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Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy

13 min read.

Examining the recent and brutal attempts to suppress the Sudanese revolution, Magdi el Gizouli looks at the efforts by the regime and its various factions to seize the initiative from the streets. In recent months the ruthless figure of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka Himeidti), the leader of the infamous Rapid Support Forces, has moved into the centre of Sudanese politics. However, will the ‘neighbourhood committees’ be able to translate their revolutionary zeal into mass political action that can unite rural and urban discontent and challenge the regimes hold on power?



Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy

The last ten days of Ramadan, Islam’s fasting month, are supposed to be a period of spiritual transcendence. By this time, the discipline of fasting and nightly prayer is expected to have smoothed over the ugly creases of the believer’s soul in preparation for a new beginning. Likewise, it is the year’s peak shopping season, as families prepare for the Eid festivities and the associated cycles of gift exchanges. Not this year in Khartoum. Instead the remarkably peaceful city had on appointment with a ‘katla’, vernacular Sudanese for mass and senseless killing.

In the early hours of 29 Ramadan, 3 June, joint troops of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), stormed the site of the massive sit-in surrounding the headquarters of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) with the aim of crushing the protest movement that had for almost six continuous months captured Sudan’s politics. The attackers did not spare bullets, within hours around 130 unarmed protesters were killed, some clinging to the concrete blocks and bricks of the barricades they had anxiously guarded throughout the months of the sit-in. Many corpses were pulled out of the Nile tied to rocks.

The tent city which constituted the geography of an alternative Sudan in the minds of its inhabitants was soon in flames. Throughout the months of the protest sit-in, the tent city was a Woodstock of sorts on the Nile, a site where urban Sudan struggled to reinvent itself in a fervour of festive creativity and solidarity. The protesters reimagined their world and in exercising their imagination forged new relations that transgressed the boundaries of patriarchal authority and the established social order. The bubbling democracy of the qiada – Arabic shorthand for the [army] headquarters – became a cultural attraction. A middle class Khartoumian would go to work in the morning, drive home in the late afternoon to pick up the kids and stroll through the qiada tent city in the evening in the company of family and friends.

As an organisational form for protest the qiada sit-in was wildly successful, probably far beyond the expectation of the parties involved. While it lasted, it was a place where mostly young women and men could live out their claim to identity as real citizens . Cash transactions were the exception in the qiada sit-in as the protestors fashioned an economy of their own devised around the socialist instinct of ‘from each according to her ability and to each according to her need’. Food, medical care, public health services, security and transport were organised on a voluntary basis and proved remarkably resilient. A minor flu epidemic, known as the ‘qiada cold’ troubled the protesters but otherwise the massive sit in registered no other public health crisis thanks to robust and efficient public health measures. From afar, expatriate Sudanese, contributed funds and information technology hardware as well an explosion of sympathetic protests in Western capitals.

The attackers of 3 June were not satisfied with destruction of the human and physical structure of protest. Their aim was to extinguish the drive that had propelled the thousands upon thousands of young Sudanese into political action during a winter of revolutionary crisis, so they raped men and women. By the evening, residents of the smaller towns down the Nile from Khartoum were fishing corpses out of the river. In their hurry to clear the protest site, the valiant butchers of the RSF and the NISS ordered their troops to dispose of the young bodies in the river clumsily tied to concrete blocks in an effort to keep them down in the deep, silent for ever, but even as hapless corpses the protesters seemed to be challenging the will of Sudan’s security lords, floating up and out into open sight. The sacrilege was not intended to hide the obvious crime but was primarily a demonstration of brutality and immunity from accountability.

The massive sit-in around the army headquarters in Khartoum was the culmination of five months of popular protests. The scale and tenacity of the sit-in forced the hand of the military-security establishment to do away with President Bashir and declare a new dispensation. For some time already a liability, President Bashir was politically eliminated by his very generals. His deputy, Lieutenant General Awad ibn Ouf declared on state television on 11 April that a transitional military council headed by himself would take over authority. Outside military headquarters, thousands of jubilant protesters were not convinced and demanded the transfer of power to a civilian government. Soldiers and junior officers at the army headquarters were equally unsatisfied with Ibn Ouf. Within less than 48 hours Ibn Ouf appeared again on state television, this time to announce that he was stepping down as head of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), the official title of the ruling junta. Ibn Ouf named Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan as his successor, another army general with no known record of association with the Islamic Movement. Significantly, al-Burhan was the liaison officer of the Sudanese military’s deployment in the Saudi-Emirati-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In his first address to the nation, al-Burhan made remarkable overtures to the protest movement. He announced that no attempt will be made to break up the massive sit-in around the army headquarters and declared that the former president and leading figures of his party, the National Congress Party (NCP), will be arrested and eventually face justice. An announcement of the composition of the TMC followed. Unlike Sudan’s previous juntas, the TMC is not exclusively a ‘military’ organ in the strict sense of the word. The officers of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) who had long enjoyed political dominance were now forced to share their authority with separate armed formations, the NISS and the RSF, both creatures of the Bashir era. However, the TMC is by all means a re-creation of president Bashir’s own ‘security committee’, a central organ under his chairmanship that joins military, security, police and militia bosses and is replicated at the various level of administration as a grid of oppression.

The emergence of a strongman

Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka ‘Himeidti’), the leader of the infamous RSF emerged as the deputy chairman of the TMC and the critical agent of ‘change’ at the top. Himeidti, the name is a motherly diminutive form for ‘my little Mohamed’, was born in a family of agro-pastoralists north of Kutum. His people, the Mahariyya , a subsection of the wider Rizeigat, are predominantly pastoralists whose subsistence existence was convulsed by the penetration of commodification and the cash economy in twentieth century Sudan. The inadequacies of the Mahariyya ’s pastoral livelihood were laid bare in the 1984-1986 famine that struck Kordofan and Darfur as part of the wider Sahelian drought. Mohamed Hamdan the boy and his kin were displaced by the famine to Nyala, Darfur’s largest city and trade hub connecting regional trade networks that stretch through Chad, the Central African Republic and beyond, and into Libya and Egypt. Many Mahariyya  became settled millet farmers around Mellit, others remained camel herders. Whether settled or on the move most had to supplant their livelihoods with alternative strategies connected to the cash economy including labour migration, trade, and petty commodity production.

Many Mahariyya  men, including Mohamed Hamdan, flocked to Libya as migrant labourers or traders. In one study carried out in Mellit, four out of every ten Mahariyya  households had a male family member working in Libya. Mohamed Hamdan, the youngster, began his career as a merchant procuring goods from Nyala to Mellit. By the mid-1990s he was engaged in cross-border trade between Darfur, Chad and Libya. When the Darfur insurgency erupted in 2003, he was a livestock merchant with a base in Mellit and operations mainly in Libya . The war encircled Mellit. Both farming and livestock migration were severely curtailed while the closure of the Sudanese-Libyan border and widespread looting endangered trade routes and restricted the movement of labour. Mahariyya  traders including Mohamed Hamdan Daglo were under the impression that they were specifically targeted by the Darfuri insurgents. For many, Mellit became a place of siege. Two of Mohamed Hamdan’s brothers were killed in an incident on their way to Libya when insurgents attacked their trade caravan and looted their camels close to Karb al-Toum.

The racialisation of the conflict in Darfur was the background from which Mohamed Hamdan Daglo emerged as militia leader of his angry Mahariyya and Rizeigat kin. He joined the Sudanese army’s Border Guards, a militia formation fighting on the side of the government against the Darfur insurgents in 2003 and began a recruitment campaign in Nyala amongst his own ‘nas’ (Arabic for people) starting with a squad of 200 kinsmen. The brutal efficiency of Himeidti’s forces soon attracted the attention of Khartoum’s rulers. At the time, General Ibn Ouf was head of military intelligence. Himeidti demanded the formalisation of his militia and their inclusion in the wage-system of the SAF.

Three years later, Himeidti was granted court with President Bashir. Khartoum had signed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) granting southern Sudan the right of self-determination as well as the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement with the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) faction led by Minni Minawi granting the rebel group regional authority over Darfur. In response, the still active Darfur rebel groups led by the then powerful Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) formed the umbrella National Redemption Front (NRF). The JEM under the leadership of its late founder, Khalil Ibrahim, was beginning to break the racial barrier in Darfur and actively winning supporters among Darfuri pastoralist Arabs including Himeidti’s own Mahariyya . Himeidti was in a position to negotiate. He asked for a share of power akin to the southern Sudanese militia leaders who had fought alongside the government in southern Sudan. The government was reluctant to accept his demands. In response, he camped outside Nyala with his troops in protest leaving the demoralised SAF units to their fate in Darfur’s harsh war-fields.

Soon, the Mahariyya merchant turned militia leader was in a position to punch even higher. He proved his worth in the bitter battles that followed the 2008 JEM attack on the capital Khartoum. In Darfur, JEM’s forces encircled al-Fasher and Himeidti came to the rescue after pleas from the garrison commander at the time, the SAF officer Imad al-Din Adawi.

As a reward, President Bashir summoned the war hero to Khartoum for decoration. Himeidti was granted the medal of courage and the authority and funding to expand recruitment under the umbrella of the ‘Rapid Support Forces’, for all practical purposes a private militia outside the formal chain of command of the SAF. President Bashir and his officers effectively outsourced their entire counterinsurgency operations to the RSF. Himeidti’s shock troops were in deployment across Sudan’s war zones, in Darfur, in South Kordofan and in the Blue Nile. When a wave of riots erupted in Khartoum in September 2013 against the government’s decision to slash fuel and bread subsidies in the aftermath of the independence of South Sudan it was the RSF’s teenage fighters who did the shooting in the capital. Hundreds of protesters lost their lives in the confrontation.

Thanks to Himeidti, herdsmen from northern Darfur had tapped into a new livelihood resource, war on commission. Geopolitics created ample opportunities for a mobile and capable fighting force on rent in a volatile region. Himeidti troops functioned as an extension of the European Union’s borders against intruding migrants deep in the African Sahara and as a long arm for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their battle against Houthi militants in Yemen. At the command of a loyal fighting force spread across the country and backed by powerful and rich patrons in the region, Himeidti was ready to displace the ageing resident of the palace on the Blue Nile. When coup officers confronted Bashir in the early hours of 11 April, he shouted that this is a Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian plot carried out by RSF commander Himeidti and the NISS boss Salah Gosh, or so claim Khartoum’s loud whisperers.

Himeidti’s rise from camel merchant in the Darfur wilderness to militiaman to ruler in the heart of the Nile Valley is a remarkable feat of historical cunning. The most recent example of such a transformation in power dates back to 1885 when Abdullahi son of Mohamed Taur Shein (arabic for vicious bull), a Baggara faki (holy man) from Darfur and Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahdi’s earliest disciple, succeeded the charismatic mystic and revolutionary from Dongola to become the Khalifa, ruler of the nascent Mahdist state. Abdullahi the Khalifa was significantly challenged by the Mahdi’s powerful kin, the country’s pre-modern coup plotters. Thanks to a massive standing army recruited predominantly from Baqqara herdsmen, the Khalifa persevered, defeated the putschists and was only dislodged from power sixteen years later by British Maxim guns, the first recoil operated machine-gun.

As a child in Omdurman, al-Khalifa’s capital west of the Nile, I went on school trips to the fields of Karari to the north of the town where over twenty thousand Mahdist fighters were massacred in the early hours of 2 September 1898. Every rainy season, some of those brave bones glittered dazzling white in the blazing sun against the reddish-brown soil of the Karari plain.

It is then not much of a surprise that Himeidti’s emergence at the top of the chaotic crowd of Bashir’s last years was perceived as an opportunity in many quarters. As a foreigner to the Khartoum establishment, Himeidti was generously interpreted by some as a hero of the downtrodden who could rework power relations in favour of Sudan’s marginalised peoples and finally win authority from the elite of the riverine heartland. From this perspective, his major achievement is perceived to be the subversion of the SAF, since Sudan’s independence the guarantor of the hegemony of the riverine elite. Accordingly, he became the betting horse of a Darfuri merchant class of predominantly Rizeigat and Zaghawa composition and the politicians and intellectuals in their orbit.

Uniting rural and urban politics

Bashir had managed subnational interests through a system of ethnic politics that involved a division and redivision of state and locality boundaries to match and create ethnic majorities with a dominant position in state and local government under the mantle of the ruling NCP. Hence, power conflicts often took the form of intra-NCP competition and manipulation of competing blocs was a constant preoccupation of the NCP high command. Likewise, ministerial positions at the central level were apportioned according to a complex calculus of political party and ethnic power division and sub-division. In this apportionment of posts and since the eruption of the Darfur insurgency and the secession of south the third position in the formal hierarchy of power, the office of vice president, was the preserve of Darfuri figures as successors to ethnic South Sudanese who had traditionally occupied the post before the independence of South Sudan. As a result, Bashir’s cabinets were more a warehouse of clients and far less so an effective executive. In his late years, he attempted to bypass this dysfunctional state of affairs born out of political convenience by further centralising power into his own hands. He created a series of councils that dealt with critical aspects of government business – defence, economic policy, investment and foreign relations amongst others – under his direct chairmanship that were superior to the individual ministries.

As a countermeasure to Bashir’s rationale of government, the opposition Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) demand the formation of a government of ‘meritocrats’ solely drawn from their ranks to rule over a transitional period and pave the way towards free and fair elections. While on first consideration a reasonable demand, government by merit is interpreted by the Rizeigat and Zaghawa nationalists and their allies as a refashioning of the narrow effendiyya nationalism of the riverine heartland at the root of rural grievances and a replay of the exclusionary ‘Sudanisation’ of independence. In a bid to groom a counterforce to the urbanite neo-effendiyya of the FFC, Himeidti and his allies were quick to seek the support of tribal notables from Sudan’s vast and largely impoverished rural worlds with the promise of ethnic representation as a reward. In many ways, Himeidti’s political operation seems to recreate Bashir’s very sultanic politics absent the organisational framework of the big tent NCP.

While the bare-knuckle negotiations between the TMC and the FFC revolve around one character of government, military or civilian, an underlying contradiction remains the rural-urban divide that has long bedevilled Sudan’s politics. Protesters in Sudan’s urban centres crystallised their demands into the singular slogan of ‘civilian’ government while the rustic rural support base of the TMC and its champion Himeidti shout for continuation of ‘military’ rule. The FFC, unfortunately, are yet to imagine a political formula that can provide a bridgehead into rural Sudan. I would argue that the notion of a government of ‘meritocrats’ drawn from Sudan’s best educated cosmopolitans misses the target. Meanwhile, Himeidti was savvy enough to engage the leaders of the Darfur insurgencies he had almost obliterated on the battlefield securing friendly hand-shaking photoshoots and an embryonic alliance.

The brutality of the RSF and the ineloquence of their leader and his many gaffes, he once referred to the minister of higher education as the minister of ‘giraya’, colloquial Sudanese Arabic for learning, were identified by Khartoum’s cosmopolitans as markers of a violent pastoral essence. He was ridiculed as a backward herdsman and as a rogue general in contradistinction to the ‘true’ military college generals of the SAF. In anguish, Khartoum’s political class rummaged the officer corps in search for a ‘enlightened’ soldier who could save the day, crush the RSF with a bold strike of military advantage and rescue the honour of the SAF corps. This political wish acquired the form of myth in popular imagination, the myth of the Atbara armoured battalion expected at any moment in Khartoum. Himeidti and the RSF are as much an expression of the rural crisis as they are of the chaotic war-driven urbanisation of Sudan. In a way, Himeidti is today the political name of Nyala, the trading capital of Darfur that has long displaced Wad Medani in the Gezira heartland as Sudan’s second largest urban centre and possibly the country’s most important commercial hub trading in narcotics and cross-border smuggling of livestock.

The revolutionary challenge from below

Now, in the face of these trials Sudan’s revolutionary surge remains a formidable challenge to Himeidti and his powerful allies and patrons. At the core of revolutionary action is a radical component drawn from urban subalterns who are neither subsumed under the FFC meritocratic model nor liable to co-optation by Himeidti’s pledge of ethnic representation under sultanic authority. The most successful organisational form of this precariat spread across Sudan’s urban landscape is so far the neighbourhood-level ‘resistance committee’. These neighbourhood committees are accessible to precariously employed and unemployed labour and dominated by groups of militants whose political orientations are drawn from confrontation with the abusive and extractive state and the relations of power that sustain it. It is these militant elements, with no recognised place in the social order and with little to gain from its racial hierarchy and ethic building blocs, who have faced the greatest wrath of the military security establishment.

Ahead of the 29 Ramadan massacre state media launched a vicious smear campaign against the protesters of ‘Columbia’, the name the subalterns of the qiada sit-in chose for their favoured spot on the bank of the Nile, for their disregard of middle-class norms. Columbia, state media claimed, had become a site of flagrant moral corruption rife with debauchery, drugs, crime and unnameable social ills. The Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), hitherto the trusted guardian of the revolution, dithered and issued a statement distancing itself from Columbia and its inhabitants. In government speak the 29 Ramadan massacre was hatched as an operation to sweep Columbia ‘clean’ but ran out of control and in the words of the spokesman of the TMC ‘what happened happened!’. Significantly, it was in Columbia where fraternisation between subaltern protesters and their fellow SAF and RSF soldiers was most marked, at times threatening military command and discipline.

The TMC generals, al-Burhan and Himeidti, attempted to reach out to the stricken masses in an effort to soothe the revolutionary anger fuelling the daring protest movement. Himeidti addressed a rally in Mayo and al-Burhan another in Um Badda, both sprawling impoverished and heavily populated neighbourhoods in the outer circle of Khartoum and Omdurman respectively. Himeidti promised the allocation of residential plots to squatters and al-Burhan reproduced the discourse of marginalisation promising a new beginning of social equality with some success but the masses were not satisfied. Both men were incessantly interrupted by cries of ‘madaniyya’ – Arabic for civilian – the catchphrase of the protest movement.

As al-Burhan spoke on 30 June, the anniversary of the 1989 putsch that brought President Bashir to power, demonstrators filled the streets of Khartoum and almost all of Sudan’s major towns in their tens of thousands in a remarkable show of popular will to bring down the rule of the junta and install the pursued ‘madaniyya’. The response of the military-security establishment to this enduring determination was a series of extrajudicial killings targeting militants of the ‘resistance committees’. A policeman who inspected the corpses shot at close range to the head identified one of the slain militants as his own son.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations between the TMC and the FFC, now mediated by the African Union (AU) and the Ethiopian government as well as a cohort of Western diplomats including newly reappointed US envoy to Sudan, Donald Booth, the course of the Sudanese revolution is for the now in the hands of the ‘resistance committees’. Some have claimed local authority in their neighbourhoods toppling the petty autocrats of the Bashir-era ‘popular committees’ and are refashioning micro-authority to fit an emancipatory zeal. The question remains, will they be able to translate this zeal  into mass political action that can take on the brutal machinations of the Sudanese state?

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Magdi el Gizouli is a scholar and a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He writes on Sudanese affairs here.


In Tech We Trust?

It is the soft yet intractable matter of governance that determines if technologies can deliver efficiency and effectiveness, as well as democratic dividends, and uphold values such as trust in society. Yet, overlooked in tech discourses is the governance of these technologies themselves, and how that affects governance with them.



In Tech We Trust?

“Our world is suffering from a bad case of “Trust Deficit Disorder”. 
 People are feeling troubled and insecure.
 Trust is at a breaking point.  Trust in national institutions.  Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order.
 Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march.
 Among countries, cooperation is less certain and more difficult […] 
Trust in global governance is also fragile, as 21st-century challenges outpace 20th-century institutions and mindsets […]

We face a set of paradoxes.
The world is more connected, yet societies are becoming more fragmented […]

Let me now turn to new technologies and what we can do to uphold their promise but to keep their perils at bay.

With technology outracing institutions, cooperation between countries and among stakeholders will be crucial, including Member States, the private sector, research centres, civil society, and academia […]
There are many mutually beneficial solutions for digital challenges. We need urgently to find the way to apply them.” ~ Excerpts from UN Secretary General’s speech to the UN General Assembly, 2018

When Antonio Guterres delivered this speech, he had just constituted a High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, of which I was a member. We were tasked with raising awareness on the transformative power of digital technologies to economies and societies. More importantly, we were to put together a reportafter a nine month “around the world” consultative processon how to advance global “digital cooperation”, a term we defined as “the ways we work together to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies in order to maximise their benefits and minimise their harm.”

To me, this invitation marked an acknowledgement that digital technologies were finally being appreciated as capable of influencing and being influenced by the societies in which they are developed and deployed. It was a refreshing departure from the erstwhile prevailing mindset of a “tech revolution” that was often described in utopian rather than pragmatic terms, including in public policy domains, and one that was already causing more harm that went unacknowledged as much as, if not more, than the good that it was evangelized to offer.

Techsolutionismthe hype and hope placed in and on digital technologies to address societies’ challengeshad not been limited to the world of startups and their “disruption” ecosystems. In the name of development, digital technologies have been proposed, experimented with, and deployed under different umbrellas, with early days creating movements such as “ICT4D” and “m4d” that homed in on the developmental potential of the mobile phone. With new and emerging technologies, the nomenclature continues to evolve; today, we also have “blockchain4d”, “AI for development”, and so on. In this realm, governments and non-governmental organizations are heralded as primary drivers of tech-mediated development, thus crystallizing a particular thinking and approach to digital technologies in governancethat is, decision-making and implementing processes. But there was also something in the techsolutionism hype for other governance actors, including ordinary citizens. Furthermore, private sector players have also been presented as players deserving a prominent seat at the governance table, given their role in steering tech innovation. And through “multi-stakeholderism”the engagement between and among governments, citizens through respective associations and organisations, plus the private sectorwe would be able to see technology work its magic, from upholding democracies to solving world problems in all their complexities.

The typical arc of the hype narrative has been that, given the ubiquity of the internet and  connecting devicessmartphones in particularamong the populace, political revolutions  through social media can birth democracies, developmental outcomes can be reached by tying (public) service provision to these technologies, and the private sectorthrough their innovationscan keep churning out what we need to achieve all these lofty goals. This reached a fever pitch during the COVID-19 pandemic, where digital technologies were relied upon to sustain communication and connection, work, learning and much more. In 2020 and 2021 especially, we were treated, the world over, to fascinating and foolhardy attempts to cement a primacy of digital technologies. This was coupled with the pronouncements that “government/the state is back”, given how governments had to step up and drive the mitigation efforts against the unprecedented harms meted out by the pandemic and its aftershocks. Governments, and especially those in developing countries, experienced a renewed call to embrace digital technologies to deliver on their mandates, from public health to addressing increasingly pressing issues such as climate change. Governance, in this dispensation, is with and through digital technologies. “Govtech” is perhaps the latest label for the concerted push for governments to modernize public sectors through technologies to improve citizens’ lives. To do so, governments are encouraged to take on a “citizen-centric approach”, and a “whole of government approach” in embracing digital transformation to enhance transparency and efficiency.

Governments, and especially those in developing countries, experienced a renewed call to embrace digital technologies to deliver on their mandates.

Before govtech, the push for governments to embrace ICTs in their operations and service provision was dubbed “e-government/e-governance”. Kenya has experimented with e-government since the early 2000s. One of the main deployments from the Kenya e-Government strategy of 2004 was the Integrated Financial Management (IFMIS) that was first deployed in 2003 to ministries, five years after it was initially conceived. In an IFMIS effectiveness audit report for July 2010 to June 2014, the Office of the Auditor General notes that in so far as initiating and sustaining IFMIS, the government had demonstrated commitment that facilitated the automating and integrating of public financial management systems at ministry, departmental and county levels, as well as with the Central Bank of Kenya. In project management and governance, however, IFMIS operations were found wanting on a number of fronts. For instance, the participation of key accountability stakeholders was minimal, notably the Auditor General, Accountant General and Controller of Budget. Furthermore, the system had been operating without a risk management policy; no risk assessment had been conducted, exposing the system to the prospect of reengineering, and operating in contravention of the Public Finance Management Act, 2012.

The IFMIS ICT infrastructure review in the same audit was just as damning: lack of network architecture and bandwidth assessment; no end-user needs assessments guided the procurement of computers, printers, power supply units, printers and other equipment that were deployed to all counties, which at the time, cost KSh200.66 million. Perhaps most interesting and consequential was that the IFMIS asset register was incomplete, in that it only listed network equipment, servers, desktops and laptops connected, and not any information on who was accessing the system or any asset IDs, location of equipment, nor even warranty periods. There were other notable security and IT governance issues too, including inadequate securities and standards, no data encryption, a poor approval process for new system IDs, no password expiry set, duplicate users and inadequate remote management control procedures.

It is around these omissions by design that the “NYS scandal” emerged in the early days of the Jubilee government, where up to KSh1.4b was lost. Stories of how IFMIS was manipulated to plunder public coffers dominated news headlines over the years, and even as recently as last year, senate hearings on IFMIS’ vulnerabilities and “persistent system failure” continued to be tabled. Yet another lingering impact of IFMIS that is often overlooked is the cumulative damage and harm meted out to citizens and especially the legitimate suppliersoverwhelmingly micro, small and medium-size enterprises (MSMEs)who continue to await their dues to this day. The scandal was orchestrated off the back of revamping the NYS to “catalyse transformative youth empowerment” in the country, turning it into a slap in the face to the youth who are always touted as the future. In mainstream media, the focus shifted to the amounts plundered (including subsequent NYS and IFMIS scandals), and to the theatre of nabbing the culprits. In my view, the NYS scandalfacilitated on the back of a technology system introduced to foster trust in how public finance management is reformedin particular, shuttered the youth psyche in Kenya, and especially the trust in our government to deliver on its promises to a generation. This manifested, in my view, in the “youth apathy” that was registered in the lead-up to the 2022 general election.

It is around these omissions by design that the “NYS scandal” emerged in the early days of the Jubilee government.

In the Kenya e-Government Strategy 2004where IFMIS and a host of other e-gov plans were laid outthe drafters rightfully acknowledge that achieving the stated objectives is contingent on having people with the right skills and the right attitudes across government. This is resolved as a matter of conducting “change management” trainings. Yet the intrinsic human motivation that determines the “right skills and attitudes” was and continues to be overlooked in how the government of Kenya (and arguably other peer governments) continue to approach technologies for governance. The choice, procuring, financing, and sustaining of technological systems in our governments often eludes popular frames and analyses, often coming up in the event of a scandal or breach. In Kenya, we have been treated to several key moments in the journey to digitize the national and county governments. The complications around how the e-Citizen portal is managed, the non-starter that has been Huduma Namba and the quest for biometric IDs as a “single source of truth”, as well as the high drama of tech used in our electoral cycles, are other cases in point.

In parallel, Kenya has also experienced its unique version of the “internet revolution”. The landing and switching on of the first fibre optic cable in the country, back in 2009, coincided with the “revolution” of mobile telephony that had gifted us M-PESA in 2007. Combined, these twin forces facilitated a rapid diffusion of these technologies into our society. Almost overnight, owning a mobile phone and internet availability were no longer the preserve of the few, even though affordability remains elusive. Community formations powered by technology emerged, and others came of age. Also, the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, with its guarantees of our fundamental rights and freedoms, rejuvenated our political and civic space. The opportunities to embody and exercise them were facilitated by information and communication technologies (ICTs) in a significant if unrepresentative way, and aggregated the voices of younger generations as formidable civic actors, no longer spoken for or merely tokenised. The organic development and proliferation of the Ushahidi platform; the setting up of tech co-working spaces along Ngong Road in Nairobi and a tech entrepreneurial vim overall, begat the “Silicon Savannah” moniker.

Almost overnight, owning a mobile phone and internet availability were no longer the preserve of the few, even though affordability remains elusive.

What was remarkable about these shifts among us ordinary citizens were the creative ways with which the “internet revolution” was embraced. Blogging took off, and in a big way. In fact, many early Twitter adopters in Kenya were avid bloggers on a diverse range of topics. This brought us together in an exciting manner, with Twitter as a baraza for debate and engagement. In 2011, a group of bloggers and tweeps came together and established the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE). We took our online existence and loose network formation and formalised it offline. Individually and as a collective, we blogged our visions, observations, frustrations, hopes and more. As the 2013 election approached, even politicos recognized the potency of bloggers and would occasionally engage us online and offline. We represented what, at the time, was billed as the promise of the internet age: citizen participation, citizen journalism and more broadly, civic tech.

This use of social media by citizens forced government institutions as well as private sector companies to pitch tent on respective popular platforms to engage with citizens and customers. Inherently, there was a trust that we assigned to the technologies availed to us, to facilitate not only the exercising of our expression, but also to drive demand for engagement in and on political, social, economic, creative, financial and many other forms of discourse.

The state of social media today is markedly different. As these platforms have evolved, so too have the ways they are governed. The use of algorithms to mediate what is rendered visible and to whom, coupled with varied motivations by different actors to inject into online public discourse, has resulted in largely unaccountable and toxic online spheres. Many who leaned into the promise of social media also ushered in new career trajectories, especially among a youth increasingly urged to be entrepreneurs and not wait for formal jobs. Content creation, influencing, social media marketing, gig economy work are income pathways, just as the “traditional” avenues are.

This use of social media by citizens forced government institutions as well as private sector companies to pitch tent on respective popular platforms to engage with citizens and customers.

All of this has rested on the assumption that these platforms are “neutral”, and all one has to do is generate engaging material, target it to desired audiences, if for a fee to boost posts, and impact metrics would flow. The algorithmic governance of social media platforms has jeopardised these alternative paths to prosperity carved out in the digital age. When an algorithm is tweaked on a platform used for livelihoods, and the company cannot be held to account or is not answerable to the laws of your country, when instead we are expected to rely on private forms of self-governance by companies that do not “see us”, the trust we placed on these erstwhile “revolutionary” spaces is severely undermined.

Often overlooked in tech discourses is the governance of these technologies themselves, and how that affects governance with them. Despite “stellar” tech (often dubbed high-tech, world class, etc.), it is the soft yet intractable matter of governance that determines if technologies can deliver efficiency and effectiveness, as well as democratic dividends, and uphold values such as trust in society. In Kenya today, our government continues down the “e-government” path; the current regime plans to digitize up to 5,000 services by June 2023. On the surface, this is a welcome development. But can we trust that these systems will be secure, that our data will be protected, that the loopholes in the platforms powering e-government are sealed to eradicate pilfering? It seems that the government is still operating under a techsolutionism ideology to also serve its political goals of widening the tax base by “knowing more Kenyans by serving them via digital platforms”. Meanwhile, citizens’ use of social media in Kenya seems more measured now, especially for civic engagement and holding the government to account. Those who hold power have learned that they can conduct influence operations to “poison the well”. Over the years, our policymakers have also tried to “tame” the use of these platforms by introducing controversial legislation.

In tech we trust? Unfortunately, the most optimistic response would be, “It depends”. For tech to deliver on any promises, and especially to minimise and not introduce new harms, is wholly dependent on the human processes that generate it, and that order our co-existence. For technologies to warrant trustworthiness, we have to have governance regimes that engender trust within our communities, and in our governments to deliver on the promises and demands of the electorate. Technology, also, is a double-edged sword. For every intended goodsuch as easing public service provisionthere is a bad and an ugly. As IFMIS and election tech over the past two decades have shown us, those good intentions can be fantastically sacrificed at the altar of the motivation to loot and usurp power. No technology, however well designed, can bypass that. Thus, to fully unleash the potential of the digital age in our country, and indeed across the globe, we must fix how governance delivers on transparency and accountability, both for public and private actors.

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Where are North Africa’s Jews?

A fascinating new graphic novel sets out to describe the effects of Nazi and collaborationist policies on the inhabitants of French-controlled colonies and protectorates of World War Two North Africa.



Where are North Africa’s Jews?
Photo: From the cover of Undesirables A Holocaust Journey to North Africa.

It should come as no surprise that so many historians have taken to presenting their research in graphic novels; to state the obvious, the form is expansive and entertaining, allowing much space for writing that is systematically offset by imagery. For all that graphic novels are now widely considered worthy of academic interest, they rightfully remain an accessible medium, and thus a perfect tool for public-facing scholarship. Two recent examples are Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, plus Lee Francis IV, Weshoyot Alvitre, and Will Fenton’s Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga.

Undesirables is dedicated to shedding light on dark and ill-known pages of history. Writer Aomar Boum and artist Nadjib Berber set out to describe the effects of Nazi and collaborationist policies on the inhabitants of French-controlled colonies and protectorates of North Africa during World War Two. The book follows Hans Frank—a real-life, Jewish German journalist—from the turmoil of Weimar Germany to the liberation of North Africa.

Escaping to France in the early days of Nazi rule in the 1930s, Frank gets acquainted with the members of the Ligue Internationale contre l’Antisémitisme–LICA (International League Against Antisemitism). Faced with the growth of fascism on the European continent and the spread of its hateful creed on the African continent, LICA was dedicated to promoting inter-communal unity among North African people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Coming to realize in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War that “there was no place to hide anymore,” Frank goes to Algeria to join the French Foreign Legion and fight in World War Two until the French surrender in June 1940.

There begins the second part of the book that focuses on the lesser-known history of the Saharan camps: a network of nearly 70 labor, disciplinary, and internment camps set up by collaborationist Vichy authorities throughout Algeria and Morocco, and where they sent foreigners (most notably veterans of the Spanish Civil War and former members of the Foreign Legion), Jewish people, and political opponents. With Frank, we witness the quotidian brutality of life in the desert camps as he is taken from labor to punishment/disciplinary internment. His ordeal stops not long after he manages to escape and find refuge in Morocco, where the book ends abruptly as he witnesses Operation Torch, the successful Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria in November 1942.

Resting as it does on Boum’s extensive research (he is Chair of Sephardic Studies at UCLA and the author and co-author of several books on Jewish history in Morocco), Undesirables is chock full of information; pages overflow with text boxes, providing a fascinating look at a region that so often only appears in accounts of World War Two at the very moment where this narrative ends. In popular culture, of course, World War Two Morocco is known almost exclusively as the backdrop to one of the most celebrated films of all time: Michael Curtiz’s 1942 Casablanca, first released mere weeks after the liberation of the eponymous Moroccan city. In Curtiz’s film, Claude Rains’ turn as the friendly corrupt French police chief steered clear of criticizing authorities already in the process of turning their coats. The reality was much drearier: as Morocco filled with spies from all nations and soon appeared as a vital strategic point for the conflict, Vichy authorities focused on enforcing antisemitic legislation in the colonies, notably rescinding the French citizenship of Algerian Jews, guaranteed since the Crémieux decree of 1870.

Hans Frank’s path from 1930s Berlin to wartime Casablanca is an extended if subdued epiphany: for all its horrifying singularity, Nazi antisemitism was tied to a long tradition of European antisemitism, which throughout the 19th century became bound up with exacerbated and increasingly insular nationalism. There’s no small irony in seeing fascist officers of the French army cheering on German Nazis while spewing arguments inherited from the Dreyfus affair, in which the antisemitic right painted a Jewish officer as a pro-German traitor. As interesting is the way Boum and Berber smoothly make clear, through the same sadistic French military officers, how inseparable from colonial rule European fascism is. Frank befriends North African Jews and Muslims, Arabs and blacks alike, connected in their status as targets for the hatred and disdain of French authorities.

In Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire famously advanced that the:

… very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century… cannot forgive Hitler for is… the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.

While these procedures were applied to Europe they also redoubled in Vichy’s colonies, as Undesirables shows. Appalled at legislation hampering the rights of Jewish people even in Morocco, Sultan Muhammad V reminded the French that as his subjects Moroccan Jews remained under his protection. In its representations of individual encounters, the book also suggests myriad unsung acts of friendship among the colonized and oppressed populations in Vichy’s colonies.

Arguably, this is one area where Undesirables might have done things differently. For all that the book owes to Boum’s work, in the end only a portion of it focuses on North Africa. The first section of the book gives us Frank’s background and an overview of the rise of Nazism in Germany, a terrain so well-trodden it feels almost off-topic here. Similarly, one might puzzle at the choice of Hans Frank as a protagonist: was it necessary to center European experience in a text ostensibly about North Africa? One wishes more space had been given to the history of relations between Jews and Muslims, the impact of French colonization on pre-war Morocco, as well as local developments from the Allied invasion of 1942 to the end of World War Two—a time period during which independentist movements developed in collaboration with and opposition to American and French representatives and authorities along complex and generally ignored lines.

In his early career, the late Algerian artist Nadjib Berber (who died in March 2023) worked as a caricaturist in the North African press, also authoring children’s books. Berber moved to the US from Algeria in 1992 and continued working in graphic art here, notably as a writer on The Barbarossa Brothers, and on a project about the sect of the Hashasheen. Berber’s black and white photorealistic art in Undesirables at times almost verges into photonovel territory, as each panel seems derived from an existing photo somewhere. The effect can be uncanny and even puzzling, as when Frank befriends a Senegalese tirailleur whose face is clearly Omar Sy’s; but it also gives the book a documentary feel well fitted to its topic.

Undesirables is a teachable, well-researched, and fascinating look into a history that deserves to be known better. It is an invitation to go find out more in Aomar Boum’s own scholarship and in the works of the likes of Ariella Azoulay, so as to better understand the varied and complex recent history of Jewish presence (and absence) in North Africa.

Undesirables: A Holocaust Journey to North Africa (2023) by Aomar Boum and illustrated by Nadjib Berber is available from Stanford University Press.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Africa Before the Doctrine of Discovery

How are we to discuss and deal with colonization in Africa without using language that acknowledges that we were something before colonization?



Africa Before the Doctrine of Discovery
Photo by Jay Eshie on Unsplash
In a January 2023 article, Cornell University professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò lays out his case against the use of “precolonial” as a useful marker to discuss African history. Táíwò makes multiple arguments—and offers several examples—to support his claim. These arguments can be summarized as follows: the phrase precolonial Africa is “vacuous,”“racist,” and “plain wrong.” In this reply to Táíwò’s thesis, I argue for the usefulness and continued utility of precolonial as a term that identifies a structure and event that shaped the continent’s history in ways never before, and never after experienced.As a preliminary matter, it is important to note that when used in the discourse on African history, the term precolonial relationally refers to the 19th- and 20th-century European colonization of Africa, what Táíwò calls the “modern European colonialism” in Africa. Táíwò does not reject or dispute this understanding of the phrase. Rather, his concern seems to be that the use of precolonial in this context flattens the very complex history of the continent before this specific incident. He argues that, if precolonial literally translates to “before colonization,” then the phrase as used in the discourse on Africa’s history must account for earlier experiences of colonization on the African continent before 19th-century European colonization if it is to be meaningful for the periodization of African history. Thus, he concludes that the use of the phrase in its narrow contextual sense is both wrong and meaningless, so it must be expunged from the discourse forever.

The problem is that nothing—no word, phrase, or method of understanding history—can ever be vast enough to capture what Táíwò acknowledges is the very complex history of the African continent, and yet be specific enough for discourse on the subject. Indeed, no word, phrase or expression can fully contain all the nuances of an idea or subject; this is a general foible in language. What is a “chair” if we insist that the word must account for every piece of furniture, device, or technology that has ever been used to support or facilitate the act of sitting? The work-around for this problem is to interpret words—and use language—within relevant context. This necessarily limits the potential interpretative scope that words and phrases carry, and thus facilitates communication.

It is important to flag this limiting context of precolonial early on because it is the foundation that grounds Táíwò’s concerns.

Precolonial Africa is (not) vacuous

Táíwò argues that precolonial tells us nothing or, at best, very little about the history of the continent; he is concerned that it defines little and elides a lot. He argues that precolonial does not offer any understanding of what the precolonial period entailed, of the nuances that characterized that era. If this reasoning were followed to its logical conclusion, then all periodization techniques would be judged as vacuous.

The task of periodization is not to define what the societies were in a given period, but merely to categorize the past into blocks of time to facilitate our study of history. Periodization often follows events, incidents, and structures that fundamentally altered the way societies were organized over the course of history. I’ll offer an example: the use of “Before Christ (BC)” and “Anno Domini (AD)” is a common periodization device in history; it divides history into two: the world before and the world after the approximate date of birth of Jesus, the Christian Christ. These designations tell us nothing about what society within these two periods entailed—what they looked like, and how they were organized—all they do is help arrange history in a way that serves the study of social evolution through time.

To further emphasize what he argues is the vacuousness of precolonial, Táíwò invites us to consider what is obfuscated. He asks us to consider what precolonial Yorùbáland or precolonial Ìbàdàn might mean. However, what he does not ask us to consider is what precolonial Nigeria means, or why precolonial Yorùbáland is today geographically divided between anglophone Nigeria, and francophone Bénin Republic and Togo. These latter questions demonstrate the utility and necessity of emphasizing the colonial experience in our accounting of African history—it is the only honest way to tell the story of how African countries came to be. This experience should not, and really cannot, be ignored in favor of exploring other aspects of African history. To insist that African historians ignore the colonial experience if they are to truly appreciate their history is to impose an unflattering simplicity on them.

Táíwò is additionally concerned about the homogenizing effect that the term precolonial imposes on African history; he argues that it flattens the contours of society before European colonization. He insists that one phrase cannot sufficiently account for the complex histories and experiences of African societies before colonization. Here again, a misappreciation of the task of periodization shows up. The utility of the phrase is that it acknowledges that the continent was something, a different thing, before the colonial incident, but it does not claim that it was one thing.

Accordingly, a more accurate picture is to regard precolonial as a gate or a boundary. Step through the gates back in time and you enter the discourse on vast and varied African societies prior to colonization; step through the gate in the opposite direction and you enter the discourse on 19th-century European colonization of Africa and its continued impact on the structures and institutions of African states.

Precolonial Africa is (not) racist

Táíwò also argues that the use of precolonial to describe Africa before 19th-century colonization leans into racist ideas about Africa. This argument contains two ideas: the first is that precolonial Africa existed; the second is the racist idea that precolonial Africa was a land “outside of time” and not worthy of consideration in a conversation about world history. Táíwò conflates both ideas to reach the conclusion that to speak of a precolonial Africa at all is to buy into the racist idea of Africa’s history beginning from European colonization. He inexplicably binds himself to only two choices: either precolonial Africa exists as it does under the racist imagination, or it does not exist at all. In other words, he argues that, if racist scholars have said precolonial Africa was a primitive wasteland, then Africans must uphold this definition. A different approach, which other scholars have adopted, is to say, the Europeans got it wrong—precolonial Africa was not a primitive wasteland. This latter approach has the advantage of resisting the European narrativizing of African history, which is the goal Táíwò has in mind. Táíwò, however, fails to achieve it because he makes the European understanding of precolonial Africa the starting point of his exposition.

Another aspect to Táíwò’s claim that the phrase is racist is his concern that “the ubiquitous phrase is almost exclusive in its application to Africa: ‘precolonial Africa.’” He asks, “How often do we encounter this designation in discourses about other continents?” First, it is worth noting that precolonial is traditionally also applied to other countries that similarly experienced 19th-century European colonization, such as India, Canada, and Australia, amongst others. The point is taken, however, that there is a certain racist idea that underlies the way the phrase precolonial Africa is typically applied.

Might I suggest that the quarrel is with the wrong half of the phrase precolonial Africa. Perhaps what Táíwò is picking up on is the still-alive instinct to read Africa—including postcolonial Africa—as universally primitive and sub-developed. Thus, it is the assumptions about Africa that reflect racist ideas, and if this is the case, then the problem is not solved by capitulating to these racist ideas. The valid concern about the over-simplification of complex African societies as one (primitive) identity should not be exploited as an impetus to propose a similarly overbroad approach, which is what Táíwò’s suggests.

Precolonial is (not) plain wrong

The last theme of Táíwò’s attack on precolonial is that it is “plain wrong.” He argues: because colonial events occurred within and by African societies before the 19th-century European colonization, it is wrong to make the latest incident the focal point of our discussion around colonization in Africa.

This argument presumes that the only way to fully engage with the robust and complex precolonial history of African societies is to look away from the reality of the European colonization of the 19th century. This presupposes that African scholars are incapable of multitasking; of appropriately foregrounding the colonial event while acknowledging the many inter- and intra-community relations that took place prior. This argument imposes a simplicity on African scholars, researchers, historians, and readers quite akin to what he describes as the racist over-simplification of African history as just one thing.

Another prong in Táíwò’s argument is the concern that the term precolonial divides African history into three periods—precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial. Indeed, precolonial suggests a periodization of Africa in relation to the colonial event, but this is not wrong or useless as Táíwò suggests. We cannot deny that the European colonization of the 19th century is at the center of the identity of almost all African countries today. “Nigeria” did not exist before European colonization. To speak of a precolonial Nigeria is a natural way to acknowledge the precolonial indigenous communities that were foisted together under one political and sovereign identity by the British. To do otherwise is to ignore the ways the shared experience of colonization across and among these different communities necessarily puts these communities and their histories in conversation with one another.

Furthermore, there is an important consideration that Táíwò appears to be overlooking: the existence of periodization that centers the colonial event does not preclude other methods of periodization. The discourse around African history is broad enough to accommodate precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial; ancient, medieval, and modern; or whatever other schema may serve the specific study in question. What remains crucial however is that African history must duly acknowledge the colonial event as a significant marker that ushered in a new era for the continent.

Finally, assuming we take it as fact that precolonial obfuscates and that there are aspects of African history that are elided under the blanket of precolonial Africa, is that enough to dispense with the precolonial designation? If all of Táíwò’s charges against the phrase were true, is it not also true that the phrase exposes a very important shared history among African communities that can only be captured by this phrase? To be sure, the thousands-years-old civilizations and evolutions matter a great deal, but they do not and, in fact, need not matter at the expense of the more recent European colonial experience, which in many ways irreversibly impacted the ways our societies are organized.

European colonization completely reorganized the structure of African states, taking them from empires, kingdom, and autochthonous communities to sovereign states, countries that closely resemble their colonial forebears in laws, institutions, language, and culture. How then can we say that this incident is not epoch-defining enough as to form the basis of periodization? The fact that an aspect of history leaves a sour taste in does not make it one that we should ignore. Indeed, it is this exact quality that makes it impossible to ignore; that makes it momentous. What happens if we ignore the incident of colonial intervention in our historical narrativizing and periodization? How then do we account for the ongoing effects of colonization, a reality that exists only because of the colonizing incident?

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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