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Averting the White Gaze: How a Black Panther in Laikipia Came to Symbolise the Absurdity in the Conservation World

The paradigm that we inherited (and still ignorantly embrace) firmly places a black man exclusively in the position of a ranger. In this context, “ranger” describes a non-intellectual participant in conservation who enforces policies created for the benefit of other people in other places, often to the detriment of locals.

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Averting the White Gaze: How a Black Panther in Laikipia Came to Symbolise the Absurdity in the Conservation World
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In early February 2019, local and international media were awash with the story of how an American photographer named Will Burrard-Lucas had captured breathtaking photographs of the first black leopard seen in Africa in over 100 years. Reaction came in thick and fast on social media. It began in wonderment at the beauty of the creature, the quality of the photographs and the apparent magnitude of the achievement. This so-called discovery was further elevated when it got endorsed and parroted by the venerable National Geographic magazine.

For an individual who has been in the field of conservation for nearly two decades, the critical opprobrium generated was fascinating. The proposition began with a few of the uninformed questioning whether black leopards really exist, followed by consternation that nobody had ever seen this animal in a century and puzzlement over how a foreign photographer had the requisite knowledge to find and photograph the animal living in our midst.

People all over Kenya were stunned for different reasons. Many friends who know of my involvement in conservation practice questioned the arrogance of the “white gaze” in conversation and the racial undertones that accompanied the “discovery” of the black leopard. After a lot of thought and conversations, I came to the realisation that the ground is beginning to shift, and conservation will have to change a lot sooner than many people expected.

As the news of the findings made the media rounds, the protestations rose to a crescendo, with the informed rightly questioning the arrogance of the photographer making such a claim. These were accompanied by photos of black leopards taken in the area in the last few years, including one photographed in Ol Ari Nyiro conservancy in May 2007 and another photographed in Ol Jogi conservancy in August 2013.

The most powerful rebuttal, however, came from the NALOOLO blog written by John Kisimir, a veteran journalist, that shed light on the hitherto unmentioned field assistant, Ambrose Letoluai, who works with a San Diego Zoo research project in the area and who knew of this animal, saw it, and photographed it, long before showing Will Burrard-Lucas where to set his camera traps for the best shot. Ambrose correctly states that their research team (which includes both locals and foreigners) has sighted and photographed this animal several times over the last year, and it’s unacceptable for their work to be slighted in this manner.

People all over Kenya were stunned for different reasons. Many friends who know of my involvement in conservation practice questioned the arrogance of the “white gaze” in conversation and the racial undertones that accompanied the “discovery” of the black leopard. After a lot of thought and conversations, I came to the realisation that the ground is beginning to shift, and conservation will have to change a lot sooner than many people expected.

Noble white hunters and explorers

My training is in carnivore ecology and I have been involved in conservation research and policy work for 20 years now. Those aware of my writings and lectures on racial prejudice know my position on these matters, but nonetheless I was intrigued by the events around this single species discovery. In a backhanded manner, Will Burrard-Lucas’ hubris and National Geographic’s inability to escape its “white explorer” origins inadvertently created awareness of an injustice and prejudice that was hidden in plain sight in our society for generations. It is worth stating here that “Geographical Societies” in the West are by and large bodies that were formed by wealthy people to fund and facilitate the white explorers’ voyages of “discovery” and plunder in the Global South. They are the ones who defied the likes of Henry Morton Stanley and others of his ilk.

In recent years, I have dedicated time and energy in advocacy, trying to get this message across to an oblivious society that is blissfully unaware of the seamy underbelly of the conservation world. Therefore, the spectacle of sudden enlightenment among the Kenyan public was a moment that defies description. The story of the first black leopard photographed in “over 100 years” advanced the understanding of the depth of our societal oppression and an appreciation of the sheer magnitude of our challenge across space and time.

Our colonial history class taught us about European explorers, such as David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, James Augustus Grant, Pierre Paul de Brazza and Samuel Teleki, who came to Africa to explore the “Dark Continent” that we call our home. The education we received in school implied that these were brave souls in search of adventure. As a young student, I remember being intensely curious about the “why” question. Why did they come? Why here? Why for so long? Why the risk?

These explorers were coming to spread influence and political power, to plunder resources and to spread Christianity. The personal glory and self-gratification accrued after random acts of cruelty and arrogance was generally just a bonus that came with the territory. Besides the church and their home governments, these explorers brought great prestige to institutions like the Royal Geographical Society, which quickly became venues for enthralling talks of their adventures and repositories of specimens collected and artefacts looted from the lands being “explored”.

The consensus in conservation biology is that for anything to exist in Africa, it has to be discovered by a Caucasian. This isn’t a new phenomenon; since colonial days, lakes, mountains, rivers, valleys and even wild animals have been “discovered” and named by people from Europe. It is never questioned, just accepted. For those who think that these are relics banished to ancient history, we only need to look at the names around us. Restricting ourselves to the conservation sector, we see the names Grant’s gazelle (Gazella granti) and DeBrazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus) named after James Augustus Grant and Pierre Paul de Brazza, respectively. The Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) was named after Jules Grevy, the president of France between 1879 and 1887.

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, there was increased conservation activity in Britain’s East African colonies (the term “conservation” being used very loosely in this instance). This prominently involved the declaration of national park ordinances in Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda in 1945, 1948, and 1952, respectively. National parks were crucial instruments in the dislocation of Africans from selected areas and the creation of nature spaces for recreation by European settlers by expressly demarcating areas where no person (read: native) was allowed to enter. What escaped all but the most perceptive of historians is that the flurry of creation of national parks and other conservation structures that followed these ordinances was a sphere of influence that was designed to withstand the African independence wave that followed shortly thereafter.

These parks also provided a useful and relatively harmless employment opportunity to demobilised British soldiers with no skills other than shooting. Indeed, an examination of colonial game wardens’ reports from the mid-20th century reveals wardens with military backgrounds without exception. This set the stage for African wildlife conservation practice as a domain of white men with guns – a situation that has stood the test of time and which is becoming an anachronism that has survived the passing decades of decolonisation.

This position of dominion captured the imagination of Hollywood, and was celebrated in “noble white hunter” movies, notably Mogambo (shot in Kenya in 1953), Hatari (shot in Tanganyika in 1962) and Born Free (shot in Kenya in 1966), which featured George Adamson, the last relic of the military age who was killed by bandits in Kora in 1988. The latter years of the 20th century also saw the advent of the noble “white saviour” in the form of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (1984), and the “classic” Out of Africa (1985) starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.

The ranger mentality

The paradigm that we inherited (and still ignorantly embrace) firmly places a black man exclusively in the position of a ranger. In this context, “ranger” describes a non-intellectual participant in conservation who enforces policies created for the benefit of other people in other places, often to the detriment of locals. Within this fallacy resides the mentality that ties conservation values and heritage to their attractiveness to tourists. The most obvious manifestation of this in Kenya is the existence of a Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. In countries where heritage is regarded for its intrinsic value to its citizens, it is placed under the ministry of interior (security) or under natural resources.

This weakness is recognised by NGOs and their foreign supporters who seek to supplant the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in the policy arena while almost exclusively restricting their support to operational materials and equipment. Like all other long-held beliefs, the ranger position is one that has numerous adherents who have invested significantly in it, resulting in a systemic malaise. The long drawn-out struggle to recruit a substantive Director-General at KWS has taken strange turns, with repeated advertisements and re-advertisements interspersed with long interludes of silence.

The minister’s proposal seemed extreme given that poaching figures in Kenya currently stand at 69 elephants last year out of a population of 34,000 (an attrition rate of 0.2%) and 9 rhinos out of a population of approximately 1,000 (an attrition rate of 0.9%). The latter number is even lower than the 12 rhinos that were lost at the hands of KWS itself in a botched translocation exercise in July 2018.

Two recent events in the policy arena have revealed the systemic challenges that arise from the “ranger mentality” that pervades our statutory conservation authority. The first was an ill-advised attempt to re-introduce consumptive use of various wildlife species as game meat to be served in restaurants, kowtowing to a cabal of tourism investors that want to re-introduce sport hunting in Kenya. This was a case where the tourism industry asked for conservation policy to be changed to serve their purposes. If this question was approached from a conservation perspective, one would have questioned the feasibility of serving game meat in restaurants while prosecuting (and occasionally shooting) suspected poachers.

As expected, this initiative ran into strong headwinds, and seems to have been aborted without the task force having submitted their report following several months of discussions and “public engagements”. This was an attempt by the “rangers” to change the law to satisfy external interests at the expense of locals.

The second starkest and potentially most tragic example was the recent declaration by the Minister of Tourism and Wildlife that Kenya is going to fast track legislation to introduce the death penalty for poachers, proudly announced exclusively in foreign news outlets. As expected, there were choruses of praise coming from NGOs and “conservationists” all over the world at this “significant step” taken by Kenya to save wildlife.

The minister’s proposal seemed extreme given that poaching figures in Kenya currently stand at 69 elephants last year out of a population of 34,000 (an attrition rate of 0.2%) and 9 rhinos out of a population of approximately 1,000 (an attrition rate of 0.9%). (The latter number is even lower than the 12 rhinos that were lost at the hands of KWS itself in a botched translocation exercise in July 2018.) Neither of these numbers presents the “crisis” that dominates conservation news out of Kenya, and it beggars belief that the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife would act on the denigration of the state authority’s efforts in this manner.

Moreover, there is the well-known fact that Kenya has not carried out the death penalty since the hanging of the 1982 coup plotters, Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Oteyo Okumu, in 1987 for treason, so there is no chance that a death sentence can be carried out on a killer of a wild animal. It is, therefore, difficult to imagine what purpose this legislative move would have served, other than the ranger state seeking to please the perceived owners of our wildlife narrative.

When Save the Elephants reported (also in 2016) that a lone bull elephant had “bravely” entered Somalia after 20 years, BBC (again) parroted the same news with much fanfare. Nobody thought to question how they deduced that this elephant is the only one that had crossed into Somalia, or that it had last visited that country 20 years ago.

It is worth repeating that the most robust aspect of this perception of ourselves as rangers is the manner in which our citizens and institutions have all internalised it. KWS staff at all levels are regularly taken for security training, including high-level courses at the National Defence College. Yet they are law enforcers, not military personnel. I stand to be corrected but I am unaware of KWS staff ever being taken for conservation philosophy and ethics training at a similar level. The most likely reason for this is the lack of resources because our policy weakness and “operational” thinking doesn’t accommodate this. Our usual big NGO donors certainly wouldn’t fund it because a “thinking” KWS might wake up to the fact that they are killing and supplanting it. As we learned from the colonialists, black people in conservation in Africa are not supposed to think. They are the porters, rangers, trackers (and poachers). The unseen and unheard black man is not just a factor of photography, a subjective art form from which we can easily be deleted using Photoshop or movie editing software; it spills over into science as well, which is supposed to be objective observation.

In my carnivore ecology experience, I have come across what was described (by the BBC, no less) as a the “discovery” of a population of 100 lions in the Alatash region of Ethiopia in February 2016 by a group of scientists led by Dr. Hans Bauer of Oxford University’s wild carnivore research unit. One single lion’s roar can be heard across several kilometers. These were 100 lions. Ethiopia is a nation of around 90 million people. It stands to reason that some Ethiopian would have heard or seen the lions, their tracks or the remains of their kills.

When Save the Elephants reported (also in 2016) that a lone bull elephant had “bravely” entered Somalia after 20 years, BBC (again) parroted the same news with much fanfare. Nobody thought to question how they deduced that this elephant is the only one that had crossed into Somalia, or that it had last visited that country 20 years ago. It is accepted as true because it is reported by a white man in Africa. This is such a coarse and primitive premise that has been eliminated from most thinking and human endeavour in Africa, but still persists in conservation.

The real poachers

Our profession exists in a realm where the message is simple: All African wildlife is in peril and the source of the threat is black people. Just to be clear, this is not an aspect of citizenship, but race. There are hundreds of thousands of Africans of Caucasian extraction who routinely indulge in “hunting”, “culling”, “cropping” and other euphemisms for killing of wildlife, but however often they kill wildlife outside legal structures, the odious term “poacher” is never used in Africa in reference to anyone who isn’t black skinned. This is no accident – it is the existence of African conservation practice in a twilight zone where reality seeks to follow perception, rather than the logical reverse.

A fairly stark reminder of this is the way in which meat from wild animals is referred to as “bushmeat” when eaten by local black people, and called “game meat” or “venison” when eaten in upper-class circles dominated by foreign tourists. The most shocking thing to most people whenever I share this example is not the depth of this obvious prejudice, but the way in which societies all over the world (including ourselves) have come to accept it as the norm. This norm, in a nutshell, is the greatest challenge to conservation in Kenya, not poachers, not human populations, not law enforcement, or smuggling. My experience in the realm of wildlife management in Kenya has been largely in the arena of carnivore conservation and I have witnessed several instances of race-based, bare-faced entitlement to destroy our national heritage.

Three incidents come to mind. The first was a “conservationist” (sanctioned by KWS) carrying carcasses of cows into the Aberdare National Park in the year 2000 and hanging them on a tree, patiently waiting and shooting every single lion that came to eat the meat. I was the unseen and unheard black man who was an MSc student collecting tissue samples from the killed lions for research. I am not sure how many lions were eventually killed because I only survived one night. (A “normal” African man not suffering from bloodlust may have lasted longer.) It is a crying shame that this man served on the board of KWS until last year, and is currently the CEO of the largest wildlife conservancy in southern Kenya.

The second incident was years later, in 2009, when as a member of the KWS carnivore management committee, we fielded a request from another “conservationist” to shoot 50% of the hyenas in the Aberdare National Park because “they are killing too many young rhinos and buffalo”. I was taken aback by the temerity of the request, and I was glad that the revulsion that I and other committee members expressed carried the day.

The third incident happened in 2012 when as a member of the same committee, we fielded a request from another world-famous “conservationist” to kill lions in his private wildlife conservancy because he felt that they were killing too many Grevy’s zebra foals. Again, we rejected this request, but it never stops.

One thread was uniform across all these requests – they came from white men who are considered leaders in conservation, and all have sat on the Board of Trustees of Kenya Wildlife Service. Would KWS countenance such hubris from a black Kenyan? Is there any possibility that the recent ill-advised request to hunt wildlife to serve game meat in restaurants came from a black Kenyan? I think not.

To an observer from outside the profession, the difficult conundrum in which conservation finds itself would look like a situation we should be struggling to free ourselves from. However, there are factors that we must consider. The status quo has been in place for so long that there is a large contingent of local professionals who have learned how to negotiate it and find themselves very comfortable positions therein. These are positions and assignments that are well-remunerated and highly regarded without the burden of formulating, justifying or adjusting policy as necessary. This entails sitting in an office, travelling to attend (not give presentations at) conferences, being the “Áfrican face” wherever one is needed and appending signatures wherever and whenever one is needed by the foreign interests that really do hold the reins to our conservation sector.

In return for this, there is a lot of “discretionary” funding, business class travel, and handsome per diem allowances, not to mention slaps on the back and being referred to as a “good chap”, “fundi” or a “switched on” fellow. (Incidentally, the latter term is one strictly reserved for black people. It is a backhanded compliment that implies the subject is a relatively intelligent and active member of a largely indolent population.)

Under the current atmosphere, is it really a surprise that KWS was unable to recruit a substantive Director-General nearly two years after the resignation of the previous holder of the office whose qualifications were in banking? The most recent move by the Board of Trustees was to lower the qualifications required in the advertisement initially put out in November 2018. This wasn’t surprising either, because the intellectual weakness in our conservation sector still desperately wanted a ranger, not a leader at the helm of KWS.

We live in an imperfect world, and it is rife with injustices in almost every field, but the visceral reactions to The Big Conservation Lie continue to confound me even two years after its publication because of how illogical some of them are. I cannot speak to my co-author’s experiences, but I’ve had a few bizarre interactions with readers attempting to police my outrage…

On 13th March 2019, the weak intellectual core succumbed once again and a senior officer from the Kenya Navy, Brigadier John Waweru, was appointed Director-General of KWS by executive order. With due respect to him, it will take a while before a navy officer comes to grips with the challenges facing our conservation sector.

‘Why are you people so angry?’

I wouldn’t be so confident as to claim any cause-and-effect relation, but since the publication of The Big Conservation Lie, there have been questions raised in various quarters about the millions of dollars perpetually being sunk into the conservation “industry” and the returns on investment (or lack thereof). This book, which I co-authored with John Mbaria, has understandably elicited very strong reactions because of its content.

We live in an imperfect world, and it is rife with injustices in almost every field, but the visceral reactions to The Big Conservation Lie continue to confound me even two years after its publication because of how illogical some of them are. I cannot speak to my co-author’s experiences, but I’ve had a few bizarre interactions with readers attempting to police my outrage, mostly in the realm of “I understand that there are governance challenges, prejudice, and corruption in the conservation sector, but why are you people so angry?” Others would opine that everything said in the book is true, but for some reason would take issue with the pointed way in which we said it. The truth about these comments has only recently dawned on me – that it is normal to point out and have opinions on conservation policy challenges in Africa if you are white but not if you are black. Even if what you are saying makes perfect sense and is already in the public domain, the colour of your skin makes it unacceptable.

I have previously embarked on a mission to find writings (articles, books, chapters, etc.) by black Kenyan conservationists on the injustices and prejudices bedeviling the sector. There are none, and I would be delighted to be proved wrong on this. With all our high qualifications and senior-sounding positions, we are content to be rangers awaiting instructions on the destiny of our own heritage.

Many of us mistakenly think that we are safe, but we are not. When 12 rhinos died in a botched translocation exercise in 2018, a number of senior and highly-qualified black “rangers” paid a heavy price for their part in an exercise that was solely based on a World Wildlife Fund power trip dubbed the “Kenya Black Rhino Action Plan” and not on government wildlife policy.

We are beginning to experience a paradigm shift, and there is a growing realisation that this whole conservation thing is really about us, and not about those who come to see what we have conserved. It showed up in the immediate response to the claims of the Laikipia leopard sighting being the “first in 100 years” and the backtracking from the photographer.

This new thinking is especially true amongst the younger conservationists because, sadly, most of those above the age of 40 have been irretrievably defiled by the conservation establishment. However, the rest of us are enjoying something of a “perfect storm” with unrelated things occurring together to accelerate change. It is a story that is still fluid and happening. As a writer though, I appreciate the poetic justice of it all – how the arrogance of a white man claiming to have discovered a black panther in Kenya proved to be the trigger that woke up our sleeping masses.

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Mordecai Ogada is a carnivore ecologist from Kenya and co-author of The Big Conservation Lie.

Culture

Africa United: The Cup of Nation Returns and Kenya Made It to the Party

Harambee Stars has not qualified for Africa’s premier footballing competition since 2004, when a Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee coached side was drawn in a tough group with Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso. Now, fifteen years later, what are Kenya’s chances of making the knockout stages of the 2019 African Cup of Nations.

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Africa United: The Cup of Nation Returns and Kenya Made It to the Party
Photo: Flickr/Ben Sutherland
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In January 2008, I was seated in a police station in Kisumu watching a rerun of a Cameroon game at the 2008 African Cup of Nations. Kisumu was engulfed in the flames of the post-election violence, and I was an eleven-year-old sheltered in a police station, but I was not thinking about that. Instead, I was thinking about Cameroon and Ghana, my AFCoN teams. Alex Song was playing in midfield for Cameroon that year, and his talents, together with those of legendary striker Samuel Eto’o, buttressed the Indomitable Lions’ charge to the final of the competition, where they lost to Hosni Abd Rabou’s Egypt.

Before Eto’o was the legendary Cameroonian hitman, Roger Milla. Milla came out of retirement to lead Cameroon into the quarterfinals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. Thirty-eight years-old at the time, he netted four goals in the competition. The highlight of his tally was his double against the Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita in the second round. In that game, Milla received the ball from François Omam-Biyik and, in one fluid movement, flicked the ball towards and away from his body, and slalomed through two Colombian defenders with ease. Later in the match, he dispossessed the maverick keeper sometimes known as El Loco, and a madcap race to the goal-line ensued. Four years later, Milla would reappear at the World Cup again, and score a goal against Russia to become the oldest goal scorer in the history of the World Cup. He was forty-two years old.

In the four years between his World Cup heroics, Roger Milla’s football had taken a more salacious turn. In the cellars of Yaounde’s national stadium, Milla had locked over a hundred pygmies who he had originally assembled to be part of charity football tournament to raise money to promote the wellbeing of Cameroonian pygmies. In his book, Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper writes that, “Milla had invited pygmies to play a few games, to raise money for their health and education, but he imprisoned them there, issued them with guards and seldom fed them.” The lack of food was fuelled by the belief that “they play better if they don’t eat too much.”

On FIFA’s official website, Roger Milla is described as, “Modest and committed to a fault, this giant of world football devotes whatever spare time he has time to helping others less fortunate than himself.”

Roger Milla. Football legend. FIFA’s symbol of altruism.

Let the games begin

The 2019 African Cup of Nations kicks off on Friday, 21st June in Egypt. The competition is officially known as The Total 2019 African Cup of Nations. The competition was initially supposed to be hosted by Cameroon, but the Confederation of African Football (CAF) stripped them of hosting rights citing, among other things, the Anglophone crisis, delays in the delivery of infrastructure, and the threat of the Boko Haram. This is the second time in recent years that the venue of the competition is being changed at, relatively, the last-minute. In 2015, Equatorial Guinea was awarded the hosting rights after Morocco, which had been slated to host the competition, pulled out, citing the looming threat of Ebola. CAF moved to sanction Morocco, throwing it out of the 2015 AFCoN, banning it from the 2017 and 2019 editions, and ordering it to pay one million dollars in fines to CAF, and eight million dollars as compensation for losses sustained by CAF and stakeholders after the pull-out. The Moroccans argued that Ebola was a risk they could not afford to take, given the swathe of fans expected to attend the tournament, despite the fact that home fans predominantly attend AFCoN competitions. The Ebola strain had at that point only appeared in three countries, none of which were likely to be at the competition, and the curious coincidence that Morocco would play host to the World Club Cup barely a month before AFCoN, a competition that would draw in significantly more spectators from outside the country.

Writing for The Guardian, Sean Jacobs argued that the pullout was a microcosm of North African countries’ difficult relationship with countries South of the Sahara. To make the hosting roulette more interesting, CAF would award Cote d’Ivoire the hosting rights of the 2021 competition, but after stripping Cameroon of 2019 hosting rights, they would renege on Cote d’Ivoire’s 2021 hosting rights and award them to Cameroon. The latest CAF report stated that Cote d’Ivoire had accepted an offer to host the 2023 AFCoN edition in place of the 2021 finals. Five years ago the 2019, 2021 and 2023 editions were awarded to Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea respectively and now Guinea has to wait until 2025.

Morocco is one of the favourites of the The Total 2019 African Cup of Nations, the same competition that they were banned from before the success of their appeal against it. In mercurial Ajax Amsterdam playmaker, Hakim Ziyech, the Moroccans possess one of the flair players of the continent, and are packed with quality across the board: Mehdi Benatia, previously of Juventus, Bayern Munich and AS Roma, patrols the backline, flanked by Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraou, who are the finest fullback pairing at the tournament. Morocco, alongside Egypt and Senegal, start as heavy favourites, Egypt because they are hosts and because Mo’ Salah la la la la la la, and Senegal because jogo oyierore. Growing up in Kisumu, when we played football as kids, we would split into two teams randomly, and when it happened that the random selection had led to the skilled players all being on one team, we would complain that jogo oyierore. They have chosen each other. This is what a friend messages when Senegal announces their final squad for the tournament. They have chosen each other. The Sengalese squad is a ridiculous exercise in name-dropping. Kalibou Koulibaly is one of the three finest central defenders in world football. His centre back partner, Salif Sane, who despite a difficult season with Schalke 04 in Germany’s Bundesliga, shone at last year’s World Cup, as did Moussa Wague at right back. Idrissa Gana Gueye in midfield is the best tackler in the English Premier League. Ismailla Sarr and Keita Balde are threatening to become world class forwards, while Sadio Mane, the figurehead of the attack, is a genuine world class forward, one of the premier players in his position in world football. Jogo oyierore. 

Then there are the other bigwigs, the shadow favourites: Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Algeria. Cameroon, by virtue of being defending champions. Kenya has the unfortunate luck of being drawn in the same group with Senegal and Algeria who in Yacine Brahimi, Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez have an attack not to be sneered upon. One would expect Senegal to top the group, and Algeria to finish runners-up, but the Kenyans could surprise, having qualified for the group stage on the back of rugged rearguard displays. The Tanzanians complete this group.

Kenya is back after 15 years

Naturally (or as naturally as the politics of geopolitics can be), Kenya interests me. Harambee Stars has not qualified for Africa’s premier footballing competition since 2004, when a Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee coached side was drawn in a tough group with Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso, where the side lost to both Senegal and Mali, but salvaged some pride when teenage striker Dennis Oliech inspired them to a 3-0 win against Burkina Faso. Now, fifteen years later, Mulee, for one, is optimistic about Kenya’s chances of making the knockout stages of the 2019 African Cup of Nations. Mulee says, “I think we will beat Algeria and draw with Tanzania and qualify for the round of sixteen (as best losers) even before our final match against Senegal.”

Harambee Stars coach Sebastien Migne, however, is keeping himself grounded. Kenya, he argues, has only one player (Victor Wanyama) playing in a top league in the world, and so expectations have to be lowered. He adds, “For this reason, we must be realistic about our expectations and I believe what we achieved was something to be celebrated instead of the negative criticism.”

Migne is right to keep the expectations low. Senegal is the highest ranked team in the continent, after all, while the Algerians have appeared in two World Cups on the trot. Furthermore, questions have been asked about Migne’s own squad selection for the continental showcase. Sports reporter Celestine Olilo writing in The Daily Nation, raises doubts about the depth of the Harambee Stars squad. Masoud Juma, she notes, has spent the last six months without a football club, yet he has been picked as back-up to the main striker Michael Olunga at the expense of Allan Wanga who netted eighteen goals in the just-concluded KPL season. There is also Jesse Were who has scored freely for the last three seasons in the Zambian Super league with Zesco United leaving some to feel that he is being punished for leading the line for struggling Harambee Stars teams in the past. Furthermore, as Olilo notes, the goalkeeper situation is not the best. First-choice keeper Patrick Matasi has made several high-profile blunders while playing for the national team, most recently in the friendly against the Democratic Republic of Congo, while back-up keepers Farouk Shikhalo and John Oyiemba have zero international caps for Kenya.

While Kenya’s defensive displays gained the plaudits during qualification, conceding only one goal, the attack has flattered to deceive. A trio of Michael Olunga, Ayub Timbe and Francis Kahata will be the main men in the final third of the pitch, but beyond them there are concerns about the rest of the attack. Ovella Ochieng who is expected to push Kahata for a place in the team was gravely disappointing in the buildup friendlies in Paris, and should he continue his dour displays at the tournament, then fingers will be wagged at Migne’s decision to leave Cliff Nyakeya out of the squad, despite the Mathare United dynamo having scored thirty-two goals in the last two seasons.

Still, hope never dies. The main men for the team are captain Victor Wanyama, Japan-based centre forward Michael Olunga, and wing wizard Ayub Timbe. The latter two were responsible for Kenya’s goal against the DRC, Olunga curling the ball into the net after a jinxing run from the left wing by Timbe. Timbe, who one hopes will not succumb to the myriad of injuries he tends to pick up when playing for Kenya, is bullish about the team’s chances of progressing in Egypt. He says, “Our team is good when it comes to defending and even attacking. I will try to score as many goals as I can, but the most important thing here is teamwork.”

Then there are the other teams too, the other groups. Egypt are in a tricky looking Group A with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Devotees of the Kenyan Premier League would be interested in Uganda, not least because of vague regional loyalties, but specifically because Khalid Aucho, who is maybe the best midfielder to play in the KPL in recent years, is in the squad. However, this is not the group of death. For the group of death, we jump to Group D, where Morocco, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa will eyeball each other, and take turns at eyeballing Namibia.

Dirty Football 

The African Cup of Nations kicks off while African, and world, football is caught in the eye of a storm. On June 6th, Ahmad Ahmad, the Confederation of African football president, was arrested in Paris. Ahmad is accused of corruption and harassment by Amr Fahmy who was fired as CAF general secretary in April. Fahmy accuses Ahmad of, among other things, paying $20,000 in bribes into the accounts of African football association presidents such as those of Tanzania and Cape Verde, and harassing four female CAF employees. The arrest of Ahmad is only part of the chain of arrests of current and former world football leaders for corruption. Issa Hayatou, who Ahmad replaced as president of CAF in 2017, was accused of accepting a $1.5 million bribe from Qatar to secure his support for their bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and in 2018 was fined $27.9 million by the Egyptian Economic Court for flouting the Monopolistic Practices Act when signing a billion-dollar deal between CAF and French company Lagardère in 2015.

However, we think not of these things. Instead, we think about Ghana. Ghana is in Group F, alongside Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. The fifteen-year absence of Kenya from continental and world football meant that I supported Ghana resolutely. In the 2006 World Cup, I cheered on Sammy Kuffuor, Richard Kingston, Asamoah Gyan & co. as they reached the second round, while in AFCON 2008, Junior Agogo charmed me with his goals and his celebrations (and the news of his inability to write as a result of his stroke broke my heart). Then in World Cup 2010 in South Africa, Gyan, and that penalty against Uruguay that I will never get over. The Ghanaians have floundered since then, not getting past the group stage of the World Cup four years later (despite John Boye and Jonathan Mensah’s heroic defending) and not qualifying for Russia 2018. Their preparations were mired in drama when Gyan was stripped of the captaincy, subsequently declared his retirement from international football, but twenty-four hours later rescinded his decision to retire following a call from his country’s president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. He is now stressing Ghana’s readiness for the tournament despite a goalless draw with South Africa, and a loss to Namibia in the buildup to AFCoN.

What’s In A Name?

Here is an interesting twist to the power of naming in African football. Roger Milla was The Old Man, and he made a mockery of those who had dismissed him because of his age. A joke made is that the national team’s nickname has a direct effect on their ability to win the tournament. Thus, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions were victorious in 2017. Les Éléphants (Cote d’Ivoire) in 2015. The Super Eagles (Nigeria) won it in 2013. Chris Katongo’s goals fired Zambia’s Chipolopolo (The Copper Bullets) to the title in 2012, while Egypt’s The Pharaohs claimed the throne for three editions straight from 2006-2010. The Atlas Lions (Morocco) should consider themselves de facto contenders, as should The Lions of Teranga (Senegal). Ethiopia (the Walias) won the first edition of the tournament in 1962, but as the Walias ibex has become endangered, so too has the country’s football.

South Africa’s Bafana Bafana (The Boys, The Boys) won it in 1996, but since then lions, elephants, eagles, pharaohs and copper bullets have won it. Watch out for DRC’s The Leopards, Mali’s The Eagles, and Guinea’s National Elephants while The Warriors (Zimbabwe) and The Brave Warriors (Namibia) could just do it. Kenya (Harambee Stars) will gather hope from Ghana’s Black Stars having won in the 80s, but Uganda’s The Cranes, Burundi’s The Swallows, Angola’s Palancas Negras (Giant sable antelopes), Benin’s The Squirrels and Madagascar’s Barea (named after a species of Zebu) should, perhaps, temper their expectations.

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Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda – Review

To some, Museveni is a visionary strategist who helped topple three brutal dictators, revived Uganda’s economy, fought the AIDS epidemic and played a steady-handed diplomatic role in a volatile region. But for others, Museveni is himself a brutal dictator, who deliberately provokes conflicts within Uganda and in neighboring countries, brutalizes Uganda’s political opposition and feasts on money stolen from Ugandan taxpayers, all the while beguiling naïve Western journalists and diplomats with his signature charm.

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Who is Uganda’s enigmatic leader Yoweri Museveni? Since seizing power 33 years ago, his army has profoundly reshaped the politics of central and eastern Africa, and yet few outside of this region have even heard of him.

To some, Museveni is a visionary strategist who helped topple three brutal dictators, revived Uganda’s economy, fought the AIDS epidemic and played a steady-handed diplomatic role in a volatile region. But for others, Museveni is himself a brutal dictator, who deliberately provokes conflicts within Uganda and in neighboring countries, brutalizes Uganda’s political opposition and feasts on money stolen from Ugandan taxpayers and foreign aid programs, all the while beguiling naïve Western journalists and diplomats with his signature charm.

I’ve been reporting on Uganda for almost 25 years, and I still find Museveni fascinating. As a rebel leader during the early 1980s, his shape-shifting exploits were legendary. Again and again, his small band of rebels would menace and outwit Uganda’s much larger national army and then melt away into the bush. Ugandans joke that Museveni could turn into a cat and walk through roadblocks.

William Pike, who served as editor of Uganda’s government-owned New Vision newspaper from 1986-2006 has almost certainly had more contact with Museveni than any other non-Ugandan writer. Pike’s gripping new book Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda provides an insider’s view of the Ugandan leader and his movement.

By all accounts, Pike is a highly effective editor and manager. Former employees have described him to me as a gentle boss who ran a productive, disciplined newsroom. He wasn’t afraid to go after cases of corruption involving senior cabinet ministers and even sporadic cases of torture and extra-judicial killings carried out by Museveni’s security forces. Under his leadership, the New Vision soon became Uganda’s most popular publication. I’m personally acquainted with Pike and have always found him kind, intelligent and extremely likeable. His book is also very well-written.

Unfortunately however, Combatants presents an overly flattering image of Museveni’s regime that belies reality, overlooks recent scholarship that challenges Pike’s version of events and sometimes contradicts the findings of Pike’s own New Vision reporters.

***

Pike first met Museveni in 1984, when the young reporter snuck behind enemy lines during the so-called “bush war” against Uganda’s then-president Milton Obote. By then, Museveni’s rebels known as the National Resistance Army, or NRA– controlled a significant part of the Luwero Triangle, an 8000 square mile area northwest of Kampala that had been the site of intense fighting. Until then, the bush war was viewed internationally as a minor skirmish, but Pike’s articles for the UK Observer and Guardian newspapers helped bring Museveni’s struggle to the attention of western policymakers.

The Luwero Triangle is the rural homeland of the Baganda people—Uganda’s largest ethnic group. Soon after launching his rebellion, Museveni, a Munyankole from western Uganda, promised Baganda leaders that if he managed to take power, he’d restore their traditional kingdom, which Obote had violently crushed in 1966. In return, the Baganda allowed Museveni to base his forces in their villages. When Museveni’s men attacked army and police posts, Obote’s undisciplined and brutal soldiers responded with disproportionate force, killing anyone, including innocent villagers whom they suspected of supporting the rebels. During his visit, Pike was shown areas littered with human skulls. Quoting Museveni, he estimated that Obote’s forces had killed some 300,000 people—roughly half the population of the Luwero Triangle at the time.

The UK government, which supported Obote, was claiming that some 12,000 people had been killed on all sides of the fighting. If Pike was correct, Obote was responsible for genocide, and Britain’s support was unconscionable. By then, the Reagan administration was already distancing itself from Obote. While Pike was in Luwero, then Assistant Secretary of State Eliot Abrams told a congressional hearing that Obote’s regime had killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people.

Normally such a huge figure would be referenced by a reputable source, ideally a forensic investigation, but like Pike, Abrams cited no independent source for those figures. When asked by Congressman Don Bonker where his source for the Luwero death toll came from, Abrams equivocated. “You wouldn’t be able to document those numbers,” he said. “There is no way of measuring directly, but there seems to be some kind of consensus that that is the order of magnitude.” Around the same time, the Washington Post also published a brief article on Uganda. Citing unnamed refugee monitoring groups and “official US sources” the author, who had not visited Uganda, also wrote that Obote’s forces had killed 100,000 to 200,000 people.

Since then, a more complex narrative about the Luwero skulls has emerged which Pike does not explore in Combatants. Not only is there no evidence that the death toll was as high as Pike and Reagan Administration officials claimed, Obote’s army, though undisciplined and brutal, may not have been responsible for all the casualties that did occur. Most deaths probably resulted from disease and hunger as a result of mass displacement. In 1983, the government launched a counter offensive against the NRA, and in the process rounded up more than 100,000 villagers into squalid camps without adequate food, water and medicine. The NRA then ordered the evacuation of those who remained in the area. As thousands of peasants trudged north with the NRA, more reportedly died. When the NRA retook those areas, the bones of the casualties of these operations could have been among those shown to Pike.

Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters.

The NRA was also probably not blameless. Shortly after Pike’s visit, a journalist for the London Daily Telegraph visited one of the villages where the army was alleged to have massacred hundreds of people a year earlier. He found “nothing to support [these] claims.” The army had withdrawn to allow the Telegraph reporter to freely interview the chief and villagers. “The surprise these people showed when asked about a massacre could not have been an act,” he wrote. However, they did mention that Museveni’s rebels had recently killed three men and four children. Some of the rebels came from the area and locals recognized them, even though they were partially disguised in army uniforms. “They were dressed halfway,” the chief said. “I mean they were in army and civilian clothes, all mixed up.”

Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters. In his 2011 memoir Betrayed By My Leader, former NRA Major John Kazoora describes an NRA massacre of Obote-loyalists belonging to the Alur tribe. “They would dig a shallow grave,” he writes, “tie you [up] and lie you facing the ground and crack your skull using an old hoe called Kafuni.”

In some cases, the NRA may even have killed its own. At first, Museveni mainly recruited from his own Banyankole tribe and Buganda, but after Obote brutally forced Uganda-based Rwandan Tutsi refugees into camps where many starved and died, some of them joined the rebellion as well. They grew close to Museveni, whose Hima people are closely related to the Tutsis, and soon began to dominate the force. Toward the end of the war, Baganda NRA soldiers began dying mysteriously and some suspected foul play. “We were fighting tribalism,” one Muganda NRA veteran told The Monitor newspaper, “but it was growing in the bush.” In 1983, Museveni warned all Westerners, including aid workers and diplomats, to leave Uganda at once. “We don’t possess the power to prevent accidents,” he wrote in a signed letter issued by his representatives in Kenya. Three weeks later, a Canadian engineer was gunned down on his doorstep in Kampala; four other European aid workers were killed a few months later. While the killers were never definitively identified, the NRA had kidnapped and released four other Swiss hostages and a French doctor around the same time.

***

In July 1985, Obote was toppled by his own army. The NRA continued to battle for power as desultory peace talks dragged on in Nairobi. Eventually, the NRA took Kampala from the disorganized, weak Ugandan government forces, and Museveni was sworn in in January 1986.

Back in London, a series of glowing tributes to Museveni appeared in the Observer and Guardian newspapers, many of them written by Pike. “Polite Guerrillas End Fourteen Years of Torture and Killing,” read one headline; “The Pearl of Africa Shines Again,” read another. According to his admirers, Museveni was Robin Hood, Che Guevara, and Field Marshal Montgomery all rolled into one.

As the war was winding down, Pike and Times of London journalist Richard Dowden toured NRA held areas, where villagers unanimously told them that all the atrocities were the fault of Obote’s forces; none were committed by the NRA, they said. However, both journalists were being escorted by NRA officers. Under the circumstances, it’s conceivable that villagers might have been afraid to report NRA atrocities, if they knew of any.

In recent years, opposition politicians including Kizza Besigye who served as Museveni’s doctor during the bush war, have called for a forensic investigation of the Luwero killings. Museveni has refused. Such an investigation would be very difficult in any case, since the NRA ordered locals to rebury the bones or gather them in memorial sites after the war.

Whatever the reality, the Luwero skulls provided Museveni with political capital early on. Shortly after coming to power, he escorted diplomats around the Luwero Triangle, pointing out the scattered remains and mass graves that Pike had seen. This helped bolster international support for Museveni, who came to be seen as Uganda’s best hope for a way out of the quagmire of its bloody history. Billions of foreign aid dollars would soon flow into his treasury.

According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns

During the 1996 presidential campaigns, the New Vision reported that Museveni’s main challenger, Paul Ssemogerere was planning to invite Milton Obote back from exile and appoint him to his cabinet. Ssemogerere vigorously denied this, but Pike insisted it was true. The article was published alongside a Museveni campaign ad with images of Luwero skulls heaped up in a pyramid and the following slogan:

“Don’t forget the past. Over one million Ugandans, our brothers, sisters, family and friends, lost their lives. YOUR VOTE COULD BRING IT BACK.”

According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns. After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”

More recently, Uganda’s tourism board has proposed creating a museum to commemorate those killed by previous regimes, including the Luwero dead.

***

Combatants also covers the early years of the war in northern Uganda that would give rise to the terrifying warlord Joseph Kony. But here, again, Pike paints an overly rosy picture of the NRA’s role. After Museveni was sworn in, his troops continued to pursue soldiers of the former Ugandan army, most of whom came from northern and eastern Uganda. In March 1986, former government soldiers in Acholiland—comprising the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum—finally put down their guns. When the NRA arrived in Gulu they were “disciplined, friendly and respectful,” according to New Vision journalist Caroline Lamwaka. They requested the former army soldiers to surrender their weapons and some did so. Then in late April, the NRA began conducting raids on villages where they suspected guns were still being hidden. Property was looted, women were raped and unarmed people were shot and killed. Some Acholi ex-soldiers who surrendered were taken to Western Uganda and never seen again. As political scientist Adam Branch puts it, the NRA appeared to be launching “a counter-insurgency without an insurgency.” In August 1986, a few thousand former members of Obote’s army who had escaped over the border to Sudan invaded and attacked the NRA. In turn, NRA attacks against Acholi civilians escalated, and more rebel groups, including Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army soon emerged. Uganda’s twenty-year northern war was soon underway.

After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”

In Combatants, Pike attributes the NRA atrocities to a few bad apples in the ranks or to poorly integrated former rebel groups, including one named FEDEMU, that weren’t mainstream NRA. But the New Vision’s Caroline Lamwaka disputes this. “I do not agree with the common argument advanced by some NRM officials, as well as some Acholi,” she writes in her posthumously published memoir,

“that it was the actions of FEDEMU soldiers that caused the rebellion….the NRA proper is equally to blame for the mess. If it were only FEDEMU, war would not have broken out in Teso and Lango, or in the whole of Acholi. The government’s argument that the war was due to former [government] soldiers fighting to recover “lost glory” or the “soft and easy life” or that they were “criminals” who feared to face the law, also misrepresents and oversimplifies the complex causes of the conflict.”

Throughout Combatants, Pike emphasizes how Museveni’s government respected media freedom, and insists that he was never prevented from printing stories critical of the government. However, he does not mention that many journalists have received bribes and death threats from the regime, and some have been tortured, including his own employee Lamwaka, quoted above. In 1988, she was assaulted by a Ugandan army officer after reporting on cattle thefts by government forces. In her memoir, she writes that what she experienced was so humiliating she could not describe it in print.

Pike also downplays NRA abuses in eastern Uganda, where another rebel group emerged after the NRA, which was at first welcomed by locals, committed atrocities similar to those in Acholiland. He downplays Museveni’s involvement in arming the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990, setting the stage for the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis. Pike also downplays Museveni’s responsibility for the Congo war which claimed over five million lives. According to Pike, Museveni ordered his troops not to engage in business on Congolese soil. He nevertheless fails to explain how Museveni’s own brother and son came to be linked to a company that traded in smuggled Congolese diamonds during this time.

***

During the 1990s, Pike and other western journalists helped create a new narrative about central Africa. By then, many of Africa’s independence movements were a mess–in part because of western Cold War meddling, but also because of the limited capabilities of some African leaders. But Museveni, along with Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, would be celebrated in the Western media as Africa’s great new hope. All had come to power by the gun and distained democracy, but made well-spoken promises to keep their countries in order and concentrate on development.

Western leaders from Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the President of the World Bank quickly bought into the idea that Africa needed “strong leadership” –a wiggle phrase which could mean anything from a firm stance on corruption to outright tyranny. Foreign aid and military hardware flowed into the coffers of the “new leaders”. But even as the chorus of praise was rising around them, they were using Western largesse to escalate wars with their neighbors, giving rise to an orgy of violence that would claim millions of lives from Eritrea to Uganda to Congo and southern Sudan.

***

In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents….”

Pike never questions whether Museveni’s harsh repression, not democracy, might have been the source of these problems; nor does he ask himself whether this repression might help explain why Uganda was so riddled with rebel groups in the first place. There is something tragic about Pike’s Combatants, which could have been a much more powerful book. Where it falls short is in the matter of empathy, like the half-hearted white religious leaders who supported civil rights in the southern United States in principle, but chastised Martin Luther King for what they considered his “unwise and untimely” civil rights activism.

In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents.

“The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner,” wrote King in frustration,“but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

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The Politics of Ill Health and the Immortality of the African Big Man

Only when politicians, eschew personality cults, and accept that the offices they occupy are not personal fiefdoms, will they allow the evolution and strengthening of democratic systems and institutions.

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The Politics of Ill Health and the Immortality of the African Big Man
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Ken Odhiambo Okoth, Member of Parliament (MP) for Kibra Constituency in Nairobi, has been in the news a lot over the last few years, mainly because of his stellar performance in his role. From late last year, however, he was ‘trending’ in the mainstream and social media not because of building a Girls’ High school at a cost that fellow MPs claim to use to put up pit latrines in their constituencies, but because he came out and disclosed that he was battling cancer. Granted, Ken is not the first Kenyan politician to disclose affliction by cancer. A few years back, Senator, Beth Mugo boldly disclosed that she had breast cancer and spoke encouragingly of her treatment journey and ‘victory’. Kisumu Governor Professor Anyang’ Nyongó, has also been public about his prostate cancer illness and treatment. Recently while breaking ground of a Cancer Diagnostic and treatment centre in Kisumu, he self-referenced as among the ‘growing cancer statistics’. Yet what makes Ken Okoth’s disclosure more significant is its gravity.

Ken Okoth, at forty-one, is among the younger crop of legislators in Kenya. He is not your typical cancer patient since many people still associate cancer with old age. When one is diagnosed with cancer at such a ‘young’ age, this apparent anomaly becomes the starting point of the conversation. Ken Okoth publicly disclosed that his colorectal cancer had progressed to stage four; meaning that he had no chance of a reversal, or treatment, only clinical management. Okoth was basically announcing that his disease was terminal and that his demise from this disease is imminent. This announcement is unprecedented in two ways: Okoth is a Kenyan politician and admitting mortality and terminality is a complete no-no among Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s political class. Secondly, as an African, dalliance with death is totally anathema. Denial of the eventuality of death, is deeply wired in our African DNA and psyche, more so in the mental constitution of the African political class.

The ‘Houdini’ Syndrome

Non-disclosure and denial of ill-health status reaches comic proportions in Africa. In the last thirty years, out of the twenty-one heads of state who have died of illness, eleven died in hospitals abroad. Usually in Europe. One assumes that an individual seeking medical care when and where they can find it is normal. However, the lengths that state machinery goes into denying, lying or explaining the ‘disappearance’ of politicians when unwell, seeking treatment, or at times has even passed away is simply bizarre.

There was the case of Togolese president, Gnassingbe Eyadama whose office strenuously denied he was ailing until he died in an airplane overflying Tunisian airspace while being rushed abroad for treatment.  Then there was Chadian leader, Pascal Yoadimnadji who died of diabetes related illnesses in Paris as his office was reassuring the public that he was improving and would soon return home.  Ghanaian head of state, John Atta Mills’ ill-heath was a loudly murmured topic. He was ‘rumoured’ to be suffering from throat cancer.  When he died in 2012, he had previously had to deny rumours of his death twice!  Even after he died, there were conflicting reports on the cause of his death. Gabonese President, Omar Bongo was reportedly in Barcelona, Spain for a whole month supposedly resting after the “intense emotional shock” of losing his wife.  Despite stories circulating that he was at an advanced stage of cancer, his office denied and underplayed his illness.  Eventually, pressure mounted because the host country media did not play along.  His office admitted he was seeking ‘routine’ medical tests.  After two days of denials of leaked information that the leader had died, his office announced his ‘sudden death’.  Then there was the president of Nigeria, Umar Musa Yar’Adua, who was reportedly unwell and sought treatment in Saudi Arabia.  He disappeared from the public for four months before ‘sneaking’ back into the nation’s capital under cover of darkness, retreated from public eyes until his death three months later.  His illness and cause of death remains a topic for conjecture to date.

In Guinea, President, Lanasana Conte had been ailing and going in and out of the country for medical treatment.  At one point the editor of a paper printed an unflattering picture of him looking frail.  He was promptly arrested and forced to publish an earlier picture showing the leader looking better.  Eventually, when he died of ‘long illness’, it was announced that he had ‘hid his physical suffering’ from the nation for years because of his dedication to duty’.  There was the case of the Ethiopian leader, Meles Zanawi who was supposedly in a health facility in Belgium for two months during which time rumours of the seriousness of his health, and even death, were stringently denied. When eventually his demise was announced, it was said that he had suddenly contracted an infection.  Among the most morbidly hilarious case was of Bingu Wa Mutharika who suffered a massive heart attack at home.  The rumour mills were busy churning out stories that he had died, but even as this was happening, he was flown off to a hospital in South Africa where after a few days his death (second death) was announced.  Zambian head of state, Levy Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and was hospitalised in Paris.  His office denied for almost two months that his condition was grave.  Unconfirmed rumours of his death led to the South African parliament observing a minute of silence that was later retracted after much embarrassment.  Back at home, there were demands that the state of the leader’s health and fitness to continue holding the office be confirmed by independent clinicians.  After much prevarication his demise was announced.  Ironically, Micheal Sata one among those who had demanded the leader’s health be confirmed, would a few years later be in the same predicament and he himself passed away in a London hospital after the standard denials of ill-health.  There is a pathological obsession with secrecy and an official playing of smoke and mirrors game with health of African political leaders as a strategy to subvert democracy by undermining accountability and staving off opposition

God Syndrome: Mortality Versus Immortality

Opacity, in matters health among politicians, even when there are tell-tale signs of frailty is intriguing. The kind of photographs Ken Okoth recently released, shows the image of an individual ravaged by chemotherapy. This reveal, by a Kenyan politician and a sitting MP, viewed together with the self-disclosure of his diagnosis brings onto the public space the issue of mortality and immortality of an African politician. In that respect Ken Okoth’s gesture is a first.

Physical infirmity, illness, and death are ultimate equalizers of all mankind. Illness shears away all the pomp and grandeur. Gone are the wailing sirens of chase cars, the coterie of hangers-on and saluting body-guards bullying all and sundry. Illness takes away the guard of honour, the decorated podium and customised lectern. Illness brings a different type of media attention. That which was craved for and adored is avoided and shunned. Politicians instead plead that their privacy be respected. Only sneaked pictures will be seen and not the ‘selfies’ Ken Okoth provided. The image of an ailing African politician underscores his or her humanity. While this should be obvious, the African politician strives to maintain a demi-god status. Note the names that they have given themselves: Osagyefo, Ngwazi, Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, ‘Mtukufu’; the glorious,adored and venerated ones.

This self-deification is by design and a carefully choreographed strategy. Approximation to immortality suggests infallibility, indispensability, omnipotence and omniscience.  There is political capital and entitlement in omnipotence because it scares away any opposition or contestation. During the late 1970s, President Kenyatta, old and ailing, began to appear less and less in public. Some politicians around him, began to plot his succession, or rather manipulate his succession to deny his Vice President a direct line to the coveted seat. The Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, who had his own ideas of how the succession should play out, declared that it was treasonous to imagine, think, encompass or utter thoughts surrounding the death of the President. Njonjo, cobbled up some constitutional interpretation that made imagination treasonous and by so doing rendered the ailing Kenyatta immortal. It was not only that one could not voice thoughts about his demise, it was treachery to even think he could die!

A few years before this, the renowned South African cardiologist, Dr. Christian Barnard had visited the country and though the state sought to treat his visit as some innocuous touristic event with no significance, rumours went around that he was in Kenya to examine Mzee’s heart. At no point was the public briefed on the prognosis of their president’s health. The culture of mystique and secrecy surrounding the life and health of the leader was carefully orchestrated to stave off any opposition. If a leader is deemed to be mortal, then it is fair game to challenge them. Njonjo was able to use this interpretation of the constitution to effectively scuttle Moi’s opponents and when Mzee died in 1978 he comfortably rose to presidency.

It is no wonder that during Moi’s twenty-four-year tenure he never ‘fell ill’. The health of the president never came into the public domain. As Moi’s reign rolled out, and multi-party politics was re-introduced, he faced more challenges than his predecessor, but his health remained a well-managed secret. The deification continued with ‘praise songs’ such as ‘Tawala Kenya Tawala’ and ‘Fimbo ya Nyayo’ composed and sung to serenade him. Today, retired President Moi is nearing a century, he is not in the best of health. Retired President Kibaki is 87 years old, and after his well-documented accident, his health status is left to speculation and rumours. Once in a while there will be unconfirmed reports of sightings of these elder statesmen at hospitals, but no official mention. Even in retirement, the myth of immortality prevails.

In America and UK in contrast the nation is kept very informed about the health of former leaders. When Ronald Reagan was stricken by Alzheimer’s disease the public were duly informed, the media gave regular updates on his progress right to the point they broke the news of his demise. George W. Bush battled Parkinson’s disease while former President Jimmy Carter managed brain cancer under full public glare. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s health was widely reported as she battled dementia.

The Passing Cloud Syndrome: Indispensability Versus Ephemerality

Illness is nature’s way of reminding us of the transitory, ephemeral nature of life, and with it, the reality that none of us is indispensable. When a bout of illness takes one away from the regular cycle of things, it creates a vacuum, albeit temporary, that must get filled. It matters not how long one is indisposed, but ‘life goes on’ and the gap is filled. The constant turning of the wheels of life is a lesson that African politicians loath. The desire to shroud instances when one is indisposed yet systems continue to run stems from the desire to maintain control. The fear of ‘looming shadows’ is among the African politician’s biggest fear. This is why it is common to hear politicians complaining about ‘political tourists’, a euphemism for potential opponents.

During a presidential campaign speech, President Moi corrupted the Kiswahili proverb, stating that “Paka akiondoka…atarudi tena”. Convoluting it to suggest that, when the cats away …it will surely return. In his utterance he was negating the wisdom that when gaps are created, others fill them up and even thrive. Moi was referring to a period he had travelled out of the country, at a time he had refused to appoint a substantive deputy. There had been questions posed on who was in charge in his absence. Moi, effectively rubbished the idea that anyone was good enough to deputize or replace him.

The notion of indispensability and irreplaceability stems from the merging of an individual’s ego and the office they occupy; they conflate themselves and the office and develop a sense of entitlement to it. Colin Powell, the first African American Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his most illuminating primer on leadership, gives tips that African leaders should take to heart. He poignantly says, ‘Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it”. Equating oneself to an office is the height of megalomania a problem that has afflicted African politics for ages. Individuals feel entitled to hold offices and take any form of contest personally and not as expression of democratic processes. In Africa, challenging an incumbent is treated as a personal affront not only by the individual but also by the people and the system. The way that opposition politicians are persecuted in almost every corner of Africa is indicative of this. The feeling of personal ownership of political office, is among the biggest challenge to the entrenchment of democracy in Africa.   Acknowledgement of mortality as Ken Okoth has done would separate the individual from an office. Only when politicians, eschew personality cults, and accept that offices they occupy are not personal fiefdoms, will they allow the evolution and strengthening of democratic systems and institutions.

Mystique Versus Ordinary: The Lwanda Magere Complex

There is a well-known legend of Lwanda Magere, the mythical Luo warrior. The story goes that the indomitable warrior’s body was stone-solid, and during battle enemy spears would simply glance off him. His invincibility in mystical power rendered his body as hard as a rock.   The secret of his super-human exploit was a closely guarded secret, but once it was revealed to his enemies by a bride he married from the rival tribe, he was soon vanquished. African politicians have delusions of invincibility upon attainment of the status of ‘mheshimiwa’. In this delusion of super-human status and invincibility falling ill, admitting to being ill and being in need of medical attention would be akin to conceding that they are indeed human and can be vanquished.

Maintaining this image of invincibility is a strategy to stave off any opposition to their elective positions. To maintain this image, any sign of illness is managed confidentially and an alternative narrative is woven to explain any physical changes or absence. Ken Okoth has provided a very different narrative. He has shown a human side of a politician and everyone is now lining up to secure a selfie with him. In the recent past, there is a tragi-comic case where an ailing politician in London was visited by his family who went on to report that they had even eaten a meal of ‘ugali’ with the patient only for the man to die even before the ink had dried on their statement. There was a Governor who was terminally ill and would ‘disappear’ from his County for extended periods, yet his office would issue official denials that he was ill until he unfortunately passed away.

African politicians understand the art and benefit of mystique well. The African politician does not do ordinary; all efforts are made to demonstrate that they are extra ordinary. Alternatively, America’s first black President Obama was the high-priest of ordinary with several every day Joe instances of going about life. African politicians once elected into office, lose even the capability to carry their own cell-phone. They lose the motor-skill ability of opening car-doors or even pulling a seat for themselves. Nothing demonstrates African leader’s sense of the mystique than their motorcades. The sheer power-show, in face of the poor citizenry, is supposed to demonstrate the leader’s power and invincibility. Ironically, the more the display of power, the more it demonstrates fear and vulnerability. In some countries, the leader’s motorcade includes a phalanx of horses and armoured vehicles. The large motor-cades and the heavily armed coterie of bodyguards are a modern day version of the fetishes worn by a ‘mganga’ – witch-doctor. The mganga wore a human skull, bird feathers, talons and beaks, snake skins and genitalia of reptiles. The African leader uses the same shock-and-awe tactics.

Now picture this politician, once surrounded by all these talismans and paraphernalia of power getting a bout of diarrhoea, syphilis, cholera, shingles, dementia or even diseases more ‘prestigious’ as Parkinson’s, Diabetes or Hypertension. The body ends up racked by aches, coughs and blisters and the management of health results in an emaciated image of their former selves. The myth would be shattered forever; he would be Lwanda Magere whose secret is out and the enemy soldiers would be creeping to spear his shadow. Kenyan politicians are now trooping to be seen paying homage to Ken Okoth whose ordinariness and non-mystique humanity has resonated so powerfully with the public. The writing is out there on the wall for them to read as found in the Book of Daniel: mene, mene, tekel, Upharsin. Ken Okoth’s celebrity status and popularity is not derived from flaunting of power, portrayed invincibility and omniscience, but from his exemplary service, accountability and honesty.

Omniscience Versus Vulnerability

At that point when illness strips the politician of all semblance of power, their biggest fear comes to the fore; that of placing themselves in the hands of others, admitting that there are others more capable than themselves.

There is nothing as humbling as being asked to strip and step behind an examination curtain, lie down and be subjected to examination. This feeling of vulnerability and helplessness is probably what leads many African political leaders to seek medical treatment abroad – where they are unrecognisable, basically nobody. The thought of being reduced to a normal human being with ailments is probably too much to bear. Some politicians might believe they are not safe being in such a vulnerable condition in a place where they have done so much harm.

There is also the fear that the doctor examining them might be one whose upward mobility has been affected by the poor policies they have passed or failed to pass. It could be a clinician whose working conditions have been compromised by the pilferage of the health budget. The facility could be one whose equipment are sub-standard and supplied with fake drugs because of the corrupt deal they cut during procurement.

This alone justifies running away to seek treatment elsewhere. During his presidency, the deposed Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, would reportedly seek medical treatment in Singapore. He would travel to the South Asian nation to go under the radar for weeks before returning home. In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari has spent long periods in Europe seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed illness. Every time he does so, the trips are shrouded in secrecy even as they are funded by the Nigerian taxpayer.

Frail health or illness is not the kind of thing that one would wish another, but there is no other experience that underscores equality, humanity, vulnerability and ephemerality. The problems of democracy in Africa stem from a failure to recognise these basic principles of good governance. An appreciation of equality and fraternity of all humanity would ensure equal treatment. Recognition of the non-permanence of life or situations would ensure the development of systems and institutions and not personality cults and encourage transitional politics.

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