — the making of a monster” and “The making of a monster: Paul Kagame’s bloodstained past”. The pieces are written by high-profile writers Ian Birrell and Nicholas Shakespeare. Birrell also uses the “monster” characterisation in a tweet about the piece and, in the review, employs the “savagery” term in this passage: “She exposes a more complex and tawdry story, showing the savagery that lies below the smooth surface of a regime hailed by many Western admirers.” and writes that “this gruesome regime . . . lies blatantly on everything . . . .”
Birrell’s text reads:
Yet this interwoven story of two fascinating men is much more than a smart device to tell the tale of another African rebel leader who festered in power, even if it is a riveting account of raw power turned rancid. Wrong, the author of fine books on Eritrea, Kenya and the Congo, challenges the tatty conventional narrative on the 1994 genocide, with its simplistic notion of triumphant Tutsi good guys led by the heroic national saviour returning from exile. She exposes a more complex and tawdry story, showing the savagery that lies below the smooth surface of a regime hailed by many Western admirers.
The pages are laced with irony since Karegeya was a key player in creating the deceptive façade of a democratic Rwanda, before he fled and rebranded himself as an opposition leader. “When they say these dictators and monsters are created by those around them, I think it’s true,” confesses another key figure in exile. “We had a hand in the making of a monster.”
— Ian Birrell (@ianbirrell) March 20, 2021
The book offers searing indictment of naive western politicians and gullible aid groups that appease this gruesome regime in desperation to find a poster child for their policies of spraying cash around the planet, ignoring how it lies blatantly on everything from human rights to poverty data. Wrong also points to the racism that lurks behind the idea Africans need a strongman to keep them in order.
We do not know whether the authors or editors of the book reviews came up with the “monster” titles. In any case we find the “monster” headline disturbing (though not surprising given the racism in part of the UK press) and worth analytical attention. We look in particular at sections of the press and non-academic writing but arguably, the issue is wider and deeper. We have for various reasons become interested by the reception of the book in the press — and in academic and policy circles generally — in the past week, one of the reasons being that this reception is deeply political at various levels. They are “events” (and thus insightful “data”) in the unfolding politics of Do not Disturb. What is discussed and judged (and reframed) there is arguably not just Rwanda, Kagame and the RPF. The book and the fast-mounting debate relate to wider political issues and discourses: representations of Africa; media; Western imperialism, foreign policy and aid; the West’s self-image; North-South relations; Africa rising; African statehood/sovereignty; political violence; knowledge production; the relationship between scholarship/academia/media/experts and foreign policy, for example in the UK and US, and the silences, taboos and no-goes in part of Western scholarship, media commentary and reporting, particularly about state/political violence (or in Wrong’s terms “political murder”) of Western imperialist countries (i.e. the Western empire). Wrong’s writing speaks to some of these foreign policy/international relations issues and the reviews and headlines pick it up (“the world” ignores/wakes up, etc.). Our theme of interest is thus also how Western media, academia and expert circles do politics and the respective authors’ relationship with the foreign policies of their governments (in this case vis-à-vis African countries and governments). We realise that this is a theme that has a long history, but we think it deserves renewed attention as the geopolitical and inter-imperialist conflicts once again intensify, and as the media landscape changes in a very particular way.
Notably, Kagame is not the first post-independence leader from the continent to be characterised as a monster by the Western media in prominently displayed headlines and/or article-summary lines. Instead, he is the latest in a longer list of “monsters” that goes far back in history. We found monster-calling with regard to leaders ranging from Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Charles Taylor (see also here re. Chucky Taylor), and Robert Gabriel Mugabe, with many in-between. Mugabe: Monster or Hero? one France24 headline reads. Robert Mugabe: Hero and Monster, titles a Canadian outlet. And the UK’s Telegraph used the monster characterisation for years in some of the Mugabe headlines. Just a few months ago, The Times referred to Amin as a monster in the summary line of a review of the new book by Mark Leopold: Idi Amin: The Story of Africa’s Icon of Evil (for a review see here). Joseph Kony has received monster headlines too, e.g. in The Sun, and in an in-text passage in an Observer report about the documentary film Kony 2012. See also a book titled Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason K. Stearns. Amin, Gaddafi and Mobutu (and Jean-Bédel Bokassa) also made it onto the list of “monsters” in a book titled Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators, by Jay Nordlinger.
It is against this background that we want to make very few basic points about “the West” and its apparent African Monsters syndrome. We want to start by posing some questions (while leaving them largely open for debate): why have some Western press outlets, throughout the decades, referred to some leaders in Africa (but also in other regions such as Latin America) as monsters? Why do these outlets — and their respective writers and editors — mobilise the “monster” characterisation when they write about other countries’ leaders that a part of “the West” (i.e. sections of political actors, commentators, etc.) views, for whatever reasons, in a critical light? And what might be the commonality between those leaders from around the globe who make it into the infamous box of “monsters”? What are the mechanisms that produce the monster category in politics? Why have some African political leaders that are eventually labelled “monsters” often been labelled “heroes” first (Kagame and Mugabe for example)? What has changed in the politics of these cases that informs the change in narrative, image and label? The discourse we bring into focus is generated in countries with intense geopolitical interests in African countries and so matters of narrative politics and control come in. It is a ubiquitous US, UK and Western European formation that we have in mind when we refer to “the West’.
In any case we find the “monster” headline disturbing (though not surprising given the racism in part of the UK press).
Before we start: yes, there are also headlines that refer to former US president Trump as a monster (e.g. here or here, and he was called monster by an official; see also here re. George W. Bush; and here or here for Barack Obama, or for Jair Bolsonaro, here and here). And the characterisation is not used just by “right-wing” outlets. But, arguably, overall these are somewhat different cases, in different contexts. One may debate in future what the commonality and connection is in these global “monster” cases, across these regions. What explains the choices of the editors and writers? The immediate question at hand, however, might rather be: do the Times/Spectator editors who run the Kagame-monster-headlines refer to some Western leaders as monsters too, or do they only use the characterisations in texts about non-Western leaders? Our focus of analysis is the West and its African “monsters-in-government”, i.e. the reporting, analysing and headlining about leaders from the continent (and by extension in the Third World/Global South; Fidel Castro and Nicolas Maduro, for example, have also had their share of “monster” headlines).
The “hero or . . .” binary also features here (and the question is why we repeatedly find these binaries in such headlines).
That said, let’s examine one relatively recent case of the West’s African Monsters syndrome: Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Gabriel Mugabe, now deceased. For years, Mugabe — who was at one time happy to implement the policies of the IMF and World Bank — was transformed into the despised tyrant of the continent, a “monster” determined to unleash “mob savagery” against law abiding (white) Zimbabweans (The Daily Telegraph, 10 August 2001).
In the early 2000s, TV programmes and newspaper articles were full of the “catastrophe” for white Zimbabwe, and Mugabe was labelled the killer-in-chief – a man who once knew his place, he was quickly transformed over a period of a couple of years from 1999 to 2001 into the very embodiment of the continent’s monsters.
For the next twenty years and until he died on 6 September 2019, coverage in the media and popular history books were unanimous about Mugabe’s role in Zimbabwe’s plunge. The devastation to white farmers in the country, with hysterical war veterans or “mobs” rampaging mindlessly through the capital, Harare, had a single cause: Mugabe’s megalomania and an insatiable craving for power. Many “serious” studies were dragged into the metanarrative. Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland, published in 2009, told the story of a “freedom fighter” who became a “tyrant”. Even reviews of the balanced account of Zimbabwe’s crisis by Richard Bourne, Catastrophe, which came out in 2011, were replete with praise for charting Mugabe’s lunacy. At the time, the BBC’s James Robbins explained how the book “expertly lays bare Mugabe’s terrifying abuse of power — his path from liberator to destroyer — as well as charting the failures by Britain and the world to challenge him effectively.”
Across the US and UK, some commentators, academics and politicians referred to Mugabe as a madman “on the loose”, and spoke of a crisis “driven by one man’s ruthless campaign”. In the West’s wild imaginings, Zimbabwe became a symbol of the need to reorder Africa. When Mugabe was metamorphosing into a monster of continental proportions in the early part of the century, the then UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw (of the Labour party), insisted that it was “our” responsibility not to “let a great continent go down”.
By the end of the first decade of this century, Amazon was listing seven biographies of Mugabe written in the previous few years. Each, in a different way, promised to get to the “man behind the monster”. Today on Amazon’s site, the list of Mugabe “monster biographies” is literally endless — an industry has grown up around this popular imaginary that defies even our wildest exaggerations.
Why does it matter? The core of our argument is not knee-jerk support for political figures on the continent demonised by the monster characterisation. Instead, we see the terms used in headlines of reviews of Wrong’s book, and others, as a default racism — apparently still so deeply embedded in the minds of the respective writers/editors that they are unable to see how they simply slot into popular and racists assumptions about Africa and its people. The language, tools and analyses of these commentators are unreformed and colonial in origin. The monster characterisation dehumanises African leaders, and arguably their families, communities and societies too.
There is another dimension to it which we can only sketch out in brief here, but hope it can be further debated by others in future. It links to pieces that were published a short while ago by Jimi Adesina, Andrew Fischer and Nimi Hoffmann, and by Yusuf Serunkuma. These pieces and the issues they raise made a symposium on the issue seem pertinent and an email was drafted and sent to a colleague along the following lines:
Given the Adesina et al. & Serunkuma pieces, African studies might have at hand an emerging debate regarding the link between Western scholarship/scholars and Western politics/foreign policy agendas (in the context of empire/imperialism/imperialist rivalries); a debate about the political character/identity of African studies – historical and current dynamics. See as an example also the declaration of some Western scholars of postelection 2021 Uganda as a test case for US/UK/Biden, and the calls there for these governments to harden their stand vis-à-vis the Ugandan government. What are the theoretical stances, intellectual projects, purposes and politics behind such calls? For US empire to act/govern “better”? What do such interventions – that are arguably part of a large sample (that includes respective social media postings) tell us about the political character of this section of African studies? How do they sit in a longer historical line of African studies and geopolitics, empire/imperialism & western interests, power, hegemony, ideology and intervention? How do scholars reflect on their role in Western policy/empire (or see it as “no role”?)? Does such a debate make sense? Would it be of use?
The issue here is one that Serunkuma’s latest pieces clearly help to bring into focus: to what extent (and when, why, how, etc.) do the analyses that come out of part of the expert/commentator/academic/media community reflect the foreign policy positions of their governments (i.e. are thus in a particular way political).
How does this relationship between scholars/journalists and government/policy shape the analyses (i.e. matters of focus, argument, evidence, etc.) and modes of knowledge production?
How does that relationship shape scholarly and media controversies, such as the ones around Rwanda? And in what way does existing scholarship (and power relations etc.) inhibit a more extensive, critical debate about Western foreign policy (and discourses and narratives), vis-a-vis governments and leaders on the continent?
And does, as Serunkuma reminds us, a debate proper about “monsters” in the West not emerge because that debate does not get facilitated and supported (also via book launches and reviews), but rather is sidelined, by mainstream media and scholarship? In short, what are the taboos of Western mainstream scholarship and media and might there be a link to how the “monster” debate has unfolded, in the past and now? We cannot go deeper into this issue now, but note that some of these issues about sections of Western scholarship, scholars and analysts get also discussed, for example, in a recent intervention by Moses Khisa, in some twitter posts earlier this year by Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, Yusuf Serunkuma, Godwin Murunga and Jimi Adesina, and in the Editorial philosophy statement of the Pan African Review, amongst others.
Further then with the racism argument: Racist ideas are not new. For years analysts have lamented the “coup, war, famine syndrome” — that the continent only surfaces into Western news coverage, or into popular books, when it faces one of these catastrophes. As a result, no coherent image of Africa or its people can be narrated outside these categories/tropes – the continent simply does not exist without its wars, famines and monsters. These are not simply justifications for foreign interventions in the continent, but long held racist ideas about Africa’s barbarity.
The book and the fast-mounting debate relate to wider political issues and discourses.
Early European intrusion into the continent was justified, set-up and carried out to rid Africa of its pre-existing barbarity – its natural tendency to chaos and disorder. The cases are too extensive to cover in this piece, so we will limit ourselves to two examples. Algeria was invaded by France in 1830, and engaged in a war of pacification as Algerians fought the invaders for decades. Officially, the country was conquered in 1848 but in reality, there were hardly any years without fighting between 1830 and 1871.
The invasion was conducted – officially – in the name of civilisation and against native barbarity. The outcome was truly monstrous. After almost a century of French occupation, schooling in a largely literate pre-French society had been decimated by 1950, with UNESCO reporting 90 per cent illiteracy among the “natives”. A population of 6 million in 1830 had collapsed to less than 3.5 million in 1852 as millions were forced off the land, and fertile agricultural regions were taken over to cultivate grapes for the export of wine to mainland France. Algerians were labelled “primitive” and unable to appreciate French civilisation, their behaviour pathologised as brutal and monstrous (Frantz Fanon wrote about how this impacted mental health – a process, he described in his medical lexicon, of recerebralising Algerians, literally reshaping their brains and thinking). When Algerians fought back in the 1950s, demanding independence, this was once more regarded as an expression of their primitive nature, and their innately violent character.
The extent of the devastation following the first decades of French occupation led even the pro-imperialist French politician and historian Alexis de Tocqueville to note that colonisation had made Muslim society more barbaric. In other words, the society was already barbaric, and the French had only deepened its savagery.
The language, tools and analyses of these commentators are unreformed and colonial in origin.
The story of European civilisation conquering African barbarism and its associated monsters was common across the decades of colonial occupation and adventure on the continent. Sometimes the language did not always stick to the barbaric script. Take the Congo. Over a period of twenty years, Henry Morton Stanley – the 19th century imperialist adventurer par excellence – helped to establish what became the murderous Belgian empire in the Congo. As Stanley rampaged through the Congo in the 1870s and 1880s, he saw great opportunity for profit and imagined riches everywhere he turned, but the enemy this time was sloth. “In every cordial-faced aborigine whom I meet I see a promise of assistance to me in the redemption of himself from the state of unproductiveness in which he at present lives”. By 1884, Stanley boasted to King Leopold’s court that he had 500 treaties with chiefs and Congolese headmen. The Berlin Conference that was held at the end of that year and into early 1885 divided up Africa among European nations and officially recognised Leopold as the head of the International African Association of the Congo, soon renamed the Congo Free State.
The stated aim of the new Belgian colony – loudly proclaimed by newspapers and embedded writers – was to abolish slavery (a war was going to be fought against Arab slave traders) and to bring civilisation. In the name of this war against barbarism, a regime of utter brutality commenced. The combination of famine, forced labour and systematic violence wiped out millions; according to the historian Adam Hochschild, the population fell from over 20 million in 1891 to 8.5 million in 1911.
Why is this history important? It is our contention that the language of colonialism has remained a determined and fixed feature of mainstream accounts of Africa. Racist imagery of Africa, its barbaric people – who live under a thin veneer of civilisation – remains unchanged, and essentially monstrous. The result of this constant narrative, and its linguistic tools, is to pulverise Africa, to keep its people and politics in a tight hold, and, of course, to justify intervention, provide racist analyses and condescension. For the dominant European narrative, Africans need to be categorised and controlled – this is how it’s done.
To conclude, the debate about these wider and case-specific matters is ongoing, for example in the critical accounts of Wrong’s book and the endorsing reviews. And its continuation is vital. In the meantime, perhaps, the UK press could consider a self-imposed ban on having monster characterisations in its reporting and headlining.
An Indian outlet changed the original title of a conversation piece by Roger Southall about Mugabe from a monster-free headline into a with-monster headline.
And the headline on the website in India.
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