On 29 November 2013, a group of Muslim youths took over Sakina Jamia mosque in Majengo, Mombasa from its Imam, the late Sheikh Mohamed Idris, forcing him, his personal aide and the national organizing secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK), Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa out of the mosque. The three are said to have been shielded by “moderate” youths from being harmed by perceived “radicals”. This was part of a trend.
Between 2013 and 2014, several mosques in Kisauni and Majengo in Mombasa County, namely Umar Ibn al Khattab, Liwatoni, Mbaruk, Swafa’a, Mina and Rahma, had either been seized or were about to be seized by charged youths who further threated to extend their actions to the entire Mombasa County. The youths claimed that the clergy lacked the legitimacy to serve them because they had failed to address the myriad of problems affecting Muslims, including discrimination by the state’s predominantly Christian elites with whom the clerics cooperated.
Soon after, two main narratives emerged to explain these developments that were taking place against the backdrop of heightened al-Shabaab attacks and mobilization on Kenyan soil. One was that the youth were legitimate reformists who had had enough of their clergy’s hypocrisy while the other, which ultimately became mainstream, accused them of pursuing a hidden external “extremist” agenda to create a state of anarchy through violence.
However, to understand and make sense of this contention, it should be remembered that discord between “Muslim leaders” and their constituency was nothing new when the riots began. What was relatively new were al-Shabaab’s activities in Kenya. To gain constituents, al-Shabaab’s mobilization strategy is that of creating division in society while at the same time building social solidarity (Assabiyya) with the targeted group. It does this by using its intelligence network (Amniyat) and its social capital in the form of a rich mastery of the functioning of the target society.
Much like in mainstream political campaigns, these are shaped into various narratives that reflect the target group’s dynamics, characteristics, and concerns. The process is known as framing and involves construction of meaning. While diagnostic frames identify problems in the system and link them to a cause, prognostic frames propose solutions and strategies to solve the identified problems. In addition, motivational frames provide a rationale for action and together, these frames form collective action frames that promote and legitimize the activities and campaigns of a movement or organization. This does not occur in a mechanistic manner; instead, it involves constant negotiation and is mediated by social, political, cultural and historical factors within a given context. During this process, frame alignment and frame resonance can be achieved. Frame alignment is when the interests and beliefs of a movement converge with those of a target audience while frame resonance is when frames become plausible (acceptable) to the target audience; it enables their mobilization/participation. Therefore, the Mombasa riots have to be analysed in this context although it is crucial to first appreciate the state’s position in this conflict.
The contention between Muslim citizens and their state is almost as old as the Kenyan nation-state itself given the myriad of historical issues dating as far back as the reign of the sultanate of Zanzibar, to contemporary claims such as marginalization and demographic size. At the centre of these are Muslim leadership entities in their diverse capacities—whether religious, quasi-religious, civil society or elective-political—who have come to define their role as intermediaries and administrators of Muslim affairs. Excluding elective politics, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) was the pioneer in this attempt to administer and manage Muslim affairs. SUPKEM replaced its predecessor, the National Union of Kenyan Muslims (NUKEM) in 1973, the first Muslim organization formed in 1968 in the context of fears that independent Kenyan elites would opt for secularity and abolish customary religious laws.
SUPKEM was headed by two junior members of the then ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) against the backdrop of failed secession attempts by the Muslim majority at the coast and in the former Northern Frontier District. As a result, and due to rising political temperatures at the time, SUPKEM’s officials encouraged Muslims to be loyal to President Moi and his KANU party in return for support from the government as the legitimate representative of Kenyan Muslims. This led to the appointment of some Muslims to government.
Later, in the 1990s, with the opening of the democratic space and eventual banning of the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK) by Moi, Muslim civil society organizations, many of which were newly formed by former democracy activists, remained as the only bridge between the state and Muslim citizens. They include the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) and Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI). With relatively minimal returns, most of these organizations tend to address issues such as the underrepresentation of Muslims in government and public institutions, neglect of those parts of the country with a majority Muslim population, especially in terms of number of schools, employment and other opportunities. It is worth mentioning that these are the same issues that had led to the formation of the IPK.
Due to rising political temperatures at the time, SUPKEM’s officials encouraged Muslims to be loyal to President Moi and his KANU party in return for support from the government.
However, these Muslim organizations are broadly perceived by their constituents as bipartisan, especially because of their relationship with the state and persistent internal wrangles. Some (and perhaps many) members of the clergy (Imams), who either head various mosques or are members of various Mosque Management Committees (MMCs) across the country, are also perceived as bipartisan by virtue of their association with these Muslim leadership entities. This concern and accusations of failure to deliver on their mandate is what was at the centre of the push to “overthrow” and “replace” certain clergy from their pulpits in Mombasa back in 2013 and 2014.
Regardless of the truth in these claims, this was also an opportunity for al-Shabaab to mobilize, judging from the timing and the content of the claims. Sheikh Aboud Rogo—considered an al-Shabaab protégé in Kenya—often spoke about the marginalized status of Kenyan Muslims whom he urged to refrain from engaging with the state. Aboud Rogo pointed to what he termed as failures of secularism and democracy, and claimed that some Muslim leaders had become hypocrites and puppets of the regime who were still clinging on to what he saw as an illegitimate political system. These leaders, he claimed were apostates because they continued to remain silent in the face of discrimination and victimization of Muslims and so they had a shortage of faith (iman) and needed to pronounce the Muslim profession of faith (kalimat) afresh. The ultimate solution according to Aboud Rogo was, therefore, violence in the name of “jihad”.
This is an illustration of how instrumentalization of grievances led some Kenyans to join al-Shabaab, a process that cannot be de-linked from its historical context, yet literature on al-Shabaab and other groups that militarize religion tends to ignore these dynamics. It is also highly likely that these factors will continue to have significance, and the risk of being instrumentalized by similar armed non-state actors will remain.
Today, although confrontations between the so-called “radicals” and “moderates” are no longer visible on the streets thanks to the War on Terror (WOT) that has been waged in a variety of ways, this should by no means be mistaken for successful conflict settlement. On the contrary, going by cases of abductions, disappearances and extra-legal killings, a perpetual state of fear seems to exist. The situation for Muslim leaders and activists today seems more terrifying than at the height of the democratic activism of the 1990s when state-perpetrated violence was the main threat. Without exonerating them of whatever wrongdoing they may be accused of, Muslim community leaders owe their communities—at least as long as they perceive themselves as leaders who have a crucial role to play in preventing the instrumentalization of community affairs.
In order for them to play this role, however, it is crucial that they are guaranteed a safe environment. With the increased involvement of East Africans in the activities of groups like al-Shabaab, the region—and Kenya in particular—has become a marketplace of various counter-terrorism (CT) activities. While it is beyond question that some of these measures have led to some success in terms of thwarting attacks, they have also come at a tremendous cost, polarising relationships between the state and its Muslim citizens, as well as amongst citizens.
The situation for Muslim leaders and activists today seems more terrifying than at the height of the democratic activism of the 1990s.
Al-Shabaab’s claim of fighting for Islam by attacking non-Muslim civilians, and the fact that known al-Shabaab bear Muslim names, has worsened the situation as resentment against Muslims rises with the perception that they are al-Shabaab sympathizers. Engaging in civil rights activism as a Muslim has therefore become an increasingly dangerous endeavour because one is likely to be labelled either as a suspected “terrorist” (an al-Shabaab sympathiser) or as an apostate (a Kenyan-state sympathiser). Muslim activists and leaders have therefore lost much of their agency yet it is this agency (and accountability) that is also crucial in the struggle against al-Shabaab and its narratives.
Following the recent kidnappings of two prominent Muslim scholars, Professors Abdulwahab Sheikh Abdiswamad and Hassan Nandwa, a number of Muslim leaders led by SUPKEM chairman Hassan Ole Naado and Abdullahi Abdi of the National Muslim Leaders Forum (NAMLEF), in cooperation with other civil society groups, came out to strongly condemn the abductions and called out what they termed a “War on terror”-turned-“War on Islam” and the treatment of Muslims as second-class citizens. The outcry resulted in the release of the two abductees. Therefore, if there is anything to be learned from this experience, it is that Muslim leadership, whether political or in civil society and as an intermediary between polity and the state, is crucial and can no longer be brushed aside, especially at a time when the militarization of religion seems to have become the norm.
The current status quo has become a catalyst for the mobilization to violence, which means that something has to change for the situation to improve. No one has the social capital to understand Muslim communities better than Muslims themselves and, therefore, constructive engagement should first mean breaking the hierarchy that separates Muslim elites from their constituents at the grassroots. A multitude of interventions can then follow, from issues of their legitimacy and capacity, to the grievances of the Muslim community and even the situation of women that was recently the subject of a hot debate. Most significantly, it should mean more than press briefings during times of crisis as was recently witnessed; after all, organizing and accountable leadership is one of the best and most cost-effective strategies to stop an al-Shabaab that thrives on local concerns and narratives.
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Conservative Politics in Kenya: A Reflection
Conservativism may help us to better understand and name the contradiction we are seeing in Kenya, especially in education, and to better read the compliance of educated Kenyans with colonial logics of the state.
In my public engagements on the competency-based curriculum (CBC), I was constantly surprised that the arguments promoting the new education system were fundamentally racist and socially hierarchical. Some of the justifications of CBC that were unmistakably colonial were: we must reform education in line with what employers want, which was similar to colonial times when schools were for training Africans who would work in the colonial government; academic learning is beyond the “talent” of many Kenyans, which aligns with the view of imperial administrators like Lord Lugard that literary education ruins the African mind; technical learning is more suitable for most Kenyans, a proposition which colonialists justified with claims that the African brain stops growing at teenage and can therefore not grasp complex ideas; Kenyan children are doing badly in the education system because Kenyan adults do not subscribe to “nuclear family values”. This rhetoric was similar to the racist attitudes of the 1970s about black American families and absentee fathers, and colonial attitudes about African families.
Such reactionary views have been repeated to me in the media, in my classes and at my speaking invitations. At one event hosted by middle class parents, I was asked how parents can prepare their children for the gig economy. The parents were clearly not aware what “gig economy” means.
More perplexing was that pointing to these problems did not seem to embarrass the defenders of the system. They simply kept explaining their points as if they had not heard me. On the rare occasion when someone would actually respond to what I was saying, they would reply that I am bringing up irrelevant issues.
Even more remarkable was the fatalism of the middle class. On several occasions, audiences have told me that they have no choice but to accept the new education system because the proclaimed changes to the economy – gig jobs and digitization – are inevitable and so Kenyans have no choice but to accept the new education system.
As is typical of most Africans, the framework I ran to for interpretation of these responses was the decolonization framework expounded on by thinkers such as Frantz Fanon. I would read the contradictions I was witnessing as a problem of the native bourgeoisie who had placed Western education on a pedestal and were more interested in replacing the colonizer than in decolonizing.
However, something about that framework felt impotent. The few Kenyans who dared to address the issue would tell me that we cannot keep blaming our problems on the colonizers. In a country that does not teach the proper history of colonialism, many Kenyans are not quite sure about the dynamics of colonialism. For them, colonialism is in the distant past, and to refer to that past is to engage in a blame game.
That meant that referring to coloniality – the colonial logic of Kenya’s institutions – would sound just as hollow (unless, of course, one promised the listener that knowledge of coloniality would earn them a scholarship in a foreign university).
Perhaps the weirdest contradiction is that many Kenyan intellectuals who support racist colonial policies do so in the name of decolonization. This contradiction is maintained by a simplistic assumption that affirming African cultures necessarily means opposing colonialism. That is why, even with such a racist rubric for Kenya’s new education system, Kenyan scholars are publishing articles on including vernacular language and indigenous knowledges in the curriculum.
How then do we tackle decolonization when its primary advocates are also praising colonial structures and logics of power?
For years, I have been reflecting on the possibility that maybe conservativism – of Edmund Burke, the Tories and the Republicans – may help in better understanding and naming the contradiction we are seeing in Kenya, and especially in education. My thoughts received a boost from listening to Corey Robin, author of the bestseller The Reactionary Mind on conservative thought. I then searched for articles related to black conservatism, and found brilliant essays on black conservatism in the US by Cornell West, and in South Africa by Siphiwe Dube.
This essay therefore reflects on why conservativism may help in reading the compliance of educated Kenyans with colonial logics of the state.
According to Robin, the central tenet of conservatism is the defence of social hierarchy, which was made necessary by the huge crisis of confidence in Britain caused by the French revolution. Conservatism promises stability in the midst of social upheavals that are either the normal cycle of life or, mostly, the fruit of violent power structures. The downside of this apparent stability is that the people who are oppressed have to keep to the place assigned to them in the lower echelons of society. That is why, Robin argues, conservativism is very keen on the control of personal space. Women must always keep their heads down for men, and blacks and other subalterns must diminish themselves by kowtowing to whites, and especially white men. This subordination is justified as the will of God.
With blacks relegated to a subordinate position, it seems odd that Africans who acknowledge being beneficiaries of freedom struggles would be committed to defending the status quo. In his introduction to an edited volume on black conservatism, Peter Eisenstadt explains this contradiction. He argues that conservativism eschews social consciousness and dwells on individual achievement as the source of success, and so black conservatives (I include continental African conservatives here) prefer to focus on how they individually “merit” social rewards for their “hard” work. Underlying this faith in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is the belief that Western institutions are intrinsically objective and fair, and that racism and injustice are an external, not an intrinsic trait of Western institutions.
Women must always keep their heads down for men, and blacks and other subalterns must minimize themselves by kowtowing in the presence of whites, and especially white men.
All these views are entrenched through Christianity, especially of the neo-Pentecostal kind. As Dube says in his article on black conservatism in South Africa, neo-Pentecostalism comforts this individualist view of wealth by preaching that wealth is a reward from God for one’s individual faithfulness. In Kenya, Christianity de-racializes the racist discourse on African families and preaches that Africans are suffering due to lack of morality and failure to adhere to the “nuclear family values”. Kenyans inevitably have an affinity for “Jeremiads”, where they blame social problems on the stupidity of Kenyans or the failure of Kenyans to adhere to Christian family or cultural values, a rhetoric that was affirmed by King Kaka’s hit song “Wajinga nyinyi.”
Like conservatives, Kenyans see sexual and physical violence against women and children as the cause of structural and social malaise, rather than as the symptoms of it. The work of the media, the church and the schooling system is to divert attention from the highly aggressive and violent Kenyan politics and society to the mediocre and highly individualizing narratives of toxic men, the neglect of the “boy child”, single motherhood and absent fathers, while liberal feminists talk of toxic men and patriarchy as an African cultural phenomenon, rather than as a political one.
This camaraderie between conservativism and Christianity explains why the Kenyan middle class has accepted the new education system despite its overtly racist tropes. Having been fed on the James Dobson-style “Focus on the Family” programmes for decades, the rhetoric of parental involvement in justifying CBC was particularly appealing. Middle class parents were jazzed by singing and by making sandwiches with their kids for assessment by teachers, and relegated questions about parents with fewer resources to the discourse of pity for the poor and philanthropic interventions.
More troubling, though, is that much of the Kenyan middle class fundamentally believes that not all Kenyans are human beings, created equal. If this proposition were to be put to them in this way, they would categorically deny it because they would recognize that the same idea is applied to them by Europe. However, in true Western hypocritical style, their proclamations of human equality and African dignity are contradicted by their acceptance of highly discriminatory policies in education, conservation and extra-judicial killings.
Insight into African collaboration with colonialism is not unique. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon spoke of the native bourgeoisie who may rant against colonialism by guilt-tripping the West for not adhering to the values it proclaims, but simultaneously fail to recognize that Europe loves to sing of humanity while violating that very humanity. He explained that the loyalty of colonized intellectuals to Western values is maintained by the Western abstraction of values from lived reality, which presents Western values as “eternal despite all the errors attributable to man”.
Lewis Gordon, an existential philosopher who draws heavily on Fanon’s work, says that this abstraction essentially elevates human beings of European descent to the status of gods. How else can one’s own values be distant from humanity, other than if the source of those values is greater than human beings, and therefore a god? Indeed, Gordon has often pointed out that God in the Western mind is defined by the same theodician idea – that God must be exonerated from evil and the existence of evil must be wholly blamed on human beings. If then, the European is God, Africans have no choice but to bow their heads and keep slaving in the capitalist system until Europe deems us fit to be human.
This idea that Western values are perfect and that Africans have to gain their place in that system is similar to the assimilationist views of black conservative thought. As Eisenstadt puts it, black conservatives believe that blacks can make it in Western institutions if they work hard enough, and eventually Western institutions will recognize the contradictions and abandon racism on their own.
If then, the European is God, Africans have no choice but to bow their heads and keep slaving in the capitalist system until Europe deems us fit to be human.
Fanon and Gordon are just two of the thousands of intellectuals who have expressed concern about the enigma of black and African intellectual collaborators within racist capitalism. Why consider adding black conservatism as a framework of intellectual analysis?
My reason is simple: conservatism allows us to see this collaboration of the black bourgeoisie as not only intellectual but also as fundamentally POLITICAL. In other words, conservatism will give us a framework within which to look at black collaboration with colonialism as a political choice with institutional support from Western empire, rather than as an intellectual or moral flaw. Calls for cultural exorcism by Fanon, or voluntary class suicide by Amilcar Cabral, or cultural nationalism by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, have had little political impact, because Kenyan intellectuals read these discourses as a call for individual honour and self-sacrifice, rather than as a political project. In fact, the cultural nationalism project in Kenya has failed spectacularly, because imperialist dispossession of land and the depoliticization of Kenyans are now being done in the name of respecting indigenous cultures, and often with the support of Kenyan academics claiming to affirm African cultures.
The discourse of culture, especially, has been the camouflage under which Kenyan intellectuals have promoted conservative politics. We do not notice the conservative ideology in the Kenyan middle class and ruling elites because we assume that all Africans are necessarily opposed to colonialism as a regime of power, when many are simply opposed to the exclusion of Africans from the system rather than to the logic of the system itself. We criticize institutions for failing to institute socially sensitive policies but rarely identify those policies as necessarily protecting a racially informed social hierarchy. I have often argued that Kenyan education scholarship is particularly notorious for perpetuating this dichotomy, writing treatises on the inequality in education as a failure of policy implementation, rather than as an intrinsic character of our schooling system and politics. Moreover, the inequality is so high and life so precarious, that no rational middle class Kenyan would talk badly about the poor because many of us count relatives among the poor. We know, very intimately, that middle class Kenyans are a retrenchment away, or a hospital bill a way, from sinking into poverty.
This camouflage through the discourse of culture points to another fundamental characteristic of conservativism – the avoidance of politics. The Kenyan middle class overtly avoids political conversations, preferring to discuss policy, law and regulation in situations that require political intervention. This bias is in line with Cornell West’s observation that the black conservative is obsessed with “respectability based on merit rather than politics”. From Edmund Burke to Uhuru Kenyatta, the political process is played down through a rhetoric of culture, tradition and stability so as to sabotage political conversations about power and resources. That is why Uhuru Kenyatta hides his political incompetence in his ethnic backyard by making appeals to uphold culture and respect for elders and mothers.
Reading African politicians and bureaucrats as political conservatives would also explain why the public uproar about gender-based violence in Kenya, while claiming to be feminist, is spectacularly apolitical and sometimes ridiculously patriarchal. When there are high profile incidents of violence against women, the uproar celebrates state violence against men and never demands political commitments to address the fact that Kenya is extremely hostile and violent. Violence against children suffers a worse fate, since Kenya does not listen to children anyway.
Political conservatism would also help us see through Kenya’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kenya’s foreign policy has traditionally been that of fence-sitting and supporting the rights of dictators to oppress and kill their people in the name of “sovereignty”. Kenya did not support the black liberation struggles against apartheid, and it supported Sani Abacha until the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa became too embarrassing. Kenya’s tourism industry markets the colonial explorer experience as an attraction. Kenya’s bourgeoisie go to hotels to have English afternoon teas and buy million-shilling tickets to spruce up and watch British royal weddings. In true conservative fashion, the Kenyan ruling class avoids conversations about colonialism and the teaching of that history in schools.
The mention of colonialism in the speech by Kenya’s UN Representative was therefore way out of Kenya’s character. However, the celebration of the speech by mainstream American media simply confirmed that Kenya’s condemnation of the Ukraine invasion was a conservative, pro-American speech rather than an anti-imperialist one.
Kenya’s foreign policy has traditionally been that of fence-sitting and supporting the rights of dictators to oppress and kill their people in the name of “sovereignty”.
Why would liberal media like CNN celebrate what are essentially Republican talking points? My colleague Mordecai Ogada has aptly explained this phenomenon: Euro-Americans are liberal at home but conservative abroad. At home, Western liberals may decry the mistreatment of minorities, but on foreign policy, liberals unite with conservatives in supporting aggression, war and dispossession.
Naming certain politics as conservative does not necessarily mean that Africa adopts the Western conservative-liberal-left view of politics. While this rubric may be helpful in understanding the West and the damage it has wreaked on the planet, even the Western left has been paralyzed in identifying the spiritual and psychological damage of Western empire and its inevitable consequence of racism. What conservatism and racism kill is the spiritual connection with the earth and humanity, and the recognition that human beings are not the only beings in the world and they must negotiate with the universe to survive in it. Scientific applications of socialism deny this spiritual aspect of the Western hollowing out of the soul and aversion to reality.
As Fanon said in his celebratory conclusion to his last book, Europe “has done what it had to do. . . . We have no longer reason to fear it, let us then stop envying it.” We have to repair the damage that Europe has wreaked on the world since it decided to resurrect the Roman Empire from its graveyard. The repair requires understanding the brokenness of the Kenyan elite and middle class as a fundamentally political project, and not as simply an intellectual or moral failure. For now, I’m proposing conservativism as a framework to help us do that intellectual and political work.
Finish and Go — Your Last Days are Beckoning President Kenyatta
President Uhuru Kenyatta is on his way out, with just four months to the most hotly contested succession presidential elections in recent times. As Kenyatta prepares to leave office, his power has drastically waned and the Mt Kenya political leaders now neither fear nor respect him.
On Thursday March 17, 2022, a less-than-attention seeking alert came from State House, Nairobi. State House spokesperson, Kanze Dena, whose unstated job description is oftentimes covering the tracks for her boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta, read a bland press statement, which in part said; “The President did not convene nor postpone any such meeting; therefore, the information is false and misleading.”
She was responding to a purported rendezvous that the President had planned to have with Mt Kenya legislators – MPs, senators and governors – the following day. It wasn’t going to be the first meeting that the president would be convening with political leaders from his backyard. He has on several times done so. Big deal. What was strange was that the President was denying any knowledge of such a meeting being arranged in his name.
The alleged invite read: “Good evening mheshimiwa, I wish to invite you for a meeting of all MPs, senators and governors from Mt Kenya at State House, Nairobi on Friday, 18th March 2022 from 10am. Kindly conform attendance now.” The invite sent to the leaders, through their mobile phone numbers, was by Jeremiah Kioni, MP Ndaragwa, who replaced Raphael Tuju as the Jubilee Party secretary-general, just a few weeks ago. It could have been one of his very first secretarial duties as SG that he was undertaking on behalf of the party boss, President Uhuru.
It is doubly inconceivable that a secretary-general of a ruling party can wake up one early morning and conjure up a meeting on behalf of the President, without his prior consent. Better still, go right ahead to plan it, even send out invites, all the while, the president is in the dark. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the SG was not reprimanded for embarrassing the boss, possibly for showing over-zealousness in executing one of his newly acquired powerful duties. But state houses are places where shenanigans are always not far from reality.
Kikuyu constituency MP, Kimani Ichung’wa did not waste time replying to the text message – not on his mobile phone – but on his twitter handle: “Too little too late. Am busy.” How many other MPs, senators or even governors may not have had the time to attend, leave alone to confirm their attendance, but were too freaked out to say so?
It is true, the President is on his way out, with just four months, to what is being billed as one of the most hotly contested succession presidential elections in recent times. How else do you explain a “mere” MP’s effrontery in “telling off” the President in six easy words and not flinch?
But President Uhuru is in numerous company: His one-time political father and mentor, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, who was much more powerful, a much more hands-on president, a tinpot dictator and larger-than-life president or so he imagined, woke up one day, in his last days as a ruler, to find out ministers he used to cow were now telling him, “no sir.”
A former powerful cabinet minister in Moi’s government in the 1990s one time narrated to me how the all-powerful Moi came face-to-face with silent rebellion from his ministers. This was in 2001. A year to the December 2002 general elections. After winning his second term in 1997, with 40.7 per cent, he had no choice but to begin plotting his succession.
For two decades he had ruled with iron-grip, brooking no dissent, violently clamping down on the opposition, whether in his own ruling party Kanu, or afterwards in the fledgling opposition. Cabinet ministers in public barazas when talking to him, stood erect, held their heads aloft and their hands behind their back like schoolboys speaking to their headmaster and, if he talked to you when seated, you knelt before him.
But nothing lasts forever. “So, you can imagine Moi’s seething fury when he would call a particular minister to ask him whether he had accomplished a task he had issued. ‘I’m still working on it’ came the minister’s nonchalant reply. That’s when it dawned on Moi his game and time was up. His last days in office were beckoning…and there’s nothing he could do to stop the tide.”
Four months to the 2002 elections, Moi mourned publicly how some ministers had deserted him, “yet, I’m the one who had made them.” Vice President George Saitoti, whom he had one time publicly humiliated, powerful Kanu secretary-general and minister Joseph Kamotho, whose party position had been taken away and given to Raila Odinga, powerful cabinet minister and one-time Moi’s bosom buddy and confidante, William ole Ntimama had walked out of Kanu and trooped to the opposition, to join Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), then headed by the recalcitrant Raila Odinga who had also deserted Moi, after a brief, but stormy bromance. Simeon Nyachae, an equally all-powerful minister, who at one time styled himself as a de facto prime minister, also walked out on Moi and headed straight into the opposition ranks.
Kamotho, Ntimama, Nyachae and Saitoti, just like Moi, are all dead.
“A minister never waited for Moi to call him, would never answer Moi back. ‘I’m still working on it’, is a statement Moi had never in his presidential life countenanced from someone he had picked to serve as his minister at his pleasure. But here he was, the ministers were telling him, in not so many words, ‘your time sir is up and you no longer inspire fear in us.’ Moi was both feared and respected, Uhuru is nether feared nor respected,” said the former minister.
Moi was so powerful, he once boasted to one of his former and retired presidential guards, “when I’m speaking in Mombasa, the District Commissioner (DC) in Marsabit stands attention.” Marsabit from Mombasa is 1000km. It was not an empty boast: Senior civil servants and ministers moved around with shortwave transistor radios to catch the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) news at 1.00pm news to learn whether they still had a job.
In 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta reached out to this Moi former minister and asked him to be his special adviser, working for him from State House. “All the time President Uhuru has been at State House, he has neither inspired fear nor respect. The Jubilee Party MPs especially from Central Kenya, don’t have much regard for him, much less fear him, they privately gossip about his onerous drinking habits, which interferes with his presidential duties.”
When Uhuru was nominally elected on August 8, 2017, he summoned Jubilee Party new and re-elected MPs to State House for a breakfast showdown. “He was soaking drunk,” remembers a first-time MP from Central Kenya. “We’d been asked to arrive early and so arriving early we did. But of course, he kept us waiting. When he showed up, he was in the foulest of moods. He cajoled and condescended, lectured and patronised and talked down on us. He told us he didn’t need us and dared anyone who felt slighted to take a walk.”
Afterwards, the MP told me they were flustered, in disbelief and shock. “How could the President-elect who was yet to be sworn-in, and was meeting us for the first time, talk to us like his children?” They hastily took the breakfast, which was now tasteless and scurried out of State House. “What was that?” They asked, after recollecting themselves to exchange notes on their encounter with the prince. “Uhuru has done a good job of belittling us, but our day will come,” the MPs consoled themselves.
Less than a month after the breakfast debacle, the President was now begging to have the MPs audience. The Supreme Court of Kenya (SCOK) had on September 1, 2017, upturned his victory. A repeat election had to be conducted in not more than 60 days from the day of the judgement.
Just last week, I caught up with a parliamentary aspirant from Central Kenya. “President Uhuru has been engaging in the dialogue of the deaf,” he opined. “The Mt Kenya political leaders shut their ears a long time ago. Whatever he says to them enters into one ear leaves in the other. They neither fear nor respect him. Of all the region’s senators, only one has publicly stood with him. Many sitting MPs abhor him, but won’t be caught expressing their dissatisfaction publicly. Uhuru is temperamental and very vindictive, yet like his two predecessors his days in the office are numbered and they are beckoning. He better get used to it.”
Racist Europe: The Ukraine Conflict and the Dark Underbelly of Euro-Modernity
As the total disregard for people of African descent is shown in the context of the deadly invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Christiane Ndedi Essombe and Benjamin Maiangwa argue that the contempt and compulsive need to invalidate, belittle and dehumanize people of African descent remains unchanged in an irredeemably racist Europe. Essombe and Maiangwe ask what does this racism reveal about international human rights frameworks?
Despite the supposed universality of human rights, we are constantly reminded that these ‘rights’ seemingly never quite apply the same way to racialized people.
It is worth highlighting that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed after World War II, at a time where virtually all of Africa was still colonized by European powers, Jim Crow laws were still enforced in the United States and the vast majority of Indigenous peoples could not vote in Canada. Such an omission, in and of itself, may have been the silent admission that universal human rights were not intended to be so universal after all.
The multiple violations of human rights against people of African descent specifically, from the Transatlantic slave trade to the state-sanctioned murders of suspected Haitians in the Dominican Republic, can leave one wondering whether anti-blackness is the oldest and most accepted international foreign policy. Indeed, the UDHR does not seem to apply to people of African descent who still die in droves in the Mediterranean, remain at risks of getting beaten by US border agents as they exercise their right to seek asylum and can get forcibly tested, evicted and framed as carriers of COVID-19 or Ebola without seemingly any breach of human rights frameworks.
The ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine has understandably shaken and shocked an overwhelming number of governmentsand citizens around the world. For many, the last few weeks may very well have been a reminder that history is written in real time and brutality is still the order of international politics. An assault on an independent sovereign country and deadly attacks on civilians – including children – is no longer the distant rhetoric from past historical events but constitute instead a contemporary reality.
NATO country members openly shared that they are “more united than ever” as Russia faces “unprecedented sanctions”. Several NGOs and UN agencies have also immediately joined forces to ensure the safety of the people of Ukraine, illustrating a clear commitment to their human rights and a stand against the invasion of Ukraine overall. The understandable and anticipated condemnation has been swift and unequivocal, even if ineffective so far.
Yet this response has not been equally applicable to non-Ukrainians, particularly people of African descent. Even non-white people fleeing wars and poverty on the continent, or in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan are treated with disgust or allowed to drown in huge numbers in the Mediterranean. This nonresponse to the plights of the “Other” shows the cracks in the so-called universal responsibility to protect, while also demonstrating the nonchalance of African leaders who treat their own people as non-beings at home and abroad.
In any event, it would be expected that during an armed conflict, international human rights law would apply for “everyone within the state’s jurisdiction or effective control”. This implies that representatives of the state ought to guarantee everybody’s human rights regardless of citizenship, including their right to safety as per three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Yet, several videos have circulated showing how African students, and South Asian individuals were denied that very right. Waiting in the cold for hours, threatened to get shot at, denied access onto trains and forced to walk for hours , it appears that these individuals were not to benefit from the very international laws that should protect them at any time.
“They’re not allowing Black people […], they prioritize Ukrainians” shared a witness recounting their experience as they attempted to leave Ukraine. In addition to illustrating a clear violation of international human rights by discriminating people based on their skin color, this sentence speaks to the intrinsic functioning of racial hierarchy. Black people are seen as belonging to the bottom of such a hierarchy: they are existentially understood as the “Other” who cannot enjoy the same rights as the majority. The only conclusion that can be drawn in the face of such accounts: the treatment of Black foreigners and South Asian foreigners within an emergency context is a manifestation of racism and a clear confirmation that the ‘non-western’ is indeed the wretched of the earth, failed by their own governments and the world community.
Further corroborating that conclusion are the neighboring government’s deliberate changes to prevent documentation and paperwork from jeopardizing border crossing for those fleeing the war. As such, for Ukrainian authorities, documentation cannot be used as a premise to discriminate between individuals. The only reference that remains is a phenotypical one and, effectively, the distinction between white people and non-white people was applied. White people, seemingly regardless of nationality, were able to leave without much difficulty.
Evidently, international human rights principles are colour-blind which might be the very reason why they repeatedly fail to acknowledge, anticipate, and address racism. In 2022, after global condemnation of racism following the videotaped murder of George Floyd, the sudden amnesia and denial about racism as a global phenomenon is both disturbing and revealing. Racism is a critical underpinning of the nation-state ideology. As such, in a nation based on homogeneity, in this case European ancestry, so-called “minorities” are racialized individuals for whom the state laws will not be applied the same way. In such a construction, the very fabric of the society is based on a hierarchical treatment between the majority who belongs and the minority who is only tolerated as long as it knows its place.
That very premise – the differential application of human rights towards racialized populations – is constantly left unchallenged despite being constantly corroborated, be it internationally or in internal disparities in police brutality, incarceration rates, and poverty rates in countries such as Canada and US.
On 1 March, 2022, the African Union shared that it was “disturbed” by reports of African nationals fleeing the war in Ukraine and being denied access to neighbouring countries. In keeping with the common habit of using ‘discrimination’ as a euphemism for racism in political statements, the statement also fell short of calling the treatment of African nationals attempting to flee Ukraine for what it was: racism and ineptitude on the part of the African governments.
What does it say then, that both non-African and African governmental bodies alike ignore the obvious plight of people of African descent and other racialized populations?
What does it say that for many, condemning racist practices against African people inherently distracts away the attention from the “real issue”?
These reactions, one could argue, point to the same underpinning: in human rights laws and in the common imaginary, the individual to protect is inherently seen as white and somehow without of a racial identity. It follows that non-White people are still not seen as deserving of rights and protection.
That would also explain, at least in part, the double standards in rhetoric and overall media coverage witnessed since the beginning of this war.
When such a blatant and terrifying aggression could be an opportunity to both renew a commitment to prevent wars and defend human rights for all, it appears that it is currently failing abysmally.
As a result, when facts show that Ukrainian civilians are caught in a terrible war and deserved to be safe and that non-white people are simultaneously subjected to racism by Ukrainian authorities even during the war, there is seemingly no framework to comprehend this horror.
Two manifestations of human rights violations end up pitted against each other in the Olympics of Oppression instead of being analyzed as stemming from a similar ideological ill: the pursuit of domination over a given people. In any case, the observable consequence is that, once again, human rights don’t extend to racialized people and specifically not to people of African descent.
Does it imply then that people of African descent are already perceived as inexistant and that extending human rights to them is seen as unnecessary?
Death of a people and its civilization does not seem to have such obvious characteristics. It is often only in hindsight that one can appreciate the erasure of a people from international frameworks. Complicating that endeavor is the fact that often, Africans themselves only know about their history as told by former colonial powers or by the Africans who ended up assimilating into a supposedly colorless, objective, approach to their own people.
Fanon warned us that “for the colonized subject, objectivity is always directed against [them]”. It must then be concluded that “objective” international human rights cannot possibly apply objectively to African nationals.
The odds are even further reduced when the geographical setting is Europe itself: the colonial “metropole” that normalized the use of astoundingly barbaric methods to conduct their hegemonic ambitions and carry its so-called mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) for the purported welfare of the “uncivilized African”.
Centuries pass by and yet, it appears that the contempt and compulsive need to invalidate, belittle and dehumanize the non-western Other – in this case, the person of African descent – remains, even in the context of a war.
Evidence piles up and yet, the very authorities that should speak up against the mistreatment of any other racialized people, remain timid.
Again, we ask, what do these reactions (or lack thereof) reveal about international human rights frameworks? What do they reveal about the existence of African people? Where do they belong?
Even on the African continent, it could be argued that laws and political decisions do not protect our existence and the sustainability of our cultures and heritage.
It is estimated that hundreds of pre-colonial African languages are close to extinction and many have already disappeared.Discourses proffering various philosophical approaches to governance and social relations such as Negritude (nativist humanism), Afrocentricity, Pan-Africanism, African Socialism (Ujamaa or familyhood), and Ubuntu (togetherness) have for the most part disintegrated after the fanfare of political independence subsided. The architectural landscape on the African continent counts very few remaining pre-colonial artefacts except for the royal palaces of Abomey in Benin, Rock-Hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and the Djenné mosque in Mali.
Finally, if we look at the organizations of societies themselves on the continent, whether it is populous centers, the division of labour or existing socio-economic classes, they can all be traced back to an era where the erasure of people of African descent was an explicit political ambition.
Whether it is abroad or on the continent, it seems that no legislative or human rights framework can effectively protect the rights and existence of African people.
As the total disregard for people of African descent is further evidenced, this time in the context of the deadly invasion of Ukraine by Russia, perhaps it is worth considering Issa Shivji’s clarion call for an anti-imperialist reconceptualization of human rights that would ‘unreservedly’ be centred on the collective rights and struggles of oppressed people.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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