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FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT: Nonviolent Options and Just Peace

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(Keynote Address delivered to the University of San Diego Conference: The Catholic Church Moves Towards Nonviolence? Just Peace Just War in Dialogue on October 6, 2107)

Thank you. I’m honored to be amongst so many great scholars, theologians (including Cardinal Turkson and Bishop McElroy) activists, peacebuilders, policymakers and military officers. Thank you to University of San Diego, the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, and the Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture for organizing this conference on Just War Just Peace in Dialogue – I can’t think of a better topic for a civil-military conversation. I would like to applaud the members the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative – there are many in this room – for helping to bolster the Church’s thought leadership and practical investment in alternatives to war and violence. Special thanks to Cardinal Turkson for presiding over last April’s Rome conference on Nonviolence and Just Peace, and for being such a tireless proponent of human rights, dignity, and a world without violence.

Tonight I will focus on the power and potential of nonviolent options to prevent, mitigate, and transform violent conflict and advance sustainable peace. I will offer evidence backing the efficacy of these nonviolent options and offer some practical ways the Catholic Church, along with its governmental, military, inter-faith, and non-governmental allies, can strengthen them.

But first, let me share a couple of stories about what brought me to this work and has kept me inspired and hopeful ever since.

Pope John VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

I grew up in southern Vermont and my family often attended mass at the Weston Priory, where a hearty group of Benedictine monks live, farm, sing and celebrate the Gospel. Masses take place in a barn overlooking the Green Mountains. The monks welcome everyone – from all faiths, religions, and walks of life – to join in the celebration. The Priory has a great gift shop. After mass I would make a beeline for the books section, which is where I began to collect biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day, along with books about nonviolent resistance and radical peacemaking. These books introduced me to Oscar Romero, Dolores Huerta, and the Catholic Workers, who became my s/heroes. Somehow my Mom always ended up paying for the books.

Pope John VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

After high school I was involved in grassroots restorative justice work. I lived and worked at the Rutland Dismas House, a transitional home for former prisoners and college students. The Dismas motto, “reconciling former prisoners with society and society with former prisoners”, is animated by a community support structure for those transitioning from prison. I observed how members of the community – including those who had initially opposed Dismas House being in their back yard – mobilized to provide home-cooked meals to the residents, offered them jobs, and gave them support. Dismas House has been highly successful: my Dad tells me that the recidivism rate for its residents is about 15 percent, compared to 70 percent nationally – and at less than a third of the cost of incarceration.

Later I had my first rendezvous with the Jesuits at Boston College, where “service to others” is a campus creed. I studied political science and lived in France and Germany while researching European integration, one of the world’s greatest peacebuilding projects. After starting grad school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, I attended a Boston film screening of A Force More Powerful, a documentary film about six highly consequential nonviolent struggles. The film highlighted how unarmed civilians stared down the British empire in India, confronted Nazis in Denmark, fought apartheid in South Africa, removed dictators in Chile and Poland, and dismantled Jim Crow in the US using strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of nonviolent direct action.

The film was inspiring. I decided to focus my PhD research on the strategic dimensions of nonviolent resistance in self-determination movements. The International Security Studies departments at Fletcher and the Harvard Belfer Center were my strongest backers. Meanwhile, West Point and the Army, Navy, and Air Force war colleges invited me to come talk about civil resistance as a form of nonviolent power and a functional alternative to violence. I attended the Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategies (aka “war camp”) and was that “interesting” person talking about people power.

In 2006 while working at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, I met Erica Chenoweth – a fellow political scientist and quantitative guru – at a conference in Colorado. She was skeptical about the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. So were a lot of people, who insisted that nonviolent resistance could “work” but only under certain favorable conditions. In tough contexts, like violent dictatorships, the prevailing wisdom was that violence stood a better chance. Erica and I decided to test these assumptions, by systematically comparing the effectiveness of violent and nonviolent resistance. For the next couple of years we collected data on all known major violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900-2006. These were campaigns challenging incumbent regimes and vying for territorial self-determination.

During this book-writing time I was in Kabul, Afghanistan with the State Department, at the peak period of insurgency. Occasionally, on nights and Sundays while chapter editing in my hootch, a “duck and cover” siren, signaling incoming rockets or mortar, would interrupt the effort.

After collecting data on 323 major violent and nonviolent campaigns, each with at least 1000 observed participants, we arrived at a surprising conclusion. The nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as armed insurgencies. They achieved their goals 53% of the time compared to 26% for violent campaigns, a percentage that has remained basically the same through 2015. (“Success” was defined as removal of the incumbent regime or territorial independence.) While there has been a slight dip in the overall effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns recently, violent insurgencies have become even less effective.

Why has civil resistance so dramatically out-performed armed struggle? We found that the most important variable determining the outcome was the size and diversity of participation. Nonviolent campaigns attract on average 11 times the level of participants as the average violent campaign. The moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent resistance compared to armed struggle. Whereas armed insurgencies often rely on a relatively small group of young, able-bodied men, nonviolent campaigns attract women and men, youth and elderly, able-bodied and disabled, rich and poor.

She was skeptical about the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. So were a lot of people, who insisted that nonviolent resistance could “work” but only under certain favorable conditions. In tough contexts, like violent dictatorships, the prevailing wisdom was that violence stood a better chance.

One reason is that the number and range of tactics available to nonviolent resistors is huge. Gene Sharp catalogued 198 methods of nonviolent action in 1973. That number has vastly expanded as the creative limits of the imagination have expanded. Power is fluid and ultimately flows from the consent and cooperation of ordinary people. When large and diverse groups of people remove their consent and cooperation from an oppressive regime or system of power using tactics like boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience, no ruler, no matter how brutal, can stay in power. Members of security forces (army and police) are also significantly more likely to defect, or to disobey regime orders to use repression, when confronted with large numbers of nonviolent resistors, compared to armed insurgents. When security forces defect, as they did in the Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, and Tunisia, this is often a decisive variable.

We found that the chances of success are higher when groups maintain nonviolent discipline in the face of repression, when they creatively alternate between methods of concentration (like sit-ins and demonstrations) and methods of dispersion (like consumer boycotts and stayaways) and when they invest in decentralized leadership.

Nonviolent campaigns also contribute to more democratic and peaceful societies. Less than 4 percent of armed rebel victories result in a country becoming democratic within five years. A Congolese bishop reinforced that point to me recently. He counted off the number of insurgent leaders in his country and across the continent who had led successful armed struggles, then became even more tyrannical than their predecessors. On the other hand, the skills associated with nonviolent organizing, negotiating differences, building coalitions, and collective action reinforce democratic norms and behaviors. And they tend to produce more peaceful societies.

Nonviolent civil resistance, then, is a functional alternative to violence with both short and longer-term positive effects. It is a particularly powerful nonviolent channel for marginalized or oppressed people to challenge systems of power – whether they are exploitative corporations, dictatorships, or institutionalized racism – and build more inclusive, just societies.

Pope Francis, in his 2017 World Day of Peace address, a monumental document, noted that “momentous change in the lives of people, nations and states had come about ‘by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice.”

The Church has played a pivotal role in some of the most significant nonviolent struggles in history. Many will recall the iconic image of the Filipino religious sisters, confronting military forces and a kleptocratic Marcos dictatorship in prayerful resistance during the 1986 “people power” revolution. Across the Philippines priests and nuns, in partnership with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, trained their communities in nonviolence and nonviolent action. Cardinal Jamie Sin attended one of these workshops. He later joined the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in calling for a “nonviolent struggle for justice”, using Radio Veritas to amplify the message. This preparation, combined with an election-monitoring mission led by local religious leaders, paved the way to Marcos’ nonviolent ouster. Today, Filipino religious leaders, facing another violent dictator, are once again engaged in nonviolent activism.

The nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as armed insurgencies. They achieved their goals 53% of the time compared to 26% for violent campaigns, a percentage that has remained basically the same through 2015.

During the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980s, Pope John Paul II, with local priests and nuns, famously stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the worker-led movement that challenged Communist tyranny with nonviolent resistance. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was martyred for showing solidarity with campesinos and other victims of junta brutality. In the US, 4 feisty religious women have taken to the buses and streets to give voice to the poor and undocumented; they have animated Laudato Si through direct action to protect the environment.

I am often asked: what about cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or violent extremism? What about protecting innocent people? What are the nonviolent options in these cases?

First, I don’t come at this topic from a pacifist perspective. I’m the first to admit that nonviolent action has not always worked. At the same time, there is little evidence to suggest that armed resistance would have done any better in places where nonviolent resistance failed. Military interventions on humanitarian grounds, as in cases like Rwanda or the protection of Yazidis in Iraq, may save lives in certain cases. But, practically speaking, mustering the political will to support military intervention on Responsibility to Protect (R2P) grounds has become so difficult that it is strategically imperative to develop alternatives.

The second point is that most mass atrocities historically have occurred in the context of armed struggles and civil wars. Very rarely are large numbers of unarmed civilians killed while engaged in mass nonviolent campaigns. New research by Erica Chenoweth and Evan Perkoski found that nonviolent resistance can even decrease the likelihood of mass atrocities. Not surprisingly, armed movements with foreign support are much more likely to elicit mass killings.

It is also worth mentioning that while the WWII ultimately brought the end to the Nazi regime, civil resistance and nonviolent noncooperation saved thousands of lives. Jacques Semelin, in his book, Unarmed Against Hitler, chronicles a number of these examples, including the case of German Aryan women who protected their Jewish husbands from concentration camps through sustained protests outside the SS headquarters in Berlin.

Power is fluid and ultimately flows from the consent and cooperation of ordinary people. When large and diverse groups of people remove their consent and cooperation from an oppressive regime or system of power using tactics like boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience, no ruler, no matter how brutal, can stay in power.

Nonviolent protests and other forms of collective action have won tactical concessions from extremist groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria and al Shabaab in East Africa. For example, women’s led protests outside an ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, led to the release of political activists in 2014. Two years ago in northeastern Kenya, fighters from the al-Shabaab terrorist group ambushed a bus filled with women. The fighters demanded that the Muslim and Christian women separate, a tactic they’d used in the past before slaughtering the Christians. The Muslim women refused to separate, and shielded the Christian women. They said: “You will kill us all or leave us alone.” Their collective stubbornness worked – the al Shabaab fighters left without anyone on the bus being killed.

Oliver Kaplan recently released a book, Resisting War: How Civilians Protect Themselves, which analyzes how unarmed civilians have influenced the behaviors of state and non-state armed groups in civil war contexts. He examines cases in Colombia, with extensions to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and the Philippines. The study shows how unarmed civilians self-organized and created autonomous, resilient institutions. They carved out peace zones, prevented extra-judicial killings, and deterred violence targeting civilians.

These findings have important implications for the Church and other external actors seeking to prevent mass atrocities. They suggest that supporting local self-organizing and collective action in the midst of violent conflict can help save lives.

There are other ways to deter violence and human rights abuses in conflict zones. Unarmed civilian protection, which is the use of unarmed civilians to do ‘peacekeeping’, has had 5 demonstrable successes. Nonviolent Peaceforce, Christian Peacemakers Teams, Peace Brigades International and Operation Dove have led civilian peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, Indonesia, Israel-Palestine, and elsewhere. Evaluations of unarmed civilian protection reveal that this activity has saved lives, changed the behavior of armed groups, and made local peace and human rights work more possible.

The UN High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations stated: “unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of UN efforts to protect civilians.” Strategically it makes sense for major military powers, including the United States, to invest in UCP programs as an effective and less costly form of peacekeeping.

Of course, it goes without saying that if you want to prevent mass atrocities, you prevent war. Prevention demands investment, and right now the levels of US and global investment in violence prevention are infinitesimally small compared to the sums dedicated to war fighting. Practically, prevention means supporting inclusive and participatory economic and political processes (recall that institutionalized discrimination against Iraqi Sunnis contributed to the rise and spread of ISIS). It means fostering dialogue and trust between communities and police (justice and security dialogues have done just that in Nepal and Burkina Faso). It means using diplomatic, military, and trade levers to challenge crackdowns on civic space and human rights violations (security force abuses in northern Nigeria fueled the rise of Boko Haram).

Nonviolent campaigns also contribute to more democratic and peaceful societies. Less than 4% of armed rebel victories result in a country becoming democratic within five years.

In the area of violence prevention, our U.S. military colleagues can make particularly valuable contributions. When military leaders, who have been strong proponents of the work of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), demand greater investment in non-military solutions, when they point out the gross under-resourcing of diplomacy and development – when compared to military hardware and train-and-equip programs – it makes a difference. Military advocacy on Capitol Hill and in the private sector for massively increased investment in violence prevention and peacebuilding is a concrete way to advance just peace around the world.

Relatedly, enlightened military leadership understands that corrupt, undisciplined, rights-violating security forces are unreliable partners. Their practices fuel insurgencies and violent extremism. There is a smart guide written by Admiral Dennis Blair, called Military Engagement: How Armed Forces Can Support Democratic Transitions Worldwide. It instructs on how military relationships and security partnerships can incentivize democratic norms and behaviors and deter security force crackdowns on peaceful opposition. I hope that this guide might one day be fully integrated in military education and training in the US and around the world.

So far I’ve focused a great deal on civil resistance and nonviolent collective action. But we know that this is one set of tools in a much broader nonviolent arsenal. Transforming violent conflict and dissolving its root causes requires a combination of people power and peacebuilding. That means linking nonviolent resistance, which intentionally escalates conflict, and traditional peacebuilding tools like negotiation, dialogue, and mediation, which de-escalate it.

The theory here is that in conflicts marked by great power asymmetries, where groups are intentionally marginalized or excluded from political processes, power needs to shift and an unjust status quo disrupted before conflict resolution become possible. In other words, nonviolent action is often necessary to “ripen” the situation for resolution. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963:

“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

The Polish Solidarity movement combined Gdansk shipyard strikes with formal roundtable negotiations. The Liberian civil war came to end because the government and rebels were pressured – in part by a women’s-led sex strike – to reach a settlement. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Nepal was reached when popular nonviolent resistance shifted the power dynamics and incentivized meaningful peace talks. Veronique Dudouet highlights these and other examples in an excellent report, “Powering to Peace: Integrated Civil Resistance and Peacebuilding Strategies”. Anthony Wanis-St. John and Noah Rosen focus on the importance of negotiation in nonviolent resistance in a recently published USIP Peaceworks report.

I am often asked: what about cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or violent extremism? What about protecting innocent people? What are the nonviolent options in these cases?

Using and sequencing these dialogical and direct action techniques is both an art and a science. USIP is currently developing a practical guide, called “Synergizing Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding” (SNAP), which is intended to inform field-based trainings on how, practically, these nonviolent approaches can be used together. We hope that this action guide might be helpful for organizations like Pax Christi, Mercy Corps, Caritas International, Catholic Relief Services, and members of the Alliance for Peacebuilding whose work is grounded in conflict affected communities.

So we know that nonviolent resistance is important in negotiating a sustainable and just peace. This aligns with the fact that, historically, the most durable peace processes and national dialogues have been inclusive and participatory. Desiree Nilsson’s study of all peace agreements reached in the post-Cold War period found that the involvement of civil society reduced the risk of failure by 64%. Peace accords that include civil society actors – including religious groups, women’s groups, and human rights organizations – are more likely to see peace prevail. The Colombia peace process, which culminated in a landmark peace accord last year, featured the active involvement of victim’s groups, women’s groups, and other civic actors. Other research has found that the presence of skilled negotiators and facilitators at the local level contributed to the success of national dialogue processes. Training mattered.

Women’s participation merits special focus. Multiple studies have found that women’s inclusion in peace processes correlates significantly with their success – Northern Ireland and Liberia are classic examples. Women bring unique identities, perspectives, and a sense of urgency to peace processes. While women often need to fight for a place at the table, it stands to reason that unlocking the leadership potential of women at all levels of an organization or institution, including the Catholic Church, would strengthen its ability to forge peace.

Another nonviolent tool, mediation, has helped resolve some of the most intractable violent conflicts, including the civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Northern Ireland, and Colombia. The Catholic Church, often in partnership with other faith groups, has often been a key mediator. We know the critical role that the Vatican and Pope Francis played in mediating an end to Colombia’s civil war. The Catholic Lay Community of Sant’Egidio played a vital role in ending the devastating Mozambique civil war (1975-1990). Sant’Egidio, a Rome-based organization with some serious mediation skills and a biblical commitment to service, compassion, and peace, developed strong relationships with the two conflict parties, the ruling Frelimo party and 7 RENAMO rebels. It brought them together in Rome for meetings over 2 years that culminated in the signing of the Rome General Peace Accords in 1992.

In northern Uganda, which has endured nearly 3 decades of civil war between the government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu and his Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace initiative, an inter-faith conflict transformation organization, has won the trust of all sides, allowing him to carve out spaces for peace. Odama, who I was honored to meet in Rome, has facilitated years of dialogue between government and LRA forces. He famously says, “As long as there is an opportunity for peace talks, I shall pursue it.” While a comprehensive peace settlement in Uganda remains elusive, and the government is currently cracking down hard against nonviolent civic groups, perhaps one day, religiously mediated dialogue combined with citizen-led collective action will achieve a breakthrough.

Transforming violent conflict and dissolving its root causes requires a combination of people power and peacebuilding. That means linking nonviolent resistance, which intentionally escalates conflict, and traditional peacebuilding tools like negotiation, dialogue, and mediation, which de-escalate it.

Similarly, in South Sudan, where post-independence civil war and dictatorship have created a terrible humanitarian crisis, the inter-denominational South Sudan Council of Churches, one of the strongest civil society groups in the young country, has issued an Action Plan for Peace (APP) focused on dialogue and reconciliation. There is also a budding youth-led nonviolent movement in the country, called Ana Taban (“I am tired”) that is using the arts to build bridges, call out abuses on all sides, and mobilize people for peace. Hopefully the wisdom of the elders and youth energy will creatively combine to bring sustained peace to South Sudan.

A core tenet of just peacemaking is addressing and overcoming legacies of gross human rights violations and other historical injustices. Faith groups have historically contributed in significant ways to transitional justice and reconciliation. There are multiple models of truth-telling and reconciliation. In Guatemala, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Bishop Juan Gerardi, helped initiate, organize, and execute the successful national truth commission, the Recovery of Historical Memory Project, in the mid-1990s. In Chile, the Catholic Church advocated for the country’s Commission on Truth and Reconciliation following Pinochet’s removal from power in 1990 – a core component of that country’s transition to democracy. The Chilean commission helped inspire the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission shepherded by Archbishop Tutu.

Getting Practical

The effectiveness of all these nonviolent techniques – including civil resistance, dialogue, mediation, negotiation, unarmed civilian protection, trauma healing, and transitional justice – are grounded in the skills and legitimacy of those using them. An important role the Church (and all of us) can play in advancing just peace globally is building strategic and tactical bridges between the techniques of grassroots nonviolent action and peacebuilding and investing in them.

Practically, this can be done via education and training, through the diplomatic and policy influencing arms of the Church, through inter-religious initiatives and through field-based programming with conflict-affected communities.

  • Catholic universities around the world can educate and train youth and communities in the full menu of nonviolent options and their practical, strategic applications; they can support cutting-edge research on conflict analysis and just peace approaches.
  • Catholic leadership from the parish level on up can help integrate just peace and conflict transformation teachings into religious trainings, lay formation, homilies and sermons.
  • They can draw on research, films, and training materials on nonviolent action (many translated into dozens of languages) developed by USIP, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Pace-e-Bene, Rhize, and other organizations.
  • The Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue can continue to promote just peace approaches that draw on all the religious traditions.
  • Church leaders can communicate with government officials and security forces to deter violent crackdowns against peaceful activists.
  • They can take diplomatic action when state/non-state actors are engaged in systematic human rights abuses, high-level corruption and exclusionary policies that fuel violence, and show solidarity with nonviolent activists and peacebuilders on the front lines.
  • The Vatican Secretary of State and Holy See missions in NY and Geneva can use existing initiatives, like the UN Sustaining Peace Resolution and the Sustainable Development Goals, to advance just peace approaches and tools.

Logistically, the Church can also provide safe spaces in places like the DRC, South Sudan, Venezuela, and Cambodia, where activists and peacebuilders can meet, strategize, and plan actions. It can offer small resources and transportation support for those forced to operate in restrictive environments, often with little or no money. It can work with Catholic and other private foundations to support grant-giving that aligns with just peace objectives.

I mentioned the military’s role in advocating for greater investment in nonviolent alternatives and peacebuilding. The Church could work with the military to support unarmed peacekeeping pilot initiatives in places like Syria and South Sudan. And encourage it to use military-to-military levers (training, funding, education) to strengthen governance in partner defense institutions, and deter repression and human rights abuses.

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

At least one national government, Lithuania, has made civilian-based defense, which involves the use of mass civil resistance and noncooperation to deter and repel foreign attacks, a core component of its national defense strategy. Building up the nonviolent resistance and peacebuilding skills and capacities of citizens, in schools and communities, is a great investment in national and international security. Of course, a papal encyclical on nonviolent action and just peace would help focus Church energy and resources on all of these options. Perhaps one day.

I have a special place in my heart for nonviolent organizers and the work they do – Dorothy Day is atop the list. Let me end with her pragmatically hopeful words:

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

May this conference create ripples that spread in all directions and inform how we all, individually and collectively, civilian and military, doctrinally and practically, can bolster nonviolent options to advance a more just and peaceful world. Thank you.

By Maria J. Stephan
Maria J. Stephan directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which focuses on applied research, training and education and informing policies and practice related to civil resistance, nonviolent action and their roles in transforming violent conflict and advancing just peace. Her Twitter is @MariaJStephan

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OLD FACES, NEW MASKS: Zimbabwe one year after the ‘coup’

One year after the “coup” that led to the resignation of former president Robert Mugabe and a momentary wind of change, the new Zimbabwe seems to be a mirror image of its former self, reflects NOVUYO TSHUMA

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OLD FACES, NEW MASKS: Zimbabwe one year after the ‘coup’

I was cooped up in my Houston apartment in the United States on 15 November 2017 when Twitter chittered with the news that a coup was currently being carried out in my homeland, Zimbabwe. It was a searing night, deathly silent here in Houston, where it was still the evening of November 14. In Zimbabwe, an apricot-tinged sky was greeting Zimbabwe Military Major General SB Moyo’s early-morning announcement on national television that the army had taken over the country in order to return it to “normalcy”.

But even his assurances of order felt precarious. It was as though something terrible, as is the nature of coups, could still happen, such as a horrific breakout of civil war that would persist for years, catapulting us into a nightmare from which we would not be able to wake up. I remember doubling over, as though someone had punched me.

And then, surreal images of ordinary people like myself taking to the streets alongside menacing army tanks to march against Robert Mugabe flooded social media. I remember refreshing and re-refreshing my feed, squinting at the screen, trying not to disbelieve my eyes. Was this the same army? This army I had grown up fearing, which I’d seen destroying people’s homes and beating street vendors during Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Clean Out the Rubbish) in 2005? The army being broadcast all over the world wasn’t brutalising the marching populace. No…it was…protecting —protecting? —people just like me as they marched against Robert Mugabe.

The importance of this moment cannot be overemphasised. Even as we were jumping from the frying pan into the fire, it was hard not to participate in the joy of being able to march freely against Robert Mugabe. It was sublime. In our Zimbabwean universe, ruthlessly built up and curated for us by Zanu PF, this — marching against Mugabe with the army’s assistance and protection — wasn’t something that could happen. And yet, it was happening! It was just too delicious not to enjoy! It opened up the spirit and the imagination to endless possibilities for Zimbabwe’s future. Seeing people like me daring to hug the soldiers, laughing with them and posing for selfies alongside those sinister army tanks felt, even if momentarily, like a sweet taste of freedom, the kind of Zimbabwe we could one day have…

The importance of this moment cannot be overemphasised. Even as we were jumping from the frying pan into the fire, it was hard not to participate in the joy of being able to march freely against Robert Mugabe.

I remember looking around my apartment in Houston, dazed, and asking myself, “What am I doing here?” I should have been home. I should have been part of the crowds running on those Bulawayo streets, holding the Zimbabwe flag high above their heads, letting it spread and flutter in the wind in all its resplendent colours, billowing like a Super(wo)man cape. I cried all alone in my apartment, with no family to celebrate with me. I called to check on loved ones at home, only to be filled with envy at their gurgling, joyous laughter pealing in my ear across the many miles that separated us. I winced at not being home with them during this time. Briefly, I toyed with the prospect of dropping everything and catching a flight home.

But I quickly abandoned this idea. There was still a sense of precarity in the air, as though anything could still yet happen during this moment that felt like a refraction of many different realities and expectations simplified and repackaged into one – that of the army and the people as One.

Watching people marching alongside the army, I felt an unshakeable sense of dis-ease. In the background of this euphoria, behind the powerful visuals telling a story of a “new dawn” for Zimbabwe, were unsettling optics. As the festivities were going on, there was the ruthless purging of “criminals” around Mugabe—this done, ironically, by those from this same dispensation and who, in other differently-staged circumstances could well be considered “criminals” themselves. In darker events, away from the glamorous camera optics, abductions and beatings were being carried out by these same crop of soldiers seen genuflecting with ordinary people on the streets of Zimbabwe.

I released my pent-up energy on social media, joining others in energetic Twitter debates filled with a dreadful sense of foreboding. “Did we know what we marched for today?” I asked. I was mostly on Ndebele Twitter, where, inevitably, debates and questions about the Gukurahundi Genocide—Zimbabwe’s original sin—sprang up, with an army of faceless trolls doing their fair share of work to sow confusion and misinformation in what was rapidly become a “virtual Gukurahundi storm”.

Many people were angry that this landmark march and its optics were being questioned. Understandably, it felt as though their joy was being questioned, and possibly shamed. Vicious arguments broke out on Twitter, with problematic divisions that became amplified to the extreme in polarising debates on social media —between, for instance, those Zimbabweans who were actually at home on the ground marching, and those like myself who were “tweeting the revolution” from the comfort of their diasporic enclaves.

Perhaps this was the wrong moment to ask questions about the march. The people were dreaming. The joy on those faces, our faces! Caught by the flash of a camera, animated and gorgeous shiny cheeks plump with mirth. Where had you ever heard such collective laughter? Where would you ever hear it again?

Many people were angry that this landmark march and its optics were being questioned. Understandably, it felt as though their joy was being questioned, and possibly shamed. Vicious arguments broke out on Twitter, with problematic divisions that became amplified to the extreme in polarising debates on social media…

**

Franz Fanon talks about moments such as these in The Wretched of the Earth, where it seems as though the people and the country’s post-independence leaders are One. The country’s post-independence leaders promise the people that change is coming, working up the people into a frenzy of excitement. At the same time, these leaders leverage this excitement with the international community, saying, “Look, the people are excited, they are nervous, only we can calm them, work with us.” This opens up, in our contemporary moment, the way for neoliberal politics to take root—“Zimbabwe is Open for Business” has been the new President Mnangwagwa’s mantra.

Sometimes, the people take this call to change seriously and to begin to act to realise it, to enact their urgent desire for change. The celebrations on the streets in November 2017, with army and citizens hand in hand, was one such instance of this euphoria. The optics were powerful. I felt them. I was taken by them. And yet, the fissures of this moment began to show early on. In December 2017, soldiers, the heroes and heroines of only a few weeks before, were seen patrolling the streets of Zimbabwe assaulting citizens.

These fissures became even more apparent leading up to, during and after the contested July 2018 elections. The people were ready to enact their various ideas of change that they had marched for in November 2017. Some of these collective demands included electoral reforms and transparent elections. There was electricity in the air during this time, a heady dreaming. I was in London during the 2018 elections, where I found a great community of youthful, engaged Zimbabweans like myself. We met regularly and discussed what was going on at home, sharing our fears, hopes and dreams. It was an exhilarating time. Twitter, once again, fostered a much-needed sense of community with the people at home.

If there had been confusion before as to the optics of the November 2017 march, things were certainly clearer now. On 1 August 2018, protesters went out onto the streets of Harare to march against an increasingly suspect and vague electoral process. In an unprecedented move, armed soldiers from the Zimbabwe military were unleashed onto the streets to fire live ammunition against the unarmed protesters. Army and citizen, who had, just seven months before, held hands in song and dance, were now, once again, embroiled in the violent relations of state abuse.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Hope and fear in Zimbabwe

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In the mind-frying euphoria of that landmark moment in our country in November 2017, we had mistaken things, laughing with the soldiers, kissing their cheeks, crowning them our heroes. They were not there to serve us, the citizenry. No, it was us, the citizenry, who were there, just like those youthful, handsome soldiers of ours, to serve the army commanders, some of whom, like Vice President Chiwenga, aka General Bae, now parade the halls of government. It was us who had provided assistance—and not us who had been assisted—in the November 2017 “coup-lite” to legitimise the intra-party politricks of Zanu PF. Once again, we were just a footnote in our own history.

George Orwell writes about authoritarianism’s perversion of history in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”. At stake, he writes, is not just a matter of freedom. “The controversy over freedom of speech and of the press is at bottom a controversy of the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies…From the totalitarian point of view, history is something to be created rather than learned…Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past.”

The blatant rewriting of history about events as fresh as the August 2018 shootings is a case in point. Even in the face of video footage, Zimbabwe’s army commanders went on to say that no soldiers killed protesters on the streets of Harare on August 1. If a government-sanctioned commission cannot agree on the basic facts of something as recent as these August 2018 shootings, should anyone have faith in the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission set up to shed light on the devastating Gukurahundi Genocide that took place more than 30 years ago?

The blatant rewriting of history about events as fresh as the August 2018 shootings is a case in point. Even in the face of video footage, Zimbabwe’s army commanders went on to say that no soldiers killed protesters on the streets of Harare on August 1.

“Truth is optics,” says Dumo, the self-styled leader of the Mthwakazi Secessionist Movement in my novel House of Stone. “We’re trying to own the truth…”

Zamani, the novel’s narrator, upon hearing this, is sceptical: “Dumo could often sound perilously like the very people he was denouncing.”

Welcome to the new Zimbabwe.

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THE CHINESE ARE COMING! Empire 2.0 and the New African Agenda

In this final part of a three-part series, KALUNDI SERUMAGA examines how the old imperial powers and a new entrant, China are gearing up for a second scramble and partition of Africa and what Africa can do to guard herself against the forces of imperialism at her doorstep.

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THE CHINESE ARE COMING! Empire 2.0 and the New African Agenda

A very common question asked by younger Africans, and more so by all generations of the First African Diaspora (descendants of the enslavement), is how on earth our ancestors managed first to get mixed up in the business of selling each other to foreigners, and then bamboozled into wholesale colonial enclosure.

Many explanations are offered, but the one theme that runs through all of them is that whatever the actual cause, Africans, knowing what they now know, can never be that stupid again.

Enter China, who seem to know something we don’t. And she is not alone.

Writing elsewhere at the time of the United Kingdom’s referendum vote to leave the European Union, I predicted that there would be an attempt to re-heat the leftovers of the old Empire relationship. Indeed, not long after, one began to hear UK Foreign Office officials talking of “Empire 2.0” when describing their looking anew at the Commonwealth. We should not take the recent visits to Africa by the UK Prime Minister, as well as the younger, more photogenic members of the British royal family, as accidental.

France is determined to rebrand the image of its essentially imperialist relationship with the CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine) zone or the African Financial Community (read “French Commonwealth”) countries of West Africa. This explains why Theresa May was seen dancing in South Africa and Kenya, while Emmanuel Macron danced at Fela Kuti’s shrine during a visit to West Africa.

Germany’s leaders have not deployed any African dance moves yet, but Germany – which essentially is the European Union’s economy – has also been cranking its foreign policy machinery into gear.   There are even attempts to finally resolve the century-plus dancing around the issue of reparations for Germany’s 1904-1908 Namibia genocide.

Between 2015 and 2017, the United States’ military footprint in Africa has expanded from 36 to 46 bases America aside, the UK, France, Turkey, China, and the Russian Federation all also have permanent military bases somewhere on our continent (in contrast, no African country, or the African Union as a whole, has an independent military presence anywhere outside the continent).

Africa remains a prize.

This state of affairs presents our desperate, venal governing class with opportunities to be even more, well, venal. Having long exhausted whatever political legitimacy the “attainment of independence” gave them, they have continued looking for a new gig.

However, the intensified interest in Africa may be the final nail in the coffin for African communities and societies nearly broken by 30 years of war, austerity, repression, and dysfunctional service provision.

THE COLLABORATORS: An obituary of the African Independence Project

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The opportunities are now blinding our leaders to the very real dangers of the unprincipled relationships they are rapidly building with the People’s Republic of China. At worst, they could end up facilitating a Chinese colonial-settler project; at best, they could leave our grandchildren in perennial debt bondage.

As a cover-up, our leaders scrape up the last of the anti-colonial phraseology they can remember, and rationalise that China could never exploit or occupy Africa in the way the European powers did because the Chinese and Africans share a common history of colonial occupation, humiliation and liberation. “The Chinese”, they defensively declare, “are not racist.”

The opportunities are now blinding our leaders to the very real dangers of the unprincipled relationships they are rapidly building with the People’s Republic of China. At worst, they could end up facilitating a Chinese colonial-settler project; at best, they could leave our grandchildren in perennial debt bondage.

This is the worst possible kind of group to have in charge of making the key decisions at this very momentous point in African history.

Imperialism is not a colour and capitalism is not a race

China is not the China of the period just after her national liberation struggle that brought the Communist party to power in 1947, and that provided much-needed support to other Third World liberation movements.

To understand what is really going on, one must ignore the propaganda of both our own and the current Chinese leaders, and instead study and understand the dynamics of the Chinese liberation struggle.

China has actually had a home-grown manufacturing and trading bourgeois class for centuries. This is a social strata of indigenous nationals who establish and run trade and manufacturing enterprises using local resources and locally-acquired capital. This is the China of Marco Polo’s time.

This is why certain Oriental words are associated with commodities long in global circulation; “China”, to denote a certain type of crockery, is the most obvious one. There is also “char” (as in “charlady”) to denote tea in older English, which of course we call “chai” here. “Kikoyi” is actually a Japanese word for a type of clothing first brought to the East African coast by Chinese trading fleets. These capitalists were very different from the more visible “businessmen” seen today trading and representing imperially protected capital and goods.

China’s many decades of instability did not kill off the country’s capitalists. The existence of present-day Chinese imperialism is rooted in the history of how this indigenous Chinese bourgeoisie weathered the storms of the 1911 overthrow of the Qing monarchy and the emergence of warlordism, the 1842-1948 period of forced multi-sided colonial economic trade zones, the 1930s rise of the peasant revolution, the 1937 Japanese invasion, the 1946-1949 Chinese civil war ending in the communist takeover of power, and finally the succession politics that bracketed the 1976 death of Mao Zedong, the leader of the national liberation struggle.

“Maoism” is a practice of Marxism adapted to Third World situations, as opposed to the independent, industrialised countries where Marxist ideology was born. It advocates the building of a strategic alliance among all those social classes objectively oppressed by imperial domination to form an armed national liberation struggle. These are workers (as the class in leadership using a communist party), poor and middle peasants, patriotic middle-class people, and also a “national capitalist” class.

As part of the strategy, the national capitalist class was supposed to be slowly phased out through a series of “sunset” measures over decades once state power was acquired. The epic battles that rocked the government and the country as an ageing Chairman Mao sought to maintain his grip on power, and that peaked in the “Gang of Four” trials after his death, can also be understood to be the process of political interests of this class within the party facing down the “sunset” and further communist measures, and citing the dire economic crisis facing the country, re-orienting the party and state towards economic “reform”, all the while appropriating the language of the revolution and using it against the other groups.

AFTER THE END: Welcome to the age of ‘post-post-colonialism’

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This development came with a short-term advantage and a long-term disadvantage. In the first, by inheriting a nuclear-armed absolute dictatorship led by a party that the masses in their many millions still revered, the capitalist tendency acquired a vantage point that capitalists in the West could only dream of. Not even the big German industrial families (such as the Quandts, later owners of BMW and the Bayers, owners of IG Farben, now Bayer Chemicals, Ltd) behind Adolf Hitler ever found themselves so well-positioned. In the second, they placed themselves in the exact same quandary in which Western capitalism of the 1880s had found itself: from where will you acquire the ever cheaper raw materials to feed your expanding economy to serve a growing population demanding an ever higher standard of living? This was the situation the empire-builder Cecil Rhodes was warning of in 1895. Following a visit to London’s East End where he observed a meeting of the unemployed making “wild speeches” that boiled down to demands for “Bread! Bread!” he opined, “If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.”

When African leaders claim to be dealing with a “progressive” China, what they are actually dealing with is the national capitalist faction of the ruling party, which has asserted its hegemony over the rest of the groups of the former alliance and turned China into a capitalist country, but hiding behind “socialist” imagery so as to continue enjoying the command-and-control machinery provided by the Communist Party.

Most critically, for our analysis, they inherited the excellent diplomatic relations that the Peoples’ Republic of China enjoyed with a wealth of Third World countries. This was because of the Communist Party’s above-mentioned revolutionary support to numerous struggles against colonialism. Over the next thirty or so years, the new regime, dressed in the clothes of the old revolution, would systematically exploit that goodwill so as to repurpose these relations to become the predatory relationship we see today.

When African leaders claim to be dealing with a “progressive” China, what they are actually dealing with is the national capitalist faction of the ruling party, which has asserted its hegemony over the rest of the groups of the former alliance and turned China into a capitalist country, but hiding behind “socialist” imagery so as to continue enjoying the command-and-control machinery provided by the Communist Party.

In 1999, I once found myself playing the most incongruous role of a member of a Uganda government official delegation to China in my capacity as then Director of the Uganda National Cultural Centre. The country buzzed with a commercial energy. We were taken to see a large number of officials and installations. All the officials we sat down with had very diplomatically correct things to say about the emerging New China. That is, until we got to the office of a lady representing the All-China Women’s Federation. To the consternation of the interpreter they had provided for us (who was so flustered that at one point he went quite pale, dropped his pen, and was scrabbling under his seat to find it, but who, to his credit, did not try to interfere), this lady (who had her own interpreter present) embarked on a very frank denunciation of the whole economic liberalisation programme, emphasising how it was hitting ordinary Chinese women the most and the hardest. She did not have a single kind thing to say about the New China.

In subverting the “sunset clause” idea, China, starting with Deng Xiao Ping, ignored the old Marxist-Leninist axiom that large-scale domestic capitalism, if not heavily curtailed or done away with in good time, will find itself in need of an empire to exploit so as to ease self-created domestic socio-economic pressures. If no such empire exists, the economy may collapse, and the country could degenerate into an open dictatorship, and possibly embark on wars of conquest. This is the story of Germany after the 1918 loss of its African colonies. Colonialism, as even Rhodes explained, is a capitalist need: “We colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question.”

History followed. And may be coming back.

The New York Times cites a daily demand for fish from 30 million Chinese citizens as the source of the growing collapse of fish stocks off the West African coast. The fact is that China now needs Africa, much more than Africa needs China. The food crisis has turned China into an imperialist power.

How much do our current leaders know of what the Chinese authorities have told their project-worker-settler citizens migrating to Africa? Just as the Berlin Conference-inspired treaties of the 1890s often had a European-language version somewhat different from the local language one left with the Africans, we cannot rule out the possibility that what we understand to be trade and infrastructure agreements are in fact understood to be land and settlement agreements at the Chinese end. Only this could possibly explain why one Chinese railway worker felt so much at home as to defecate in the open right beside the Nairobi-Mombasa railway line he came with.

So, those wondering about how enslavement and colonialism happened the first time now have their answer: it happened like this, one tolerated outrage at a time, under our very noses. And only the “man-eating” lions of Tsavo will ever know how many such “developmental” dumps were taken along the route of the original Lunatic Express.

Racism and Africa’s redemption

Just as with Rhodes, racism may be a handy excuse for conquest; the difference will be in how it is deployed. To understand this, one must reach further back into the history of not just the Chinese, but all Asian people regarding their own indigenous black populations whose presence in Asia pre-dates the southwards expansion of the Asian race.

So, those wondering about how enslavement and colonialism happened the first time now have their answer: it happened like this, one tolerated outrage at a time, under our very noses. And only the “man-eating” lions of Tsavo will ever know how many such “developmental” dumps were taken along the route of the original Lunatic Express.

Remnants of these black African indigenes can be found in isolated pockets all along a broad southern band of Asia, from India to the Philippines. Their genetic memory is also visible in the Negroid features present in Asian imagery, such as the Sudanese-blue Krishna (whose name actually means “black” in Sanskrit), Buddha’s African hair, the facial carvings on the ancient Cambodian temples, and even in President Duterte’s typically Filipino Bantu nose. This genetic “yellowing” of Asia continues in the anti-black ethnic cleansing being carried out on East Timorese blacks by the Asian labourers destroying the rainforests for Indonesian corporations.

So there is nothing new or surprising to be found in the Chinese attitude towards black Africans. If you really want to know the core thinking of all mainstream Asian cultures – be they overlaid with Buddhism, Islam, Shinto, Hinduism or Sikhism – in regard to Negro peoples, just listen to the experiences of the indigenous African peoples of the South Asian and Polynesian hinterlands and forests.

China has not “taken over Africa”; she has merely joined with earlier groups of imperialists in grabbing a part of the African bounty. As a newcomer, her presence is more visible, but not yet as substantially deep-rooted as the long-standing European imprint.

She comes with two key differences: first, China does not yet have the military and diplomatic capacity to replace any of those Western powers in physically securing and enforcing the various trade routes and treaties needed to keep the global trade machine, upon which they all depend, running. Second, therefore, this venture cannot be implemented remotely, but by human displacement. Even a settler-overlord project may not work. What could work is one where millions of Chinese people are steadily shipped over to “yellow” Africa as a continuation of the anti-black ethnic cleansing and encroachment the Asians began centuries ago in South Asia.

The Africa of the ordinary people must assert itself and force its concerns on to all public agendas. The struggle now is to hold a public conversation independent of these various imperialists and their allies.

What shall we do?

First, we need an audit: what actually happened since “independence”? Why, on the whole, did the very individuals that swore allegiance to the new states and constitutions proceed almost immediately to violate and abrogate them?

How much money did the European powers make from the colonial project, and when are they going to pay it back?

How can the various one-sided European Union trade treaties, known as Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) – rooted in the earlier Lome I (1975), Lome II (1979) and Coutonou (2000) trade agreements – be renegotiated or abandoned?

There is a need for an independent peoples’ study of China, unfettered by Chinese propaganda and the apologies of our handicapped governing class. We must demand a more principled relationship with both our current Chinese “partners” and the earlier European ones. The encroachment and destruction of African public assets (be they natural or human-made) by these new “development partners” must be documented and physically resisted.

Africa must design and demand a New Economic Agenda for the continent, which would, amongst other things, put in place Africa-wide terms and conditions for the activities of all these training “partners”.

There is a need for an independent peoples’ study of China, unfettered by Chinese propaganda and the apologies of our handicapped governing class. We must demand a more principled relationship with both our current Chinese “partners” and the earlier European ones.

Part of the work we try to do at the Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute is to develop a new framework for the study of these developments and trends, in terms of what effects they have on ordinary people, and the culture they use to survive or resist them. I would encourage all young Africans to begin organising themselves into study groups, as a first step, to map out and monitor the nature of these incursions in their localities. This is where the New African Agenda will be built.

Africa does not have much time left. We face environmental collapse, ethnic cleansing and debt bondage. Decades of cultural propaganda have desensitised many of the youth to the dangers inherent in losing cultural sovereignty. This, coupled with the cynical and inept example set by the older generation in power, has created societies very vulnerable to any passing idea that could lead to a takeover.

At one level, these are not new issues. As far back as 1969, the leadership of the Biafran movement, in attempting to break away from the Nigerian state, warned in its Ahiara Declaration that “in this jungle game for world domination, a black man’s life, let alone his well-being, counts for nothing.”

ALL the powers of the world wish to grab a piece of Africa. It is up to the indigenous African people to map out a strategy to safeguard their birthright.

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AMERICA’S CASTE SYSTEM: Race and belonging in the Age of Trump

The current rising wave of white nationalism and its attendant supremacist goals in Trump’s America are futile argues MKAWASI MCHARO. The recent concluded mid-term elections, she posits, have shown that the Cinderella story in America’s politics will occur with the shifting racial demography and Generation Z who more than any previous generation have the most positive outlook toward the nation’s growing diversity.

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AMERICA’S CASTE SYSTEM: Race and belonging in the Age of Trump

When I was growing up in Kenya, I was taught that my ancestral land was the only place I was allowed to call “home”, whether I lived there or not. Anywhere else that I lived was a house. It was near sacrilegious to call a house in the city “home”.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I decided to resolve that post-colonial cultural disorder for myself. While living with my aunt and going to college at the same time, I consciously decided to defy the elders, the ancestors, and the feared keepers of cultural dogma. I started calling my aunt’s place “home”.

I had no knowing at that time how much that decision would help me find belonging in lands far away. Kenya is home, the land that has refused to surrender my first belonging, and where I continue to sow seeds of unwanted civic agitation. America is home, the stolen lands that have soaked in the sweat of my brow and sprouted the sprigs of my second belonging.

The road to voting

A few days ago, I joined the long early voting queues at the American mid-term elections and voted for the candidates I felt would best serve the interests of my State. A couple of days later, I checked in at a polling precinct where I was assigned to serve as an election judge. There, I spent sixteen hours with fellow officials helping run the voting process and ensuring the integrity of the vote.

On my way home, I reflected upon my service in this role. This was the third election I had served at the polls, and like always, I left with a sense that I had partaken in the serving of sacrament in a temple – to the rich and the poor, the old and the new initiates, the cautious cynics and faithful believers in democracy. I had come a long way too from the village that raised me.

The face of the latest wave of new Americans is little understood by those who now seek to protect this country against an influx of non-Caucasian immigrants. I represent the African immigrant population that has been ballooning significantly in the past two decades. We bring with us an already educated mind, most of us having finished high school or a first degree in an African country. We are the F1 student visa careers that got caught up in the change of immigration policies soon after 9/11, because most of the hijackers had also come in as students. Renewing one’s visa was no longer that easy, and working odd jobs was heavily restricted. Many felt stranded, unable to leave or to continue with their education.

This change in policy inadvertently led to many African immigrants staying much longer than they had hoped because they were determined to return home with some measure of success. History records the stories of American immigrants in the 1800s – men who left their families with promises to return. They went west in search of gold and lands and riches told in tall tales, and when they lost it all in life’s gambles, they chose not to return home. The shame of failure was too great to bear.

The face of the latest wave of new Americans is little understood by those who now seek to protect this country against an influx of non-Caucasian immigrants. I represent the African immigrant population that has been ballooning significantly in the past two decades.

African immigrants have also done what all immigrants who have come to the United States have done for centuries past – survive through shame, tears and tatters and eventually thrive. For many of them, seeking American citizenship was not an ambition they came in with; it became so with time, out of unforeseen necessity. They too have become builders of this land. They are the latest patch on the American quilt.

The African caravan

A smart government knows that immigration policies that allow for a fluid traversing of documented populations is the safest and most beneficial way to build a 21st century nation. It means you know where people are. The U.S. government can track my goings and comings, my toil and my taxes, because I leave a citizen’s footprint wherever I go.

The millions of undocumented and out-of-status immigrants in the U.S. simply present a conundrum that has to be addressed at some point, not by clamping down and purging, but by offering legal freedom of movement. You would be surprised at how many immigrants living in the shadows would leave the country if they had the legal means to do so. It would allow for a citizenry as physically fluid as what technology has wrought upon the world. They would also invest more as transnational citizens, a trend seen from Diasporas that have become Americanised.

It is confounding why the American power structure keeps going through this repeated cycle of fear of new immigrants when it is clear that immigrants have made America the industrial superpower it became. This fear and suppression has been happening with each new wave since the 1880s when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Then came the National Origins Formula that restricted the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe as they were deemed unskilled and influenced by Russia. The legislation also gave preference to immigrants from ethnic Caucasian countries.

It wasn’t until the 2000s that African immigration to the U.S. shot up dramatically. The Refugee Act of 1980 opened the doors to a huge influx of Africans into the U.S., so much so that by 2018, Ilhan Omar, a 37-year-old Somali woman who had migrated to the U.S. as a refugee in 1995, was elected to the United States Congress. The large population of Somalis in Minnesota no doubt gave wind to her sails. It is worth noting that Ms. Omar lived part of her life in a refugee camp in Kenya, having fled from war-torn Somalia with her family. She would probably love to go back and make a difference in Somalia.

A Liberian refugee was also elected as mayor in the deep Trump country of Montana in 2016. He too had come in as a refugee.

However, the African home countries that have held our dreams of return have betrayed some of us as life there has become more difficult to knit into desired destiny. The suitcases that were never unpacked upon arrival in the U.S., awaiting triumphant return, were finally emptied of their content after lengthy years of study and surrender to American belonging. The continental African diaspora continues to develop the countries of their foreign abode, including in Europe where more are also taking up public office.

While many Africans in America will never feel truly American, they continue to thrive and grow in numbers. In an article published this year, the American reporter Molly Fosco identified the Nigerian diaspora in America as the most successful ethnic group in the United States. A Migration Policy Institute report also states: “Most members of the Kenya diaspora in the United States were well educated and more likely than the U.S. general public to have completed a university degree [and] to be in the labor force: 80% versus 64%.”

The Pew Research Center places continental Africans as the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., with a growth rate of 41% between 2000 and 2013. Meanwhile, African governments continue to suppress diaspora civic engagement in their home countries. Most have completely failed to recognise the strategic power of their diaspora. At best, they seek to milk their hard-earned wealth without engaging with them.

American-born second generation continental Africans identify with their countries of cultural origin only when they grow up to discover the value of claiming a cultural identity. However, this identity is only seasonal. Among Kenyan-American youth, for example, you will only see this identity on display during festivities organised around Kenyan public holidays, such as Madaraka Day or Jamhuri Day. It is the kind of seasonal pride displayed by Irish youth on St. Patrick’s Day. But both are bound by the common identity of being American. And it is in America where the Kenyan-American, the Irish-American, the Chinese-American, the Hispanic-American will run for office and shape the future of the United States. If this diverse ethnic make-up of America is a foregone conclusion, then the current rising wave of white nationalism and its attendant supremacist goals are futile.

The Pew Research Center places continental Africans as the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., with a growth rate of 41% between 2000 and 2013. Meanwhile, African governments continue to suppress diaspora civic engagement in their home countries. Most have completely failed to recognise the strategic power of their diaspora. At best, they seek to milk their hard-earned wealth without engaging with them.

White fury, brown fruit

There is rising fury of white nationalism in America that is based on a fear of extinction. Immigrants are accused of needing healthcare, food, housing and education at the expense of American taxpayers who themselves have few opportunities.

This unfounded argument has been used on every new wave of immigrants. The white race at the top of America’s social pyramid is more afraid that their kind will be “browned out”. But the face of America is slowly changing, as is the face of the world. Robert Wuthnow, author of The Left Behind, reminds us that 90% of rural America is white, a population that brought Trump to power. It is also the population from whence this wave of white nationalism has steadily risen. But this 90% white rural America base is slowly eroding, especially with the ever-increasing Hispanic population.

The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will grow to 2.5 billion by 2050, making 1 out of every 4 humans on earth an African. There is no escaping the browning of the globe. The raging storms of white supremacy seen in Charlottesville and in the rise of the lone white male terrorist are all a waste of good energy that would be better used figuring out how to make amends for past injustices that have contributed greatly to a world of resentment between the privileged and the hoi polloi. It is not lost on the world that in the past several centuries our world has been shaped by a dominating race that enslaved, colonised and plundered other nations.

America’s current president recently came out openly as a nationalist. It is unclear how this helps America’s future. America’s diverse races cannot be exterminated. A continental African who arrived here in 1998 and voted as an American citizen in the recently concluded U.S. mid-term elections has the rights and responsibilities to ensure a just and equitable American society as much as the descendants of the Pilgrims who arrived from Europe in the 1600s escaping religious persecution, the grandchildren of those who escaped war, poverty and famine from 19th century Czarist Russia and Ireland, the progenies of Chinese labourers who came in the 19th and 20th centuries; the children of Jews who escaped the Holocaust in the 20th century, and many others who formed the United States of various peoples, all seeking a home away from home.

The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will grow to 2.5 billion by 2050, making 1 out of every 4 humans on earth an African. There is no escaping the browning of the globe.

There is some sorrow and irony in the burden of racial superiority. This became clear to me upon reflecting on an encounter I had when I had just started my graduate studies in New York. A white male student struck up a conversation with me at the college library and told me all about his woes as a student immigrant from Poland. He had come on an F1 student visa but had fallen out of status. I knew little about immigration woes then. Like most of my African student peers, I had no interest in staying in America beyond graduation. My mind and soul were still tethered to my country of birth. Of course, American life would later on slap me silly and awaken me to the need for new belonging. It wasn’t until I ventured out beyond my college cocoon that I began to encounter other immigrants with legal status issues.

The Polish student’s story went in one ear out the other. He might as well have been telling me about cheese. He was the first “illegal” immigrant I’d ever met, and for a while, the people I thought of anytime I heard about “illegal” immigrants were white people from Europe stuck in limbo in America. There are many white immigrants grossly alienated because they choose the comfort of blending in with their race at the top of the pyramid even when they do not have the legal papers they need to survive and thrive in America. But they don’t get called names, they don’t get go-back-to-your-country spat in their face with disdain, and they don’t stick out like a sore thumb and get punched at Trump rallies.

Dismantling America’s caste system

American society has a big self-inflicted festering wound. In every application form in the U.S., be it for employment, school or what-have-you, one is asked to check the box that identifies one’s race or ethnicity. These categories are officially determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The official reason for including them is to ensure equitable opportunities and distribution of resources, but it is no secret that this is a caste system that constitutes institutionalised racism.

It gets worse when the name on your résumé is strange and definitely not white. Once, after receiving a letter of regret for a job I had applied for, I submitted the very same résumé with the whitest name I could think of, and I got a call for a phone interview immediately. My accent, however, didn’t do me any good. It is no different from Rwanda’s past when citizens were required to have their ethnicity on the national ID. After the genocide, they got rid of this tribal identifier, and it helped build a new nation.

American society has a big self-inflicted festering wound. In every application form in the U.S., be it for employment, school or what-have-you, one is asked to check the box that identifies one’s race or ethnicity. These categories are officially determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The official reason for including them is to ensure equitable opportunities and distribution of resources, but it is no secret that this is a caste system that constitutes institutionalised racism.

In the United States, those with access to race and ethnic data easily use it to remap legislative districts in a way that is favourable to the person or party wielding the power of manipulation. Gerrymandering and voter suppression is America’s system of rigging the vote. While African countries rig at the ballot, America rigs before the ballot. This was never more evident than in the recent mid-term elections that led to the recount of votes in at least three races.

The manipulation in Georgia’s recent gubernatorial race had been done systematically and over time by the person who had the means to manipulate voter registration – Brian Kemp. As Georgia’s Secretary of State, he got the upper hand and paved the way for himself to win the governor’s seat, and this affected the integrity of the vote. Calls for Kemp’s opponent, Stacey Abrams, to challenge the election in court have been reminiscent of Kenya’s bitter election in 2017. It is likely that Kemp will preside over a bitter people, half of whom will not recognise him as a legitimate governor. Political rancor that looks an awful lot like third-world politics has become the norm in America since 2016.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression is America’s system of rigging the vote. While African countries rig at the ballot, America rigs before the ballot.

If there’s a dim light in the sinking story of American politics, it is that American society still highly values the Cinderella story. If a person deemed least likely to succeed dares to conquer all odds, chances are that a wave of support from all races is going to cheer this person on until he or she reaches the mountain top. In the mid-term elections, the Obama phenomenon has been repeated in the wave of minority candidates – women and Muslims who had been bartenders, refugees, and socialists are now headed to Capitol Hill.

Even more evidence of the browning of America and the hope of the future is the Generation Z phenomenon. In a New York Post article, Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College, describes this generation as diverse and only 55% white, making them quite likely the tail-end of white majority America. “And they have the most positive outlook toward the nation’s growing diversity of any previous generation,” wrote Professor Brauer.

Brauer sees this generation as likely voting for Trump if they had a chance, simply because they find him authentic and disruptive of the status quo. However, I disagree with this opinion. Generation Z is an equally politically diverse group, which was evident from the protests of the high school students whose power recently shook America following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. They marched to the capital, took to the media and linked arms with racially diverse students across America whose voices were heard for the first time. It was a show of solidarity that challenged the impenetrable conservative wall of power that shields gun lobbyists. If this is the future of America, then the future is bright.

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