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BBI Is Dead! Whither the Kenyan State?

10 min read.

A way of rebuilding the basis of the nation must be found because only then can the formation of loyalty and service to each other that is necessary to the existence of a functioning state take place, argues Antoinette Kankindi.

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BBI Is Dead! Whither the Kenyan State?

Rethinking the country as a nation is legitimate for Kenya and Africa. Many recognize the colonial history of African states established upon a divisive agenda with the aim of dismantling traditional polities, controlling and manipulating people and exploiting resources. The inability of an educated class to offer a viable idea of a “nation” uniting citizens in a common project remains a mystery. In Kenya, even the highly publicised Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) has not achieved much. Doubts linger as to whether constitutions adopted in Africa have improved peoples’ lives or whether they are just instruments for taking complete control of power.

Critics of the nation-state find fault with it from two main perspectives. Some consider the Nation-State a dangerous concept because it creates room for nationalism. Others are proponents of very powerful globalising forces very keen to disband the whole idea and reality of national sovereignty. Interestingly, both positions conveniently ignore an important factor for there to be a polity: the common good of the people. The question of which philosophical direction to take is the basis of rethinking the country as a nation. What is it for and what are the foundations that have been lacking? It is a question of the state as a polity and its purpose, which must touch its foundations.

The nation-state and its purpose

The nation-state has been the most enduring polity given its ability to maintain an order allowing people to coexist as diverse communities. It has created a way of balancing liberty and the public good so that individual members can live together with dignity. It could achieve that balance using the rule of law, which guaranties the exercise of freedom and the pursuit of wellbeing for all. The function of the state is to govern, exercising power for the protection of rights and the guarantee of the wellbeing of the citizens. That is what the rule of law is for. Joseph Ratzinger says that it is not the mission of the state to create paradise within its borders. Its mission is to make sure that citizens do that for themselves within its legal framework.

That is why government should always be limited. Government is solely the fiduciary of an order that allows the citizens to achieve their living as individuals and communities. When fulfilling such a function, government is legitimate and should be obeyed by all citizens, in accordance with the law. Complying with the law is expected of the government itself and of the citizens. It does not curtail the freedom of either. It is the condition for the proper exercise of liberty. A polity, as Aristotle stated, is a body of citizens, who are important because there is no nation without people and there is no democracy without “demos” or people, the first basis of a nation.

Four pillars must be considered in rethinking Kenya, or any other African country, as a nation: people, trust, citizenship and territory. In a time of pervasive neo-liberal trends, it is common to think that the basis of a stable polity is economic growth because it enhances sustainability. This is not strictly true since the most fundamental basis is the people. However, one might ask, who are the people and what unites them as “a people” in a state? Concerned about the nation-state being threatened by global corporations and global policy-making Institutions, Roger Scruton contended that any workable democracy necessitates a community to which the people recognize that they belong and to which they owe an unmistakable loyalty that transcends their diversity. No state, no government can be possible where its people do not recognize their shared or common “belonging”, with the rights and duties that come with that. Scruton expresses this first basis thus:

Government requires a “we,” a pre-political loyalty that causes neighbors who voted in opposing ways to treat each other as fellow citizens, for whom the government is not “mine” or “yours” but “ours,” whether or not we approve of it. This first person plural varies in strength, from fierce attachment in wartime to casual acceptance on a Monday morning at work, but at some level, it must be assumed if we are to adopt a shared rule of law.

Such people live by an awareness of bonds of mutual duties marked by reciprocity in times of adversity, need or crucial political processes, whether their side wins or not.

Such bonds point indicate the second basis of a nation, which is harder to achieve, or even understand today: trust, understood as belief in each other. It is not possible to rethink the country as a nation without reckoning with the question of social trust, “cementing” the people’s belonging together. Scruton thinks that yes, a country’s stability is enhanced by economic development,

but it depends far more upon this sense that we belong together and that we will stand by each other in the real emergencies. In short, it depends on a legacy of social trust. Trust of this kind depends on a common territory, resolution in the face of external threat and institutions that foster collective decisions in response to the problems of the day.

Where there is social trust and shared belonging, the third basis of a nation is possible: the relationship referred to commonly as citizenship. It exists between the state and the citizen when both parties hold each other accountable for their respective contribution to building the polity. It is more than a formal and abstract relationship since it entails a compounded set of rights and duties, to be upheld by each side, in virtue of the rule of law. This means that they are both subjects of the law holding both equally accountable for their obligations. Scruton explains that, even if the state is in charge of enforcing the law, it is expected to enforce it “equally against itself and against the citizen”, as the case may require.

People are actual citizens in a state that is bound by the law to fulfil its duties towards the citizens and they, in turn, acknowledge the state’s right to enforce the law as far as their freedoms end.  Consequently, where the state is not accountable to the citizens, citizenship as a relationship is broken, since the state acts as a despot considering citizens as mere subjects. Even if in such a state there is law, it cannot be said to be ruled by law because the government considers itself to be above the law.

Understanding the concept of citizenship as a relationship where the citizen and the state are accountable to each other demonstrates a stark difference between being a citizen and being a subject. For Scruton, citizens are freer than subjects are, not because there is more that they can get away with, but because their freedoms are defined and upheld by the law. He further considers that people, who are subjects, normally want to become citizens as only citizens can be sovereign to the point of securing their own lifestyle, and the security of their family and property against any threat within the state. From a conceptual point of view, this fact explains immigration in search of countries in which citizenship entails such benefits.

The fourth basis of a Nation is the territory. People who form a polity live in a specific place, share history, institutions, norms and customs within specific boundaries. They participate in an equal commitment to all that they share: the land, the institutions and laws, which also means the political processes used to govern their polity. “Vital to the sense of nationhood is the idea of common territory, in which we are all settled, and to which we are all entitled as our home”. A sovereign nation refers to a people of citizens formed by a social trust, with a common history, within a territory, governed by shared laws.

Citizens are freer than subjects are, not because there is more that they can get away with, but because their freedoms are defined and upheld by the law.

Kenya, and any other African country, could claim to be a nation, if only as a country it had something to show for the trust, the citizenship described earlier and true rule of law. There are obstacles to such a claim.

Obstacles to the reality of a nation

In Cry, the Beloved Country, while discussing the dramatic changes in South Africa as a country, one of the characters says:

The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again. The white man has broken the tribe. And that it is my belief (…) that it cannot be mended again. But the house that is broken, and the man that falls apart when the house is broken, these are tragic things. That is why the children break the law. (…) It suited the white man to break the tribe. But it has not suited him to build something in the place of what is broken.

Breaking the tribe, by colonial policy, came with the breaking of every basis of a nation: the people, the social trust, the citizenship and the territory. Today some speak of a new colonialism. Without denying it, there is a need to assess matters differently from two fronts: the neo-liberal urban elites and the global networks. There are inner divisions purported and sustained by local elites on the one hand; and on the other, the control exerted by global policies from foreign markets and global institutions. They all undermine the possibility of rebuilding what was destroyed: a shared identity, the creation of a true citizenship, and the possibility of nationhood.

The problem of urban elites

In the words of Scruton again,

Urban elites build trust through career moves, joint projects and cooperation across borders. Like the aristocrats of old, they often form networks without reference to national boundaries. They do not, on the whole, depend upon a particular place, a particular faith or a particular routine for their sense of membership, and in the immediate circumstances of modern life, they can adapt to globalization without too much difficulty. They will identify with transnational networks since they see those things as assets, which amplify their power.

In Kenya, the elites can hardly identify with the ordinary citizen upon whom they depend for their amenities, for the votes they crave. Unfortunately, the communities, which cannot identify with urban elites, still rely on them because they run government and enact policies. But there is a yawning gulf between the two sides since there is no shared identity between them. Like many other African countries, Kenya is a country of two worlds. Such a gulf demonstrates the impossibility of accountability of the elites towards the citizens. Citizens are totally powerless despite some constitutional provisions and other statutes formulating mechanisms of accountability.

Even where constitutions that are deemed progressive have been adopted, their implementation is still at the mercy of the same elites. The gulf also confirms that there is no proper citizenship understood as a relation of accountability between the leaders and the governed. There cannot be patriotism where citizenship is weak or inexistent.

In a world marked by pervasive neo-liberal policies, the implications of this gulf are huge, since the same elites in government decide market policies too. They are keen to create prosperity, but it is a prosperity that invariably forsakes the majority because of its unfair competition. Competition is good. However when it happens with competitors who can never win, it is unjust. This logic of unfair markets appears also in political processes: who wins in politics? Only those who have control over the reins of power, which turns processes such as elections futile exercises in role-play. The citizens’ vote ends up never contributing to the improvement of their lives. Such processes create power that is accountable only to itself; not to the people, but to the interests that control it, including global networks.

The problem of global networks

The concept of global networks includes global and regional institutions, and multinational corporations. It is common to hear arguments in support of things like global government, or global order. However, no such networks exist without a series of conditions made possible only by the nation-state systems. Robert Rowthorn argues that,

organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation or multinational corporations are no alternatives to the Nation-State (…). The very existence of such entities pre-supposes a network of strong nation states to underpin them (…). If nation states are seriously undermined, the result will not be global harmony, as liberal utopians believe, but global anarchy

Problems appear when global networks control governments and systems run by the elites discussed earlier. Policies arising from such combination do not bridge the rift between the elites and the people. The result is a greater rift, greater disenfranchisement, and greater alienation of the people. The greater the control by global players, the lesser the accountability, no matter how loudly they claim to promote good governance, rule of law, or free market. There is an accomplice-type of relationship between the elites and the leadership of global networks that exists to the detriment of the people, to the point that the elites can even violate global policies and get away with it.

A case in point would be the claim of universal rights from global institutions. Recent history shows violations by governing elites because the institutions promoting the policies are far removed from the people in need of their defence. The same goes for international courts, which raises the question of which justice is rendered and for whom.

The basis for rethinking nation-building or what legitimate authority is, is the same as the principles of cohesion derived from the nature of a polity: people, citizenship and natural and historical boundaries as bonds of a shared destiny. People are communities formed by families living on a given territory and sharing in a system of values, built on trust that is necessary for the survival of a polity. Social trust does not mean that the people agree on everything. It means that they agree on the fundamentals of a social order that works for their common interest. The idea of a social contract resonates with people because it assumes such trust.

There cannot be patriotism where citizenship is weak or inexistent.

However, today’s social contracts are devoid of trust, they are lacking in Scruton’s “we” and tend to revolve around an “I”, whether it is an individual, an elite family or private interests. That is why they fail. A polity formed without trust and loyalty is already fractured. This is the case of political parties, for example. They don’t change anything because, as institutions, they tend to drive division instead of unity. Anyang Nyong’o acknowledged that after so many years of experimenting with multi-party politics, it is time to rethink the direction because “people are fighting to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward and to guarantee the future of their children”. Parties could become meaningless in terms of building the necessary unity for legitimacy because they have proved to be incapable of impartial government for the common good of the people. Instead, they tend to engender some pathological nationalism, indifferent to the plight of the common citizen.

A polity formed without trust and loyalty is already fractured.

There is a general reluctance to appreciate that rethinking the nation is a moral issue and a moral responsibility. Yet political philosophy is a moral science. The basis of rethinking the nation discussed is of a moral nature: people, trust, citizenship and loyalty to the land where the people belong. They have been broken by colonial policies and our elites’ policies. They must be mended.  Cry, the Beloved Country brings this moral dimension in sharp focus, expressed as if it was written today:

It was permissible to allow the destruction of a tribal system that impeded the growth of the country. It was permissible to believe that its destruction was inevitable. But it is not permissible to watch its destruction, and to replace it by nothing, or by so little that whole people deteriorate, physically and morally

Paton concedes that though the tribal system was not perfect, it was a moral system nonetheless. He states that if the people have become criminal and depressed in the various ways, it is not because it is their nature to be so.  It is because the basis of their social order has been destroyed. He emphatically appeals to the “inescapable duty”, to set up another system of order.

Nyong’o, Scruton and Paton coincide in indicating that a way of rebuilding the basis of the nation must be found because only then can the formation of loyalty and service to each other, neighbours and strangers alike, that is necessary to the existence of a functioning state take place. Today’s youth are willing to die for a company that can pay them a salary but not for their country. Proof of broken social trust broken by inadequate political experiments. National loyalty, from both leaders and citizens, is a condition for constitutional and democratic government. Building it requires a strong resistance to global players and local elites, who are so heavily invested in expropriating not only the resources but also the sovereignty of the people, overtaking the sovereignty of the nation-states politically and market-wise. Only the people can resist against such formidable powers.

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Dr Antoinette Kankindi is a Senior Lecturer at the Strathmore Law School and a Research Fellow, at its Integrity Programme. Email: akankindi@strathmore.edu

Ideas

The Limits of Modern Human Rights Crusades

There is a need ‘to address the challenges people actually face, looking beyond narrow political rights to address the deeper causes of economic and social exclusion.’ This will be the key factor that will determine whether the faith of people in human rights will deepen or suffer further erosion in the years to come.

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The Limits of Modern Human Rights Crusades

In a recent opinion editorial published on Project Syndicate, the President of the Open Societies Foundation, Mark Malloch-Brown highlighted two of the major flaws in human rights that need to be addressed urgently. First, he pointed out that ‘[w]hereas strong states were the sole or leading human-rights violators during the Cold War, today’s world is one of multidimensional human-rights menaces.’

Explaining this point further, he notes that, ‘[i]nequalities, exacerbated by unregulated transnational financial and corporate power, together with dramatic shifts in individual states’ fortunes, are creating an ever more challenging landscape. The world is becoming more unequal – and angrier.’

Second, ‘many view the renewed attention to deep-seated institutional racism in the United States and around the world – and the recognition that marginalization based on race, gender, religion, and class is often mutually reinforcing – as exposing the limits of a human rights agenda. Human rights remedies, victims argue, have scratched the surface, not reached the roots.’

COVID19’s quartet of major human rights issues in Africa 

The experience on our continent in the context of the COVID19 lend more than enough support to these observations highlighting the flaws of the mainstream approach to human rights. For us on the continent enduring the trinity of burdens even during the Cold War, as I pointed out in a previous essay, the state has not been the only source of threat to human rights.

In terms of the picture that emerges in Africa in the context of the COVID19 pandemic, our analysis in the African human rights system, as gathered from the monitoring work of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the various reports our Commission received, shows that COVID-19 relates to four broad issues of human rights.

First, COVID-19 is of and on itself a human rights issue. The morbidity and mortality that pandemic precipitates pose the most serious threat to fundamental human rights, most notably the right to health, the right to personal safety and the right to life. It is a human rights necessity that States in pursuit of discharging their human rights obligations under Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the founding treaty of the African human rights system, take appropriate measures for safeguarding the public from the threat that this pandemic poses to health, safety and life.

Our Commission issued the first statement highlighting these points on 28 February 2020 at a time when only a handful of cases in a couple of countries were reported and before COVID19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Considering the weak state of the health systems of many States Parties to the African Charter, we put particular emphasis on prevention measures, including with emphasis on the right to access to information on the pandemic.

Second, the vulnerabilities, structural deficiencies and inequalities that COVID-19 brought to the fore are also products of governance and policy failures in implementing human rights commitments. In particularly, they highlight the neglect by the social and economic policies of our societies as well as by the human rights system of the centrality of socio-economic rights and the resultant gap between the promise of these rights and the lived realities of the masses of the people on our continent. This is reflected in the lack of due regard to human development in the GDP growth driven economic policies of countries on the continent. Even at a time when high levels of economic growth are reported resulting in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, this has never been accompanied by significant improvement in the standard of living of the vast majority of people in our societies. Indeed, as the GDP based economic development paradigm facilitates splendid levels of accumulation of power by global private actors and their local associates, majority of people continue to languish in poverty with no access to water, sanitation, health care, housing, sustainable livelihood and income and food.

This state of affair, facilitated by the weaknesses of the structure of the economies of many countries on the continent and the commodification of access to socio-economic rights due to the dominant neo-liberal economic policy prescriptions, has left those without access to these basic necessities to be without even the most basic means of protection to the threats of COVID-19. For all these categories of people hand washing, sanitizing, social distancing and self-isolation became luxury beyond their reach. Under these conditions, even those who thought of themselves as being capable of fending for themselves by buying from the market have found themselves unprotected from COVID-19. After all, the market lacks both the incentive and structure for availing protection from pandemics like COVID-19.

For us in the African human rights system, this has highlighted two concerns. The first is the existence of a gaping hole in the socio-economic systems and the governance of the States Parties to the African Charter. The second is the pervasiveness and gravity of the deprivation of rights, which are central to not only the wellbeing of human beings but also our societies.

Third, despite the necessity for adopting measures for addressing the pandemic, which by their nature may necessitate restriction of rights, COVID-19 response measures have also given rise to a wide range of human rights problems. As states adopt various measures including lockdowns, curfews, suspension of various activities, border closures, by declaring a state of emergency or state of disaster, the conditions for flouting a wide range of rights also mushroomed. First, some of the measures adopted by their very nature happen to be not in line with established human rights principles, including most notably that of proportionality and legality. Second, heavy securitization of the approach for enforcing COVID-19 regulations and the disruption that the regulations caused to access to basic necessities, particularly for the most vulnerable among us, have led to major increase in violations and in people being deprived of their rights.

In this context we have witnessed, among others, excessive use of force by security forces have led to arbitrary deprivation of lives, liberty and personal security and inhuman and degrading treatment, in some cases conditions amounting to torture. These violations and deprivations mostly affecting the poor and most vulnerable among us also highlighted the discriminatory consequences of the security heavy approach to the enforcement of COVID19 measures.

Some of the COVID19 response measures such as, the abuses and violations by members of state security agents, the multidimensional issues facing women and girls, the massive digital surveillance, the emergency power of the executive branch of government and the corruption in the use of public resources assigned for fighting the pandemic, if not contained and remedied, can lead to the emergence of serious human rights crises.

It was in appreciation and anticipation of these plethora of human rights issues (arising from COVID-19 regulations and their enforcement) that the African Commission issued a comprehensive statement on human rights based effective response to COVID19 in Africa on 24 March 2020. The statement, which is divided into 12 operative sections, outlines the human rights principles and standards that States Parties to the African Charter and other applicable treaties such as the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa are expected to follow in designing and implementing their COVID-19 response regulations.

The African Commission through its country rapporteurs and special mechanism holders have continued to monitor and respond to the various country specific and thematic human rights issues that continue to unfold in the context of COVID19. Accordingly, various statements and urgent letters of appeal have been issued and national consultations held. The Commission also convened its 66th Ordinary Session with particular focus on human and peoples’ rights in the context of COVID19, which presented a unique opportunity for receiving updates through public statements from States, national human rights institutions and civil society organizations. All of these underscored that the most vulnerable among us, notably women and girls, minorities, persons with disabilities and the poor bear the brunt of the pandemic and its grave consequences.

Forth, it has become clear that the unprecedented nature of the impact of COVID-19 not only on health but also other areas of life means that this pandemic is not a temporary event that will easily pass in a short time. Most notably, the socio-economic and humanitarian fall out of COVID-19 is widespread and severe. For us, the African Commission, perhaps this is one of the most serious and more enduring challenges that can have catastrophic human rights consequences as tens of millions are pushed to extreme poverty and many others face hunger and starvation.

It was in recognition of this that myself and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a joint statement on 20 May 2020 expressing major concern about the situation and calling for global solidarity by way of affording countries on the continent the fiscal space, through among others debt restructuring or relief measures, in order to enable the countries take appropriate fiscal and economic relief measures to mitigate the worst socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.

The hard lesson for human rights 

There are a number of observations that emerge from COVDI19’s quartet of major human rights issues for the human rights system in general.

Certainly, COVID19 – in the way it both laid bare the fallacies and falsehoods, to borrow from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s 18 July 2020 Nelson Mandela Lecture, in the narrative of progress and development and brought to the fore the vulnerabilities and inequalities that pervade our societies and the deficiencies of our systems of governance and economic development paradigm – has also presented a serious challenge to the international and regional system of human rights.

It can be said that COVID-19 has presented the foremost challenge to and revealed the shortfalls of the entire human rights movement. Indeed, the pandemic has become an indictment of our human rights work. As the boss of the Open Societies Foundation rightly pointed out, ‘the traditional models of advancing democratic values and institutions (human rights) are struggling.’ The human rights movement has generally focused on making its trademark feature of loud reaction to events rather than on proactive action for addressing the structural issues that make those events possible. The seriousness of the limits of this has now become evident for all to recognize, a silver lining from the pandemic.

Viewed through the prism of so called three generations of rights, COVID19 has demonstrated the continuing marginalization and neglect of socio-economic rights. Despite the normative position of the interdependence and indivisibility of rights, in practice civil and political rights continue to dominate much of the practice and discourse of human rights. With COVID19, it has become clear that water, sanitation, health care, housing and education are fundamental rights to which everyone should have access not only because these rights are pre-requisite to live a life of dignity as human being but also because access to these rights by all is a condition for the safety and health of all.

This moment presents us with an invitation to rethink both the approach of the human rights movement and its priority issues of concern. There is a need to expand the approach to human rights work beyond court litigation and reactive expression of outrage. Equally important is prioritizing the focus on the promotion and fulfillment of socio-economic rights.

Will the human rights movement recognize the limitations and weaknesses that this pandemic has highlighted? Will it recognize that what COVID-19 represents is a qualitatively unprecedented challenge, which is in part are attributable to the human rights issues long neglected? Will the opportunity it affords the human rights system for changing course be seized?

The choice in front of the human rights system is stark – continue in a business-as-usual fashion and face irrelevance in the effort to overcome the structural conditions of oppression affecting the vast majority of people in the world? Or reprioritize its focus, its approach and sense of urgency to deal with the human rights issues which have, in the context of COVID19, become the defining human rights issues of our time: massive poverty, widening inequality, gender oppression, racism, the democratic governance crisis and the climate emergency.

I wholeheartedly agree with Malloch-Brown that there is a need ‘to address the challenges people actually face, looking beyond narrow political rights to address the deeper causes of economic and social exclusion.’ This will be the key factor that will determine whether the faith of people in human rights will deepen or suffer further erosion in the years to come.

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Ideas

The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms and a History of Resource Plunder

Since colonization, Africa has provided its best raw materials for the global North. Can countries finally break this pattern?

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The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms and a History of Resource Plunder

The struggle for control over Africa’s natural resources has raged since the colonization of the continent. It continues today as the forces that undermine Africa shift from the former colonizers to transnational corporations, and the ideology that underpins the global economic order morphs from blunt “flag” colonialism to the hegemony of neoliberalism. The effect is still the same: the underdevelopment of African economies and undermining of state capacity to meet peoples’ needs. The following unpacks the roots of this persisting problem and offers some lessons from the early post-independence era, when governments across Africa recognized these issues clearly and enacted revolutionary policies to confront them.

Prior to colonialism, the countries of Africa were economically, politically, and sociologically structured organically around their internal needs and demands, meeting internal material and social challenges. This is not to say these societies were devoid of internal contradictions, conflicts between them, or engagement with the wider world––indeed, trade routes certainly extended beyond the continent. But on the whole, the economic structures and relationships that developed were shaped by dynamics and demands within African societies.

This was forcefully upended with the onset of colonialism, as African economies were extroverted, destroyed, and fragmented. A new structure was put in place in which African economies were inserted in the global economic order as providers of raw materials for the development of other countries––basically for imperial Europe. This has relegated the vast majority of the continent to a political economy structure of primary commodity export dependence.

Within this structure, African countries became dependent on the export of a small basket of barely processed minerals, timber, and agricultural products (cocoa, coffee, bananas, etc.) as raw materials to feed the industries of the global North. In return, Africa became dependent for their consumption needs on the import of the goods manufactured in the North, most often made using African raw materials.

This enforced “unequal exchange” of unprocessed so-called “low-value” raw materials for “high-value” processed goods has become the basic mechanism of unequal economic relationships between Africa and the advanced industrial capitalist North, and the means of continued appropriation of the wealth created in Africa by the North. This undermines the accumulation of wealth in Africa and its reinvestment for renewing, upgrading, and expanding productive capabilities of the societies on the continent, and therefore of their ability to meet the changing needs of the people. On the contrary, African countries and opportunities for their people have become trapped in the vicissitudes of the global market for their commodities over which they have little control.

The colonial restructuring of Africa’s economies and their orientation to the external needs of European industrialization have devastating consequences for the internal dynamics of the economies and the societies, marked by two key features:

First, as products which were before used and processed for an internal economy came to serve merely as unprocessed raw materials for Europe, the internal usage of these products was subverted. Iron, which was processed into agricultural tools and other mechanical tools, was now mined only to be carted out in raw form. Agricultural products which before were processed in wide-ranging forms for food, clothes, shoes, were now only exported in their raw forms. As a result, the chain of processes, skills, and knowledge of these products and their uses through the domestic economy was broken. Instead of being maintained and upgraded over time, the capabilities and capacity have become degraded.

Second, the relationships that existed between different types of economic activity and “sectors” of the economy were fragmented. The chain of mining, smelting, and crafting iron to supply the technological need of agriculture, such as tools for farmers, was fragmented during the colonial economy. Agricultural supplies to iron crafters were also equally disrupted. This shifted the overall nature of African economies so that these sectors no longer met the needs of and reinforced one another, helped each other grow, or evolved according to African needs.

As different sectors of the economy were no longer “speaking to each other,” the range of internal exchanges became limited and the overall economy became more shallow and weaker. For instance, farmers who now only sold their products to an external (North) market didn’t necessarily have an internal market for their products so that they could also expand their production and opportunities for livelihood. This led to a common belief that African countries have small markets, erroneously attributed to small national populations, and that there is simply nothing that can be done about it. But contrast this with global North countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark: their populations are smaller than many African countries, but because of the coherence in their economies they are able to have a deeper domestic market which allows for expanded production. Their economies were not fragmented and reoriented in the same way.

Such internal fragmentation and consequent shallowness of the African economy is aggravated by the artificial borders inherited from colonialism. Before colonialism, what now constitutes the national border between Ghana and Togo was a common space of economic interaction among societies. By being forced to operate behind new artificial borders also limits the range of exchange and economic depth.

Historically, the mining sector has been the focal as well as entry point for the construction of the primary commodity export dependent political economy. From South Africa to Zimbabwe to Ghana, colonization was consolidated as a process of European companies, supported by their governments, exercising possession and ownership of Africa’s minerals and expropriating the locals. This was replicated as more minerals were discovered in addition to gold, diamond, coal, and oil, and every time a new mineral is demanded by the global North, this dynamic is asserted anew.

However, primary commodity export dependence is not simply a reduction to the specific mineral or agricultural or other natural resources involved. Rather, it is the totality of relationships and dynamics of the appropriation of wealth, the extroversion of the economic dynamics, and fragmentation of African economies. This allows us to see how these dynamics extend beyond natural resources to other economic sectors, such as tourism, telecommunications, and finance. In tourism, for example, it is widely known that the higher end of the value-chain is dominated by a handful of transnational operators, who then appropriate the overwhelming bulk of the wealth generated, leaving Africans little out of it.

In this neoliberal era, the problem of primary commodity export dependence has been ignored at best and celebrated at worst. Promoted first by neoliberal economists and North policy institutions, an insidious narrative has proliferated that African countries should rely on their “comparative advantage,” recommending that they make better and more efficient use of their export of primary commodities. The power of this narrative has ensured that the transformation of primary commodity export dependence and its attendant problems as outlined above has ceased to be a central aspect of African policy making in the neoliberal period.

Echoing the neoliberal suppression of policies aimed at dismantling primary commodity export dependence, at the onset of neoliberalism the World Bank told African governments to abandon any notion to use mineral resources to serve social priorities or developmental priorities, and give up their running and management of minerals and mineral wealth to transnational companies. As the Bank stated:

The recovery of the mining sector in Africa will require a shift in government objectives towards a primary objective of maximizing tax revenues from mining over the long term, rather than pursuing other economic or political objectives such as control of resources or enhancement of employment. This objective will be best achieved by a new policy emphasis whereby governments focus on industry regulation and promotion and private companies take the lead in operating, managing and owning mineral enterprises.

Paradoxically, even the revenue from the export of primary commodities has been undercut through World Bank-promoted programs of lowering corporate taxes and royalties, and giving many concessions and incentives to transnational mining companies in the name of attracting foreign investment.

Many of the best tools to fight against dependency, such as development planning and import-substitution-industrialization, have either been actively repressed by programs like structural adjustment, or pushed into the margins by the dominance of neoliberal thought and “free market” policymaking practices. These tools were widely deployed by early post-independence governments to assert sovereignty over natural resources, before they were truncated by neoliberalism, which has reasserted extractive colonial dynamics.

In the early post-independence period, after formal decolonization, there was wide recognition from governments, across Africa and across ideologies, that the key task for development was to confront primary commodity dependence and its binding economic constraints. Kwame Nkrumah recognized the problem clearly in stating: “Africa is a paradox which illustrates and highlights neo-colonialism. Her earth is rich, yet the products that come from above and below the soil continue to enrich, not Africans predominantly, but groups and individuals who operate to Africa’s impoverishment.”

This recognition across the continent and the global South reverberated into mainstream policy institutions established in this era, such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development Planning or the African Institute for Development Planning. A key lesson from this era is the critical importance of restoring this recognition of the structure of African economies as a starting point for policy and activism.

Early post-independence governments worked to ensure that their economies accumulated for themselves by taking over the commanding heights of the economy strategically. This required asserting sovereignty, and therefore control, over their natural resources. The key mechanism for this was vesting the mineral wealth of their economies in the state. In Ghana, for instance, laws were implemented to declare that the mineral wealth or the wealth under the soil is vested in the Republic of Ghana and, it is the president who has custodianship.

Crucially, this nationalization extended beyond minerals to the mines themselves, even those already constructed. Taxation and royalties were also implemented to fund development and social programs, and the transfer of skills and technology was carefully facilitated.

Early post-independence leaders also saw beyond the hard economics of natural resource sovereignty to recognize its social dimensions. For instance, Kwame Nkrumah bought British mineral mines, which the UK had wanted to close as they did not make any profit. It came as a surprise to many that Nkrumah would purchase unprofitable mines, but his goal was not simple profit, but to create jobs as a social act to expand employment opportunities for the people.

This understanding of the social dimensions of dependency is key for the Post-Colonialisms Today project, as feminist politics is a central pillar. The basic recognition of dependency and its social dimensions, and the need to assert African agency over resources, provides a stronger basis to ensure power and agency for African women. At the same time, post-independence leaders must be critiqued for their patriarchal policies and tendency to sideline African women after independence despite their prominent role in anti-colonial struggles.

The early post-independence era also offers lessons on confronting the fragmentation of African economies. Their approach centered on industrialization: building African capacity to meet Africa’s needs rather than rely on the North to import high-value products.The key challenge many governments faced was generating the resources to support industrialization. Profits from exports from producing primary commodities were leveraged to support building factories, establishing institutional mechanisms, and funding social policies. The widespread use of tools such as the taxation of transnational corporations, protective tariffs, and royalties also generated resources.

However, a deeper problem often remained even as important efforts towards transformation were funded and planned: restoring internal linkages to African economies and making different sectors “speak” to each other once again. This challenge is particularly difficult and one many post-independence governments did not tackle sufficiently. As Post-Colonialisms Today researcher Akua Britum details, post-independence governments had to explore methods for funding development beyond taxation, such as reinforcing social programs to meet workers’ needs without reliance on large cash incomes.

Some countries paid particular attention to restoring these linkages. Post-independence Botswana, for instance, enacted policies to ensure the processing of minerals mined in the country must take place, at least in part, domestically. They also insisted that the procurement of inputs for mining must be sourced in Botswana. This meant that while the economy was temporarily reliant on producing minerals, they could still build up their industrial capacity and promote structural transformation.

There are limitations and layers of complexity to approaches in the post-independence era though: as Post-Colonialisms Today researchers Kareem Megahed and Omar Ghannam point out, post-independence land distribution in Egypt from landowning elite to the peasant class was reversed as peasants only received flimsy usufruct ownership. Under Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia nationalized their mines but still remained deeply controlled by international mineral value chains, meaning that even though they owned the copper mines outright, transnational copper companies managed to undermine their capacity.

Both the strengths and limitations of early post-independence policies offer a wealth of lessons for today’s struggles for control over Africa’s resources. Critically, the clarity in that period around the importance of African state control over natural resources offers a path forward for contemporary efforts––it must be wrestled away from transnational corporations today just as it was wrestled from colonial forces. With basic policies such as nationalization being halted outright, as seen recently in Zambia, this task remains as urgent as ever.

This article is part of the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series from Post-Colonialisms Today (PCT), a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent, working to recapture progressive thought and policies from early post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. It is adapted from a recent webinar on natural resource sovereignty which you can listen to here. Sign up for updates on the project here.

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The Imperialist Soul of Social Democrats

Alfie Hancox writes how the apparently progressive post-war government in the UK which delivered unprecedented social security simultaneously undermined progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty were thwarted. Hancox reveals Labour’s Aneurin Bevan’s role in deepening British imperialism.

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The Imperialist Soul of Social Democrats

The working-class vision of socialism during this period may be blurred by the corruption of the ‘welfare state’—Kwame Nkrumah

As the popular national story goes, after the Second World War the British working class, seeking a just reward for their sacrifices, came together to win a fairer society by voting in the Labour government which built the welfare state. At the heart of this reputed ‘Spirit of ‘45’ was the architect of the National Health Service (NHS), Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (1897–1960). Bevan has pride of place in the romanticised pantheon of the Labour left, and he is widely held to epitomise the party’s ‘socialist soul’. While often memorialised as a class warrior who once called for ‘the complete political extinction of the Tory Party’, behind ‘the myth of the miner prophet’ there lies a much more complex and contradictory picture of Bevan the statesman.

Britain’s post-war welfare settlement emerged against the backdrop of negotiated decolonisation – which was by no means a peaceful or straightforward process – and class compromise within the bounds of the capitalist nation-state was mediated by an enduring relationship with Empire. For Bevan, socialism was above all a ‘language of priorities’, and a critical overview of his parliamentary career reveals that colonised peoples in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were often a subordinate element in his considerations, despite his long-standing friendship with Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

It is also often forgotten that the welfare state was serviced by a migrant workforce extracted from Britain’s colonial ‘dependencies’, who were greeted upon arrival with racial-exclusionary impulses which were at times reinforced by Bevan himself. Similar ‘nativist’ tendencies remained present in the recent social democratic revival, demonstrating the need for an interrogation of the traditional Labour movement’s entanglement with imperialism.

The welfare state as neocolonial compact

Social welfare reforms delivered by the state have a contradictory class character. On the one hand, they constitute immediate gains for workers, but at the same time they assist in the reproduction of a value-creating labour force and represent concessions which may boost the legitimacy of capitalism. Welfare measures thus play a mediatory function in the push and pull of class struggle, the surge forward and the reactive containment. Interwar Britain was not wholly immunised from the social convulsions that shook continental Europe, and one wartime Conservative Member of Parliament warned in a famous speech: ‘If you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution.’

The reforming Labour government of 1945–51 adopted a carrot and stick approach to class compromise, as the expansion of social housing and public education, and advent of free healthcare, was accompanied with a consolidation of workplace discipline. Bevan claimed to have received his political training in Marxism, but his true faith was in parliamentary democracy, and he believed that national industrial management laid the foundations for the construction of socialism ‘from above’. As a member of Clement Attlee’s Ministerial Emergencies Committee, the erstwhile trade union militant helped defeat a strike wave in the newly nationalised industries (a response to efficiency drives), using the Supply and Transport Organisation which two decades earlier helped beat back the General Strike of 1926.

Britain’s post-war welfare settlement emerged against the backdrop of negotiated decolonisation – which was by no means a peaceful or straightforward process – and class compromise within the bounds of the capitalist nation-state was mediated by an enduring relationship with Empire

While welfare concessions reflect the domestic class balance of forces, this is only one part of the story. As the British New Left historian John Saville identified in 1957, ‘the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the ruling class’ in charting a new social consensus had ‘been derived from the possession of the world’s largest Empire.’ It was this situation which enabled the Labour government to square the circle of maintaining (relative) class peace at home, without eliminating capitalist exploitation. The Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, in his seminal 1965 study Neo-Colonialism, explained how the governing elite in Europe and North America found a means to deal with social demands at home after the war:

A deliberate attempt was made to divert colonial earnings from the wealthy class and use them instead generally to finance the ‘Welfare State’ … this was the method consciously adopted even by those working-class leaders who had before the war regarded the colonial peoples as their natural allies against their capitalist enemies at home.

Immediately following the war, Britain was facing a currency balances crisis that called Labour’s social plans into question. Bevan was not explicit about where the money for Attlee’s ‘New Jerusalem’ would come from, but his colleague Evelyn John Strachey, a former Marxist and Labour’s Minister of Food, was more forthright. During a parliamentary debate on a Colonial Development bill in 1948, the year of the NHS’s founding, Strachey concluded that ‘by hook or by crook, the development of primary production of all sorts, in the Colonial areas, Colonial territories and dependent areas in the Commonwealth … is, it is hardly too much to say, a life and death matter for the economy of this country.’

A deliberate attempt was made to divert colonial earnings from the wealthy class and use them instead generally to finance the ‘Welfare State’ … this was the method consciously adopted even by those working-class leaders who had before the war regarded the colonial peoples as their natural allies against their capitalist enemies at home.

The Attlee government essentially pursued a policy of issuing ‘IOUs’ to the colonies in return for the dollars earned from key exports such as rubber and tin from Malaya and cocoa from Ghana. Britain’s post-war reconstruction employed ‘a more systematic exploitation of colonies than at any previous time in imperial history’ – with the active support of the labour bureaucracy. The trade union leader, Ernest Bevin, declared: ‘I am not prepared to sacrifice the British empire [because] it would mean that the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.’ As the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore put it, these labour lieutenants of imperialism wanted to turn the British working class into collective ‘shareholders of the Empire.’

British socialism’s civilising mission

Writing in the socialist newspaper Morning Starthe trade unionist and historian Graham Stevenson has attempted to defend the legacy of the welfare state, and detach it from Attlee’s imperialist adventures in Korea, Malaya and Iran, by arguing that ‘foreign policy was not in Nye Bevan’s remit’. It is well known, however, that Bevan had wanted the Colonial Office, and he was an influential voice in international affairs as the charismatic leader of the ‘soft left’ Tribune faction.

Though Bevan’s rejection of the pre-war colonial status quo did put him at variance with the Labour right, he nevertheless stressed he was ‘against any proposal for complete self-government’ until the colonised countries had endured sufficient tutelage under British parliamentary democracy. He believed in the civilising mission of the ‘Socialist Commonwealth’, and in 1948 declared that with the advent of the National Health Service Britain had achieved ‘the moral leadership of the world’. This paternalistic mindset, which smacked of the ‘white man’s burden’, was typical of the ethical socialist tradition in Labour, and distanced Bevan from the approach of the Comintern-affiliated League Against Imperialism and the Manchester Pan-African Congress, which both rejected the ‘Enlightened’ colonial doctrine of trusteeship.

Bevan never challenged the unequal economic relationship with the ‘dependencies’ which characterised Britain’s free trade imperialism, or what he preferred to call ‘the legitimate claims of world commerce’. The superior British capacity for ethicizing self-interest was shared by Bevan’s wife and fellow MP Jennie Lee, who said at Labour’s annual conference in 1956, without a hint of irony: ‘We have to work for the day when there will be a higher standard of living here, a higher standard of living in the colonies, and when as free and friendly nations they will want us to be their bankers.’

It was in his attitudes to the Middle East that Bevan’s more overtly imperialist leanings came to the fore. While opposing the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, Bevan nonetheless expressed his outrage when President Gamel Abdel Nasser, who he racistly dubbed ‘Ali Baba’, nationalised the Suez Canal used to transport ‘our oil’. In justifying the Zionist colonial project that violently displaced 700,000 Palestinians, Bevan also argued in the Cabinet that ‘it was not necessarily true that we must avoid estranging Arab states. A friendly Jewish state would be a safer military base than any we should find in any Arab state’. He thought that Europeanised Jewish settlers could shake up the ‘semi-medieval institutions’ of the Arab world and prepare the grounds for socialist democracy, betraying a racialised view of civilisational development.

Bevan’s wavering stance on colonial liberation didn’t make him an outlier on the Labour left. For example, it was the former treasurer of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, Anthony Greenwood, who as Labour’s Colonial Secretary oversaw the ousting of British Guinea (Guyana)’s socialist Premier Cheddi Jagan. The Communist Party theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt identified this tried and test pattern of western social democracy, whereby ostensibly left-wing spokespersons are ‘given positions in the imperialist machine such as would not only gag them from expressing anti-imperialist sentiments but compel them to undertake the official duty of defending imperialist policies’.

As the British New Left historian John Saville identified in 1957, ‘the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the ruling class’ in charting a new social consensus had ‘been derived from the possession of the world’s largest Empire

Ultimately, the government that delivered unprecedented social security at home simultaneously thwarted progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty, and regionalist aspirations like those fleetingly concretised in Nkrumah’s Union of African States. Labour’s inglorious colonial record came up one time when Bevan was lecturing the Conservatives on their imperial policy. When he mentioned the imprisonment of Nkrumah, Tory members opposite reminded him that the Attlee government he served in as Health Minister was responsible! Bevan brushed this off, replying: ‘Well, we shoved him in gaol. If honourable members will restrain their hilarity for a moment, I said that this is part of the classic story of these struggles.’ This glib response omitted the killing of unarmed protestors in Ghana, which took place months before the arrest of Nkrumah. The West African Students’ Union, of which Dr. Nkrumah was a former member, noted that US imperialism often appeared a lesser threat to colonial independence than ‘British Socialism’.

An additional pillar of Attlee’s foreign policy was the backing of Western Europe’s remilitarisation under the US Marshall Plan, enabling the British Communist Party to declare that Labour’s welfare state was really a ‘warfare state’. Before WWII, Bevan had alienated the Labour leadership by calling for a United Front with communists against the fascist threat in Europe. However, his sympathies had changed with the onset of the Cold War, as anti-colonial movements supported by the Soviet Union destabilised the hegemony of the western imperial powers; and the Bevanites became enmeshed in an ideological struggle pitting Occidental social democracy against Marxism-Leninism. Bevan’s 1951 ‘rebellion’ against Labour’s militarism was not a protest against the genocidal proportions of the Korean War – he had in fact fully supported the Anglo-American invasion of the Peninsula – but because bloated defence spending was now cutting into his health service.

Empire and the National Health

The welfare state also carried the imprint of Empire domestically. While healthcare is a basic social necessity, historically the state provisioning of medical services has been framed in terms of labour productivity and, from the late-nineteenth century, imperialist ideologies of racial hygiene. The Liberal economist William Beveridge’s 1942 blueprint for the welfare settlement recommended that ‘good stock should be allowed to breed while bad stock would be ameliorated through state intervention’, and similar eugenics-influenced sentiments permeated the Labour movement through the Fabian Society.

The nationalisation policies in 1945–51 were not in any meaningful sense socialist, being administered from above by the capitalist state. While Bevan described the National Health Service as ‘pure socialism’, it was compromised from the start by the continued existence of independent contractors and retention of private practice. Nevertheless, the post-war reforms were a step forward in terms of collective social security, and they boosted loyalty to the nation-state that administered them: welfare came ‘wrapped in the Union Jack’. The language of socialism was co-opted and degraded by what Tom Nairn termed Labour’s ‘nationalization of class’, and lost in the process of the patriotic social compact were the Marxist values of working class self-empowerment.

Notions of national belonging and entitlement in Britain became increasingly racialised after the war, and as Satnam Virdee reminds us, the apogee of British social democracy ‘was also the golden age of white supremacy [and] legal racist discrimination’. When migrant workers from the non-white ‘New Commonwealth’ were induced to bolster Britain’s public services and stagnating industries, they were met with a racist ‘colour bar’ in employment and housing, often reinforced by the white-dominated trade unions. In 1948, a year that saw violent attacks on Black residents in Liverpool, Bevan wrote that if ‘colonial subjects come here on their own responsibility’ they ‘cannot complain if it is not all plain sailing’.

An informal caste system was built into the NHS itself, with workers of colour restricted to the lowest-paid employment grades, regardless of their level of training. A Brixton-based Black feminist group described how the health service was like a colony in the way it was run: ‘in the head of the black nurse from the Caribbean is the echo of slavery; in the head of the Asian nurse is the servitude to Sahib and Memsahib.’ Britain was simultaneously draining skilled medical labour from developing countries, the effects of which were described in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The hyper-exploited labour of Black and Brown women was unacknowledged by Bevan, who ascribed the NHS’s success to ‘the vitality and genius of the British people’.

Healthcare was quickly propelled to the centre of popular anti-immigrant discourses, and only a year after the NHS’s inception Bevan succumbed to nativist pressures by assuring voters that he’d ‘arranged for immigration officers to turn back aliens who were coming to this country to secure benefits off the Health Service’. The image of non-British ‘foreigners’ exploiting the NHS was a trope later deployed to great effect by Conservative MP Enoch Powell in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

The welfare state also carried the imprint of Empire domestically. While healthcare is a basic social necessity, historically the state provisioning of medical services has been framed in terms of labour productivity and, from the late-nineteenth century, imperialist ideologies of racial hygiene.

Bevan’s capitulation reflected a failure to offer a principled counter to anti-immigration rhetoric. His celebrated essay ‘In Place of Fear: A Free Health Service’ was riven by a tension between the defence of ‘the collective principle’ in terms of socialist universalism, and a cost-benefit approach that stressed immigrants’ contributions to ‘national revenues’, and the expenses that would be incurred by passport checks at hospitals. When Bevan rebuked the Trades Union Congress’s call for immigration restrictions after the 1958 racist riot in Notting Hill, this was not on grounds of proletarian internationalism, but the potential damage it would do to the image of the Commonwealth as ‘the greatest constitutional experiment in the history of nations’.

The legacy of Empire persists in the health service today, as demonstrated by the revival of medical racism in the Coronavirus context. The NHS is also still dependent on the labour of precarious migrant workers, now extracted from developing countries such as the Philippines and Nigeria. The present struggle to defend healthcare services in Britain thus needs to be coupled with a historical awareness of the inherent dangers of seeking social reform within the confines of the imperialist nation-state. We should look beyond the elitist parliamentary socialism of Bevan, to the alternative politics of metropolitan anti-colonialists like Dutt and Padmore who sought not a class settlement within the parameters of capitalist competition, but the levelling of wages and conditions across national and racial boundaries. The experiences of the 1970s–1980s further demonstrated that rank-and-file struggles in the health sector, often instigated by low-paid Black ancillary workers, can galvanise the labour movement in a profoundly progressive manner. We can draw on these lessons, and reconnect with more radical, worker and patient-driven visions of socialist healthcare which target the social roots of ill-health intrinsic to capitalist exploitation.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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