Run Kijana Run: The Crime of Being a Poor Young Man in Kenya
‘The traveller whose name is not Annah remembers thinking about all the mothers she had seen on television, clutching old photographs, speaking of sons who never made it home. She wonders how it must have been for them – sitting, waiting, hoping that each knock on the door was from their son’s fist.’
These words from Ndinda Kioko in Sometime Before Maulidi seem to speak directly to the everyday trauma of families living in Nairobi settlements, where the police bullet informs much of the street talk and young men live in constant fear of death. Most do not live to see their children grow up.
Just the other day, a friend from Dandora called asking for help. Police had arrested him during a spontaneous demonstration by residents after yet another killing of two young men by police in broad daylight, and in plain view of many. Both murdered men had been rummaging at the dumping site to find sellable goods to make their daily living when they were shot dead. One of them was deaf. Though both deaths mattered, it was especially the murder of the deaf man that sparked outrage among residents. To them, he embodied ‘innocence,’ as one resident put it, and they all knew him as a kind soul who kept mostly to himself.
Mathare is just one of 158 urban settlements in Nairobi, and Nairobi is just one of many cities and towns in Kenya. This leads us to conclude that the total number of police killings per year in Kenya most likely puts us in the top 10 of the world
Our friend raised his voice during the demonstration and paid for it by spending a night at Buru Buru Police Station. The next day he told us that he had been severely beaten while in custody, and charged with ‘incitement.’ This shows both how young and poor men in Kenya have become automatically ‘criminals’ in the eyes of the police and the perils of speaking up against excessive use of force by the police.
Below, we discuss both the scale and scope of police killings in Mathare, and in Kenyan in general, and the dangers involved in speaking up for the rights of crime suspects.
At Least One Young Man Shot a Week
Shockingly, the murder of these two young men in Dandora last week by the police was not a first or a single event. Only a couple of days before this incident, we documented the police shootings of two young male students (from the Technical University of Kenya) in Mlango Kubwa (Mathare), which led to the death of one of them later that evening. And this incident, again, happened only two days after police shot and killed several young men in Kayole on April 20. In fact, such assassinations by the police have taken the lives of thousands of young and poor men over the past decade in Kenya.
To give an indication of this informed estimate, executions of young, poor and male crime suspects by the police have led to the death of at least one young man from Mathare, a Nairobi settlement, per week on average between January 2013 and December 2016. Put differently, over the past three years at least 156 poor young men in this settlement have been killed by a police bullet. Our data is not comprehensive, for it only reflects the cases we have been able to verify through multiple sources — a dangerous and arduous task in and of itself due to constant police harassment. It thus has to be emphasised that the actual death rate in Mathare as a result of a police bullet may be much, much higher.
Also, Mathare is just one of 158 urban settlements in Nairobi, and Nairobi is just one of many cities and towns in Kenya where such killings occur regularly. This leads us to conclude that the total number of police killings per year in Kenya most likely puts us in the top-ten of the world.
Who Are Killed by Police, and Why?
All families in Mathare have lost a loved one to a police bullet. This means that all families have lost a father, son, or brother, neighbour, nephew or grandchild. Alongside the incredible pain of losing a loved one, the economic impact cannot be understated. Many young men who were killed by police over the years took care of their extended families; including their often single mother, siblings, wives and young children. Their murders have thus left entire families in a situation of dire poverty.
Most of the cases we have documented over the years concern young and poor men between 13 and 25 years of age with no criminal record, many of whom have been shot by police during school holidays, while walking around with friends or just chatting with neighbours around the corner of their own homes. Some were executed in plain view and in broad daylight, others were taken to back alleys or shot under the cover of night-time.
Police killings in Kenya are generally committed by police officers from different police units and organisations. They form an integral part of policing in Mathare (and other urban settlements and particular rural regions in Kenya — such as North Eastern). The use of excessive force and executions should thus be considered a structural approach by the police in dealing with crime suspects (and terror suspects — but in this article we focus on crime suspects). The general narrative used to legitimise such killings is the threat these suspects allegedly pose to the officers in question, even if the suspects had no weapons on them and were shot in the back.
Police killings in Kenya are generally committed by police officers from different police units and organisations. They form an integral part of policing in Mathare
Also, the government, and by extension the police, often justify the shoot-to-kill policy by declaring it as an effective approach to curb crime in Mathare and other urban settlements, even if there is no evidence to substantiate such claims. On the contrary, crime has not gone down over the past decade. This line of thinking, however, frames such killings as an effective means of getting rid of active thieves and deterring emerging ones.
Lastly, the lack of public outcry over these killings tells us that the middle class seems to have bought into the legitimating narratives that implicate these young men as imminent threats to society at large and to police officers in particular. Hence, shooting poor young men who are suspected of being thieves is considered quite legitimate within the public domain. This is illustrated by the widespread support for the known police officer who was filmed killing two young male crime suspects in Eastleigh in front of a large crowd of onlookers on March 31.
Most of These Killings Are Unlawful
Legally, a ‘suspect’ is said to be a person thought to be guilty of a crime, and what exactly constitutes a crime is clearly stipulated in the Penal Code. In this sense, a crime has to be ongoing or to have been reported to the police by a witness. This means that the police either have to be present in the course of an ongoing criminal act or in the course of investigating the crime to have acquired enough evidence to arrest the person thought to have committed it. The Kenya Police Service have the duty to maintain law and order, investigate crime and apprehend offenders. In doing so, they are allowed to use force, but only to directly protect themselves and/or the lives of others.
All actions by police that result in injury to or death of a person have to be reported, a requirement of the current Kenya Police Service Act. Failure to do so is considered an offence, yet rarely are these events reported by police officers to their superiors
The emphasis here is on the term ‘directly’, and thus excludes killing suspects that do not instantly threaten the lives of police officers or bystanders. Our extensive documentation, however, reveals that most killings by police occur in situations where the only one under threat is the alleged crime suspect. This is constitutionally deemed illegal, since Article 48-51 of our Constitution guarantees every person the right to due process. According to our research, the majority of police killings can therefore be considered extra-judicial executions (EJEs).
Lack of Official Investigation and Follow-Up
All actions by police that result in injury to or death of a person have to be reported, a requirement of the current Kenya Police Service Act. Failure to do so is considered an offence, yet rarely are these events reported by police officers to their superiors. The said Act further states that the OCS shall also report any use of force by police that causes injury or death to the Independent Policing and Oversight Authority (IPOA). This government body is mandated to investigate all cases of alleged police killings, whether brought to them by the OCS or by human rights defenders like us, and work towards prosecution accordingly. Failure to do so is also considered an offence, yet IPOA rarely follow -up on either.
From one of the first cases that was brought to IPOA in 2012 to the most recent one (of the student in Mlango Kubwa), IPOA is yet to live up to its mandate. Furthermore, the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (KNCHR) is mandated to investigate any accusation of human-rights violations by government officials, such as police officers. The Ombudsman is also mandated to keep the powers of government officials such as police officers in check through investigations and sanctions. All these are government institutions that are paid for with our tax money to provide all Kenyan citizens with oversight of police and protect our civil rights as citizens. Until now, we as grassroots human-rights defenders have not received much support from them in our continuous quest for justice.
Human-Rights Work on the Frontline
Most cases of human-rights violations are reported to community centres in urban settlements that have taken on the herculean task of confronting social injustice through documentation, referral and advocacy against normalised violence meted out on poor people’s bodies. The Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) is such a centre, and cases of rights violation by police are brought to us on a daily basis. Sadly, all these cases pile up in books and documentation forms on the other side of town; cases we carefully document, often with great risk to our own lives. We duly continue to try to report all these cases to IPOA, KNHRC and the Ombudsman by sitting in empty hallways for hours on end, days even, and by walking from one office to the other, patiently pacing from one side of the city to the other on foot.
We still hope we can move these bodies to action, to live up to their mandates and start helping us systematically protect the civil rights of Kenyan citizens. That they can be prodded into action was illustrated by their demonstrations against extrajudicial killings after the bodies of ‘the Mavoko Three’ were discovered last year, even if these actions were fleeting. Yet, their involvement was brought back momentarily by the recent video of the aforementioned ‘Eastleigh Killings’ that went viral on social media, but the sheer fact that it takes a high-profile case or social media hype to draw their attention and prompt them into actions does not give us great confidence in their commitment to structurally fight this grave social injustice side by side with us.
We duly continue to try to report all these cases to IPOA, KNHRC and the Ombudsman by sitting in empty hallways for hours on end, days even, and by walking from one office to the other, patiently pacing from one side of the city to the other on foot
For us, this is a daily reality. It concerns our brothers, friends and fathers. Our children. We do not have the luxury to look away and not act, for we are losing a generation of our own young men … yet again. Despite fear for our own lives, this drives us to continue to document and follow up cases of police killings in Mathare. Just weeks ago, one of our campaign leaders fighting police brutality was stuffed into the boot of a notorious white Probox by well-known police officers, where they mentally tortured and threatened him for three hours until they released him. What will happen next time?
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Kenya’s Police Are Violent and Unaccountable – Should They Be Abolished?
After Kenya’s independence in 1963, the police were “Africanised” but retained much of their colonial character. Under Daniel arap Moi’s authoritarian regime (1978-2002), the police continued to play a key role in repressing dissent.
A world without the police is inconceivable to many people. The police are viewed as part of modern society’s foundation, ensuring democracy and keeping people safe.
In practice, however, police around the world sometimes repress social movements, stifle democracy, and exacerbate social and racial injustice. Across the African continent, they often use force to prop up repressive regimes. And in Kenya in particular, extortion and extrajudicial killings by the police are rampant.
Kenya is unusual for its extensive attempts to reform the police. Reform efforts began in earnest in 2008, when the police were found to be complicit in post-election violence. And yet, after 15 years and billions of shillings spent, the police reform project has largely failed.
The Kenyan police remain repressive, unaccountable and effectively unreformable. Many citizens complain about how the police treat them like ATMs – a source of cash. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the police killed tens of Kenyans while enforcing curfew measures.
We’ve conducted hundreds of interviews, discussion groups and over a decade of ethnographic research into how counter-terrorist policing and securitisation have shaped Nairobi. And in turn, how local residents respond to police violence and build their own practices of care, mutual aid and security.
We have come to the conclusion that the police make most people feel less safe. Many residents told us they don’t depend on the police for their safety: they keep each other safe. Given the impasse of police reform – and citizen responses to this – there is a strong argument to be made for the abolition of the Kenyan police altogether.
Policing at an impasse
Modern police institutions made their first appearances on the African continent as part of colonisation and the expansion of European capitalist interests.
In Kenya, the roots of policing lie in early colonial “conquest”. The Imperial British East African Company developed security forces to protect its expanding economic interests in the 1890s, and the Kenya-Uganda Railroad developed its own police force in 1902.
After Kenya’s independence in 1963, the police were “Africanised” but retained much of their colonial character. Under Daniel arap Moi’s authoritarian regime (1978-2002), the police continued to play a key role in repressing dissent.
There have been calls to reform the Kenyan police for decades. But the 2007-08 post-election violence, in which police were complicit in widespread ethnic violence, accelerated attempts at reform.
Over the past 15 years, police reform has been enshrined in the 2010 constitution and actualised in numerous acts of parliament. It’s been supported internationally with funding and technical expertise from the UN, the US and the EU, among others. It prompted the reorganisation of the police service and the establishment of civil oversight mechanisms.
Yet, despite all of these efforts, the Kenyan police remain corrupt, violent and unaccountable.
Civilian oversight over the police has proved ineffectual. The Independent Policing Oversight Agency has managed to bring only 12 cases of police violence to conviction out of more than 20,000 complaints received between 2012 and 2021. That is only one out of every 1,667 complaints. The under-resourced agency simply can’t grapple with the immense volume of reported police abuses.
The case for abolition
Police reform has failed. Is it time to consider abolition?
Abolition is not about simply tearing things down, but rather asking what should exist in place of outdated and violent systems that no longer serve people. Abolition is a creative and constructive project with deep philosophical roots.
So why abolish the Kenya police?
- The police are functionally obsolete for most Kenyans. In many low-income neighbourhoods, our research shows that people avoid calling the police to respond to crises or crimes. For many, experience shows that the police can make matters worse.
- The police often exacerbate insecurity, violence and corruption. To provide for their own safety, residents increasingly organise themselves into networks of friends, family and neighbours for basic safety. For instance, women in Mathare, Nairobi, organise their own security practices, which include conflict resolution, de-escalation of violence and support for survivors.
- In more affluent neighbourhoods, residents increasingly rely on private companies to provide security in their compounds. Police are seen as one among many security services available for hire. In our research, the few positive experiences with the Kenyan police were reported (predominantly) by such affluent residents.
- The remaining function of the police is “enforcing order” and protecting the state against society. Officers uphold and protect a rarefied governing class and political elite against the population.
Police abolition, therefore, would mean dismantling ineffective and repressive institutions and replacing them with systems of actual safety, systems that enable society to thrive.
What should replace the police?
When confronted with the idea of “abolition” for the first time, many people often respond: “but who will keep us safe?”
In Nairobi, the answer is to be found in existing social practices. The problem is that there’s a lack of resources to support alternatives to punitive security. We call for defunding the police and investing these resources in such alternatives.
- Invest in communities.When we ask about local security problems, residents often answer that the lack of schools, food, land, quality housing, water, electricity, toilets, healthcare and safe places for kids to play are what cause “insecurity”. Reinvestment in community means funding such social infrastructure to allow people to thrive. This reduces crime and violence.
- Invest in alternative safety mechanisms.This means strengthening dispute-resolution mechanisms that help resolve conflicts without violence. The government needs to support existing social justice centres, networks and movements fighting for change.
When these forms of social reinvestment are pursued, the need for the police is greatly diminished.
Wangui Kimari, Anthropologist, University of Cape Town and Zoltán Glück, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, American University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Nigeria: A Messiah Will Not Fix Country’s Problems
In Nigeria’s recent election cycle, many citizens looked to Peter Obi for change. But the country needs people-led social transformation, not saviors.
On February 25, Nigerians once again took to the polls with a determination that their votes could change the fate of a country in deep despair. For the seventh time since a civilian dispensation began in 1999, Nigerians hoped that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would conduct a free, fair, and credible election. This hope was reinvigorated by the emergence of technology that would ensure, purportedly, a transparent process. Yet, once again, voters had their dreams crushed with an election marred by violence, ballot box snatching, forged results and, of course, voter intimidation and buying. In the days that followed, despite mounting evidence of irregularities and international outcry, INEC declared Bola Ahmed Tinubu, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the winner of the presidential poll. The continuation of a gerontocratic oligarchy was solidified.
Although media attention focused on a young class of voters and the uniqueness of this historical moment, a deeper analysis is necessary. If nothing else, this election provided an opportunity to examine the shifting landscape of Nigeria’s elite electoral politics, and the increasingly complex voting patterns of citizens, while understanding these voters are increasingly a minority—less than 30 percent of the registered voters (about one-tenth of the population) cast their vote.
The dizzying rise of Peter Obi as a “third force” candidate over the last nine months was largely due to a movement of emergent and middle-class youth, the so-called “Obidients,” who used technology to galvanize a youthful base to push forward their candidate. That the Obidient movement was formed, ironically, off the back of the EndSARS movement, is in many ways a direct contradiction. The generation that was “leaderless” now suddenly had a leader. The rate at which young people chose this candidate still gives me whiplash. But there was no shaking their convictions. Obi was their candidate, and no one could shake their belief that a new Nigeria would be formed under his presidency, despite the evidence that he was directly endorsed by the same ruling class that has led to the country’s demise.
Obi is not a revolutionary, a social welfarist, nor even pro labor, but he became the savior many youth were looking for to “rescue” Nigeria. Ironically, the millions of youth that fought the EndSARS battle, and named themselves the leaderless soro soke (“speak up” in Yoruba) generation, did not seek elective office themselves. Rather, many put their eggs in Obi’s basket in supporting an older, veteran politician whose clean cut and soft demeanor led to his near deification. Other EndSARS activists, including Omoyele Sowore, were mocked for running in the election and were seen as not experienced enough for the job. In the end Sowore performed abysmally at the polls, despite his demonstrated commitment to Nigerian youth and human rights record and involvement in the EndSARS protests (Sowore’s African Action Congress polled only 14,608 votes, faring worse than in the 2019 election).
This absolute faith in Obi was demonstrated when his followers patiently waited for five days after the election to hear from him. Instead of sending them into the streets, he advised them to wait for him to challenge the electoral irregularities in the courts. Why did a leaderless generation need a hero?
The contradictions in the EndSARS ideology and the Obidient campaign will be tested in the years ahead. After the Lekki massacre on October 20, 2020 brought the massive street protests of the EndSARS movement to an abrupt halt, many of the sites of protests shut down completely and groups that were loosely organized dismantled into relative silence for almost two years. In fact, there was little indication that EndSARS would evolve into a mass political movement until Peter Obi emerged on the scene in May 2022. The first- and second anniversaries of the Lekki massacre were marked by smaller protests in Lagos and a few other cities, which paled in comparison to the numbers at the 2020 protests. Still, efforts to free many of the prisoners arrested during EndSARS are proving difficult, with some protesters and victims still in jail today. There was no direction, no cohesiveness, and no willingness to move forward at that point. But in May 2022, seemingly out of nowhere, things began to shift. A candidate emerged that many EndSARS protesters seemed to think would be the savior.
Understanding the youth divide
While often lumped into a sum, the category of “youth” is not a single class of people. When Obi was said to carry the youth vote he actually only carried the vote of a particular category of young people, an emergent middle and professional class, who were also some of the most vocal in the EndSARS movement. However, if we are to use the discredited election geography as a proxy for representation, it is clear that this demographic is both well defined and narrow. Major urban areas like Lagos and Abuja pulled towards Obi, as did a few Eastern states. The North Central states including Plateau and Benue asserted their own identity by aligning with Obi, perhaps in a rejection of the Northern Muslim tickets of the Peoples Democratic Party (with whom Atiku Abubaker ran) and the APC.
The 2023 election also forces us to re-examine the dynamics of class, ethnic and religious divides and the deepening malaise of the poor and their disengagement with politics. What is clear from this election, like many before, is that Nigeria has yet to come of age as a democracy; indeed, the conditions for democracy simply do not exist. It is also quite evident that the Nigerian elite are adept at changing the political game to suit the mood of the Nigerian people. Electoral malpractices have shifted over time in response to the increasing pressure of civil society for accountable elections. Strong civil society advocacy from organizations focused on accountability and transparency in government have pushed against electoral practices. While these practices continue, there are significant shifts from previous elections where vote buying was brazen. However, it begs the historical questions: has Nigeria ever had a truly free and fair election, and is the process with which democracy is regenerated through the ballot the path for emancipatory politics? These questions become more relevant as the numbers of voters continue to dwindle, with the 2023 election having the lowest turnout in Nigeria’s electoral history, despite the social media propaganda around the youth vote and the turning tide of discontent that was predicted to shape the election.
Lessons from history
The fact that young people were surprised by the events on February 25 may be indicative of youthful exuberance or a startling lack of knowledge of history. The idea that a ruling class, who had brought the EndSARS struggle to a bloody end, would somehow deliver a free and fair election, needs more critical scrutiny. For those that remember the history of the June 12, 1993 elections—annulled after the popular rise of MKO Abiola—the election is no surprise. But for young people deprived of history education, which has been removed from Nigeria’s curriculum for the past 30 years, the knowledge may be limited. When a young person says they have never seen an election like this, they also cannot be faulted, as many young voters were voting for the first time. Given that many youth seem to underestimate the long history of elections and electoral fraud, the question of intergenerational knowledge and of a public history that seems to be absent from electoral discourse cannot be ignored. It is also hard to fault young voters, in a land where there is no hope, and whatever hope is sought after can be found in the marketplace.
Many of the young organizers were adept at reading their constituencies and mobilizing their bases, but some of the elephants in the room were ignored. One of these elephants, of course, was the deep geographic and ethno-religious and class divisions between the North and the South. This is evident in the voting patterns in the North West and North East where Obi’s campaign did not make a dent. Though Obi ran with a vice president from the North, the majority of votes in Northern zones were divided between PDP, APC and New Nigeria People’s Party while two of the North Central states, Plateau and Nasarawa, went to Obi’s Labor party. Kano, the largest voting population in the country went to Rabiu Kwankwaso’s NNPP, an outlier who was ignored to the peril of opposition parties (Kwankwaso was the former governor of Kano).
Obi’s campaign also focused on the emergent middle class youth, as well as appealing to religious sentiments through churches on a Christian ticket and ethnic sentiments appealing to his Ibo base in the South East, where he swept states with more than 90 percent of the vote. The North is largely made up of the rural poor with poverty rates as high as 87 percent and literacy rates among young women in Zamfara state as low as 16 percent. Tracking Obi’s victories, most of the states where he won had lower poverty rates and higher literacy rates; states like Delta and Lagos have the lowest poverty counts in the country. While Obi used poverty statistics to bolster his campaign, his proposed austerity measures and cuts in government spending do not align with the massive government investments that would be needed to lift Nigerians out of poverty. While the jury is still out on the reasons for low voter turnout, deepening poverty and the limited access to cash invariably impacted poor voters.
Historically, Nigeria’s presidency has swung between the North and the South, between Muslims and Christians, and this delicate balance was disrupted on all sides. In 2013, an alliance between the Southern Action Congress (AC), the Northern All Nigeria’s People’s Party (ANPP), and Congressive People’s Alliance (CPC) to produce the Action People’s Congress (APC) was able to remove the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who had dominated the political scene. Another important historical note is that of the legacy of Biafra that lives on, as an Igbo man has never taken the helm of the Presidency since the Civil War. While Obi ran on the promise of a united youth vote, the lingering ethnic and religious sentiments demonstrate the need for his campaign to have created a stronger alliance with the North and the rural and urban poor.
The failure of the youth vote is also a failure of the left
The other factor that we must examine is the failure of the left to articulate and bring into public critique the neoliberal model that all the candidates fully endorsed. Many young Nigerians believe if Nigeria works, it will work for everyone, and that “good governance” is the answer to the myriad problems the country faces. The politics of disorder and the intentionality of chaos are often overlooked in favor of the “corrupt leader” indictment. The left was divided between the Labor Party, whose presidential flag bearer ran on a neoliberal rather than pro worker or socialist platform, and the African Action Congress, who ran on a socialist manifesto, but failed to capture the imaginations of young people or win them over to socialist politics and ideology. In seeking to disrupt the two party power block, young Nigerians took less notice of the lack of difference between the three front running parties, and chose to select the lesser of three evils, based on credentials and the idea that Obi was “the best man for the job.” In fact, the Nigerian youth on the campaign trail emphasized experience in government as a criteria for a good candidate, over and above fresh ideas.
The left also failed to garner the EndSARS movement and channel it into a political force. The emergent youth middle class, not the workers and the working poor, continued to carry the message of liberal rather than revolutionary politics. Unfortunately, just as the gunning down of Nigerian protesters caught young people off guard in October 2020, so too the massive rigging of this election. However, there is no cohesive movement to fight the fraud of this election. The partisan protests and separate court cases by the Labor Party and PDP, demonstrate that the disgruntled candidates are fighting for themselves, rather than as a single voice to call out electoral fraud and the rerun of the election. The fact that there is acceptance of the National Assembly election outcomes and not the presidential election, points to the seeking of selective justice, which may eventually result in the complete disenfranchisement of the Nigerian people.
At this time we must seek answers to our current dilemma within history, the history that we so often want to jettison for the euphoria or overwhelming devastation of the moment. The question for the youth will now be, which way forward? Will we continue to rely on the old guard, the gerontocratic oligarchy that has terrorized Nigerians under the guise of different political parties for the past 24 years? Or will we drop all expectations and pursue the revolution that is sorely needed? Will young people once again rise to be a revolutionary vanguard that works with millions of working poor to form a truly pro-people, pro-poor party that has ordinary Nigerians as actual participants in a virbrant democracy from the local to the federal levels, not just during election time but every day? Will the middle class Nigerian youth be willing to commit class suicide to fight alongside the poor to smash the existing oligarchy and gerontocracy and snatch our collective destiny back?
It is a time for truth telling, for examining our own shortcomings. As young people, as the left, and as civil society, we have relied too long on the oppressors for our own liberation.
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.
Africa in the New World Disorder
The war in Ukraine indicates a new world disorder, where great powers fight for primacy and Africa continues to be exploited.
There are some of us in Africa who believe that we should not invest any serious thinking in the war in Ukraine as it is one of the “European tribal wars.” The logic of that belief is that in Africa we have too many of our own problems to invest energy and effort in European problems. The trouble of being African in the present world order, however, is that all problems and wars end up African in effect if not in form. In the sense in which one who knows it feels it, every war in the world is an African war because Africans have, for the longest time, felt and known wars that are not of their creation. The African condition itself can be understood as a daily experience of war.
Over centuries Africa has been structured and positioned to be on the receiving end of all world problems. As such, Africa is not only the storied cradle of mankind, but also the cemetery of the human condition where every human and world problem comes to kill and to die as well. The worst of the human condition and human experiences tend to find final expression in Africa. It is for that reason that Julius Nyerere once opined that the Devil’s Headquarters must be in Africa because everything that might go wrong actually goes wrong in the continent.As the world tiptoes precariously from the COVID-19 pandemic, at the same time it seems to be tottering irreversibly towards a nuclear World War III. The countries of the world that have the power and the privilege to stop the war pretend to be unable to do so. Even some powerful and privileged Western thinkers are beating the drums of war. For instance, Slavoj Zizek, considered “the most dangerous philosopher in the West,” wrote for The Guardian in June 2022 to say: “pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine,” and “the least we owe Ukraine is full support, and to do that we need a stronger NATO.” Western philosophers, not just soldiers and their generals, are demanding stronger armies and bigger weapons to wage bigger wars. In Ukraine, the conflict is proving too important to be left to the soldiers, the generals and the politicians. In that assertion Zizek speaks from the Euro-American political and military ego, whose fantasy is a humiliating total defeat of Russia in Ukraine. Zizek, the “dangerous philosopher” takes his place as a spokesperson for war and large-scale violence, agitating from a comfortable university office far away from the horrors of Bakhmut.
United States President, Joe Biden, spoke from the same egopolitics of war before the Business Roundtable CEO Quarterly Meeting on March 21 last year: “And now is a time when things are shifting… there’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it. And we’ve got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.” Clearly, an “end of history” fantasy of another unipolar world led by the US and its NATO allies has possessed Western powers that are prepared to pump money, weapons and de-uniformed soldiers into Ukraine to support the besieged country to the “last Ukrainian.” During a surprise visit to Kyiv on the eve of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden hawkishly said the US will support Ukraine in fighting “as long as it takes,” dismissing diplomatic alternatives. Suggestions for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine that have come from influential figures, such as Henry Kissinger on the right and Noam Chomsky on the left, have been dismissed with the sleight of the left hand, and this is as Ukraine is literally being bombed to dust. African countries that have for years been theaters of colonial invasions, proxy wars, sponsored military coups, and regime changes can only see themselves in Ukraine. What Ukraine is going through is a typical African experience taking place in Europe and the first victims are Europeans this time.
Being Africans in Africa, at the least, should equip us with the eyes to see the war in Ukraine for what it is, a war driven by a Euro-American will to power, a spirited desire for world dominion against the Russian fear of NATO encirclement and containment, and nostalgia about a great Soviet empire. It is a war of desires and fears from which the belligerents will not back off. The envisaged “new world order” can only be another “world disorder” for an Africa that has for so long been in the periphery of economic, political, and military world affairs.
Destined for war: The Thucydides trap
Well before the war, the Singaporean diplomat and scholar Kishore Mahbubani described how the “world has turned a corner” and why “the West has lost it” in trying to maintain its economic and political dominion by any means necessary and some means unnecessary. Power is shifting under the feet of a young and fragile Euro-American empire that will not lose power peacefully, hence the spirited desire to force another unipolar world without China and Russia as powers. Taiwan and Ukraine are the chosen sites where the Euro-American establishment is prepared to militarily confront its threatening rivals. That “from AD 1 to 1820, the two largest economies were always those of China and India” and that “only in that period did Europe take off followed by America” is little understood. That the Euro-American empire has not been the first and it will not be the last empire is little understood by the champions of the “new world order” that Francis Fukuyama, in 1989, mistakenly declared as “the end of history and the last man;” a world ruled by the West, led by the US and its European allies had arrived and was here to stay in Fukuyama’s enchanting prophecy. Ensuing history, 9/11 amongst other catastrophic events, and the present war in Ukraine, were to prove Fukuyama’s dream a horrific nightmare. Mahbubani predicts that the short-lived rise and power of the Euro-American Empire has “come to a natural end, and that is happening now.” It seems to be happening expensively if the costs in human life, to the climate and in big dollars are to be counted.
In the struggle of major world powers for dominion of the globe Ukraine is reduced to a burnt offering. While, on the one hand, we have a terrified Euro-American empire fearing a humiliating return to oblivion and powerlessness, on the other hand we have the reality of an angry China and Russia, carrying the burden of many decades of geopolitical humiliation. Such corners of the world as Africa become the proverbial grass that suffers when elephants fight. The scramble to reduce Africa to a sphere of influence for this and that power is a spectacle to behold and the very definition of the new world disorder; a damaged and asymmetrical shape of the world where the weaker other is dispensable and disposable.
In its form and content, this new world disorder is ghastly to ponder, not only for Africa, but also for the rest of the world. Graham Allison pondered it in 2015 and came up with the alarming observation that “war between the US and China is more likely than recognised at the moment” because the two powerful countries have fallen into the Thucydides Trap. The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, described the trap when he narrated how avoiding war becomes next to impossible when a ruling power is confronted by a rival rising power that threatens its dominion. Thucydides witnessed how the growing power and prosperity of Athens threatened Sparta in ancient Greece, driving the two powers to war. The political and historical climate between China and the US captures the charged political temperatures that punctuated the relations between an entitled and proud Sparta confronted with the growth and anger of a frightening Athens. The proverbial chips were down.
For the US and China to escape the Thucydides Trap that is luring both superpowers to war, “tremendous effort” is required of both parties and their allies. The effort is mainly in mustering the emotional stamina to see and to know that the world is going to be a shared place where there must never be one center of power; that political, economic and military diversity is natural, and the world must be a decolonial pentecostal place where those of different identities, and competing interests can share power and space, is the beginning of the political wisdom that can guarantee peace. President Xi Jinping of China seems to have read Allison’s warning about the Thucydides Trap that envelops China and the US because on a visit to Seattle he was recorded saying: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might make such traps for themselves.” The world is sinking deeper into new disorder and violence because rival powers cannot resist the Thucydides Trap and keep repeating “strategic miscalculations” based on their will to power and desire for global dominion.
The problem with China (the Athens of our present case) that troubles the US as the Sparta of the moment is that, as Allison observes, “China wants to be China and accepted as such—not as an honorary member of the West.” The problem with world powers, past and present, seems to be that they cannot live with difference. In fact, political, economic and cultural differences are quickly turned from competition to conflict, from opposition to total enmity. How to translate antagonism to agonism, and to move from being enemies to being respectful adversaries that can exist among each other in a conflictual but shared world is a small lesson that seems to elude big powers, whose egopolitics drives their geopolitics into a kind of militarized lunacy. One would be forgiven, for instance, to think that playground toys are being spoken of when presidents of powerful countries talk about monstrous weapons to be deployed in Ukraine. Observing from Africa one can hazard the view that big powers might be small and slow learners, after all. The death-drive of the superpowers is perpetuated by the desire to force other countries, including other powers, to be “more like us” when they are formidably determined to be themselves. To break out of the Thucydides Trap and avoid war, for instance, the US has to generate and sustain enough emotional stamina to live with the strong truth that China is a 5,000-year-old civilization with close to 1.5 billion people and in its recent rise is only returning to glory and not coming from the blue sky. And that the world has to be shared with China and other powers, and countries. China, and allies, would also not have learnt well from many years of decline if they dreamt and worked for a world under their sole dominion.
Any fantasy of one world ruled from one mighty center of power is exactly that, a fantasy that might be pursued at the dear cost of a World War. Away from that fantasy, the future world will be politically pentecostal, not a paradise but a perpetually in the making and incomplete world where human, national, cultural, political and religious differences will be normal. From Africa that future world is thinkable and world powers should be investing thought and action in that and not in new monstrous weapons and military might.
Africa in the new world disorder
The symptoms are spectacular and everywhere to be seen. It can be the Namibian President, Hage Geingob, on live television having to shout at a German politician, Norbet Lammert, for complaining about the growing Chinese population in Namibia. Geingob asks why Germans land in Namibia on a “red carpet” and do “what they want” but it becomes a huge problem for the West when the Chinese are seen in Namibia. That Namibia should not be reduced into a theater of contestation between the West and China because it is a sovereign country was Geingob’s plea to the German politician. It can be President Emmanuel Macron of France, in May 2021, asking President Paul Kagame of Rwanda for forgiveness for France’s role in the genocide of 1994—the bottom line being that African conflicts and genocides bear European footprints and fingerprints. Africa is reduced to the West’s crime scene, from slavery to colonialism and from colonialism to present coloniality.
Coloniality is brought to life with, for instance, the US Republican lawmakers launching a bill “opposing the Republic of South Africa’s hosting of military exercises with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and calling on the Biden administration to conduct a thorough review of the US-South Africa relationship.” Africa as an object that does not have the agency to act for itself but is acted upon in the new world disorder, is real. It is Africa as a child in the world system that must be protected from other relationships and that must be told who to relate with and who not to relate with. It is also Africa as an owned thing that must be protected from rival owners. Behind the myth of African independence and liberation is the reality of Africa as a “sphere of influence,” about which world powers are still scrambling for control and ownership, including Russia and China. When in January 2018, Donald Trump referred to African countries as “all these shithole countries,” he meant that Africa still metaphorized the toilet of the world order, where disposable waste and dispensable people were to be found. Looking at the world disorder from Africa is a troubling view from the toilet of world affairs.
Looking at the world disorder from Africa with African eyes and sensibility makes it obvious that it is Africa that should be against war and for a decolonial, multipolar world order where differences are legitimated, not criminalized; where economic competition, political opposition, and rivalry are democratized from antagonism to agonism; and where political opponents are adversaries that are not necessarily blood enemies that must work on eliminating each other to the “last man.” Such a world order may be liberating in that both fears and desires of nations may play out in a political climate where might is not necessarily right. From long experiences of being the dominated and exploited other of the world, Africa should expectedly be the first to demand such a world.
World powers need to be persuaded or to pressure themselves to understand what Mahbubani prescribes as a future world order that is against war, and liberating in that it is minimalist, multilateral, and Machiavellian. Minimalist, in that major countries should minimize thinking and act like other countries are minors that should be changed into their own image. Multilateral in the sense that world institutions, such as the United Nations, must be pentecostal sites where differences, fears and desires of all countries are moderated and democratized. Machiavellian in that world powers, no matter how mighty they believe they are, must adapt to the change to the order of things and live with the truth that they will not enjoy world dominion alone, in perpetuity. The world must be a shared place that naturalizes and normalizes political, economic, cultural, and human diversity.
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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