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READING OUR RUINS: Post-colonial stories that float from afar

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READING OUR RUINS: Post-colonial stories that float from afar

Mea maxima culpa. I have not engaged with the idea of the post-colonial before. Not overtly. I didn’t notice it, you see. And that is the politest way of putting it. But I have heard about it in dribs and drabs, as one hears about people from a distant and fascinating culture that point at the moon before they start a meal. I wondered if I should amplify the retelling of the big stories you know so well: the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, a euphemism for a cynical collusion by the then-powerful nations to launch wars under banners to justify a violent land grab of a continent from its nations and people, the causal reality and root of an epoch that would eventually settle under the label of “post-colonial”. I wanted to understand how to tell post-colonial in a reality where narratives to explain the use of extreme and murderous violence on nations, cultures and peoples are still written without consequences by the same forces responsible for the long war and occupation season now known as the colonial period.

Yet for the most part, today we assert our “post-coloniality” and frolic in its imagined sounds, lyrics and images to the rhythm of assorted independence anthems. But independence from what precisely? What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed? The infrastructure and systems of the aberration in human relationships that is the accepted “colonial experience” have mostly remained intact. For the most part, in African countries, amidst the debris of the uneasy post-coloniality, the ancient and unassailable structures are those that channel Africa’s raw material (not its human) resources to leave nations; the diamonds and dying miners are African, the profits are unquestionably European and American to this day.

What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed?

This is a survey of ruins. It co-opts the ruin (paraphrasing Christopher Woodward) as a realm of “dialogue between an incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator/observer”. Ruins, created by acts of time and/or violence are, also, arguably, the material equivalent of that most compelling and equalising of human presences, a corpse. There is an oft-quoted sign in Latin installed in the doorway of many morgues: “Here is the place that death rejoices to teach the living.” The forensic pathology processes and options that invite such lessons begin with a word that I have become excessively fond of, and feel should have wider and wilder use: autopsy. Autopsy, means to see for oneself. It invites the human being to a humble inhabiting of a situation in order to speak from a place of experience, observation and encounter. Within “autopsy” are notions of a naked, visceral going deep to witness and access unseen perspectives that reveal another facet of the truth about the human condition.

There. That is my excuse for poking into intangible holes, including the holes of and in memory – to see for myself the unseen “post-colonial” story. To speak post-coloniality is to seek to address a corpse that has somehow managed to perpetuate its existence through an unending drawing out of its juices by assorted and mostly external parties. Those who have to inhabit its being are like those numerous creatures that make a corpse a thriving Cosmopolis. The ruins I explore with you include the embodied ones that pass down generations and cultures looking for a reckoning and acknowledgment—a witnessing. I scour these ruins in the hope of a more complete vocabulary of past, future, present, of me, of us, of other, of Kenya, of Africa, of the Commonwealth, of the world.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

The prevailing world lexicon is incapable of naming and bearing all our immense nows. We circle each other with old, small and weary words to speak to and about our realities, words that fall short of all our experiencing, our feeling, our hurting, and our hoping. The prevailing lexicon is also subject to ruin- making forces and is incapable of diagnosing its own inadequacies.

Fortunately, there are poets like Warsan Shire among us who point a way:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered
everywhere everywhere everywhere.”

And now an examination of a sliver from the results of an informal post-colonial autopsy session: I was born in post-independence Kenya. I was mostly formed by the season of the phase that Achille Mbembe, in his paper “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive” refers to as the post-colonial “negative moment”. My Kenya story (apart from a bleep of luminosity in the asylum in 2002) is that of an unending cycle of hoping for a glimpse of the proverbial Canaan followed by crushing disillusionment.

In 1969, I was a few months old when my parents had to flee at night from their first post-independence home in Limuru, in what is called the Central Province of Kenya, after all our lives were threatened by a state-sanctioned neo-Mau Mau gang who objected to our family’s ethnic origins following the state-anointed murder of the Minister of Economic Planning, Tom Mboya. My late father would only say very many years later that we were the lucky ones. He did not qualify his statement; it was sufficient to read the terrible bleakness in his eyes.

A baby probably holds the sensations and effects of a dangerous season. The story of my unease with Kenya’s post-colonial experiment started then, with an undercurrent of consciousness that the state could eradicate your family and culture and guarantee your non-belonging for spurious and intangible reasons that play out to this day. I grew up surrounded by the suppressed and whispered disappointments of my parents’ generation; they were the witnesses of the escalating betrayals of independence dreams, the refusal by leaders to lead new citizens to the promised land. Instead these leaders moved in to occupy the deserted palaces, acres, factories and farms that the colonial governorship had held, seizing for themselves mines and beach fronts and using the same forces of violence and alienation to achieve their purpose.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

My most abiding experience of the meaning of independence was when as a child, our house help, my sisters and I hid in fear, trembling under the living room sofas as outside, above the skies, Kenya Air Force planes screeched past and army tankers rolled by on roads, the independent state displaying its power and threatening its own citizens after the tortured and brutalised body of yet another luminous minister, J.M. Kariuki, had been found. This home-grown brutalisation of inconvenient bodies and behaviour continues to this day. It now targets the ordinary citizen. A lawyer named Willy Kimani, his taxi driver and his bicycle taxi-owning client walk out of court and turn up bound, gagged and drowned. In the post-colony it is an offence to dare to seek truth, justice and hope. You do not call the overlord’s exposed bum “nakedness”.

So where and when does colonial becomes post-colonial when the inheritors of a state who perform independence are of your race? When those who perpetuate offensive systems and refuse to unmake the violence are of your culture? When the ones who rob other peoples of their land and resources are of your creed? And when those who oppress, marginalise and socially and economically exclude amplify their monopoly of violence to legitimise control, and evolve ethno-chauvinistic supremacy narratives to excuse their plunder are your compatriots? What is the resolution of the story offered to the post-colonial citizen when those who offend and afflict are of her earth and hearth? Is it to make excuses for the disordered state of the nation because the chaos makers are our own?

We, the children of the immediate “post-colonial” have inherited our parents’ delusions and the ceaseless circling of the scene of the crime—this is not a metaphor; this is a metonym for “nation”. The Hobbesian mindscapes post-colonial frontline elders imagined they could conceal from us are ours now.

True, there are those among us who have been invested in to perpetuate the illusions, and are groomed to take over the seats at the lever of the ghastly “ancien régime”. Meanwhile, many more wrestle with and are bruised by the phantoms of our relationships with the imagination of sovereignty, nation, citizen and state. We are called to scream our defence of something that has no faith in us, no loyalty, no interest, and quite frankly, outside of the tourist brochure, no meaning. Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

Meanwhile, the post-post-colonial, mostly technologically savvy generation – those post-independence parents’ grandchildren – have, for the most part, opted out and stopped believing in God or nation. Weary of waiting for nirvana, many post-post-colonials have fled the crime scene to restart lives elsewhere; and without a sense of irony, that elsewhere is more likely than not the country of the architects and designers of the-colony-that-became-a-nation – Great Britain, France, Belgium, or Canada, Australia, the United States, the lands of eternal alienation and occupation. Many post-post-colonials take steps to obtain a second passport. They know that when anthems have quieted, and fireworks fade, and patriotic noises accompanied by the prerequisite outrage at the numerous badness and madness of “former colonial masters” have been exhausted, more often than not, to be left to confront the reality of what is imagined as home is also to contend with compromise, disappointment and decay, a stasis of order, dreams, ambitions, imagination, future and community.

Many post-colonials leave “home” to seek and find the unrealised ideal of belonging. The home left behind can then becomes rosier, better, softer and prettier the further one is from it. You see, away, there are no genocidal bogeymen. Leaving is liberation from unrequited yearning for a country called home. Those of us who still stay do so with the knowledge that we breathe uneasy in the national wounds daily anaesthetised by a debilitating hope for a nation. Yet in our lunatic faith, we are made co-conspirators in a collective existential traumatic drama. We listen, paralysed, to puerile and stupid conversations that are painted with a nationalistic hue.

An example. A few months ago, in a narrative that was amplified during the last election season, this lot now entrusted with keeping Kenya’s national dreams alive occupied their private-school educated minds with contemplating how much more a man was rendered more male and more virile – and, therefore, properly anointed by God – for leadership by virtue of the existence or lack thereof of a foreskin. This mulling was done in a public arena and explored with immense emotion in both traditional and social media across generations. Is it a wonder that post-colonial women such as I must now wonder how and where to situate ourselves in a realm of such erudite musings? Moreover, who knew that when the Union Jack was lowered in Nairobi in 1963, almost sixty years later, the great post-independence Kenyan imagination would be exercised by a public contemplation of the state of men’s willies?

How many of our post-independence belongings here are forged by similar roilings?

I have no memory of halcyon days. Halcyon moments, yes: like reading Anne of Green Gables or reciting Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation in Nairobi’s July cold. But I do not recall halcyon days. The undercurrent of unease and barely suppressed impending violence is the theme song of my post-colonial being. So where exactly is the line of delineation between colonial and post-colonial? It was certainly not drawn at that midnight point when the Union Jack was lowered and another flag was hoisted under fire-lit skies.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui.

In Kenya recently, the post-colonial project was placed under a microscope. On Saturday, March 26, 2016, a columnist’s heading pronounced: “Kenya is a Cruel Marriage; It’s Time We Talk Divorce.” Public intellectual and economist Dr. David Ndii’s type of questioning is taking place elsewhere in so many forms. The post-colonial hot soup in a world wounded by the omnipotence of global corporations and the rise of demagogues like Le Pen and Donald Trump, where the very odd Nigel Farage proclaims Brexit Day as Britain’s Independence Day. As an aside, it was in England that I was informed that to say “post-colonial” was to refer to the rest of us, not to Britain. It was in 2000 that I suggested, a bit mischievously, that Britain was a post-colonial state suffering from the pangs of having had, loved and lost its colonies/conquered states.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui. The citizens’ riot for rights thing? Storming the Bastille? Done. Devolving power? Done. Democracy through ballot magic? Done. With new technology, the process is so hackable that the winner of the next election can be programmed in the year of a present election cycle. A revised, celestial constitution to save us from ourselves? Enshrined. Yet the threat of extreme violence and election-related deaths, like unholy ritual sacrifices, persists. The idea of nation and state in Kenya has turned into an albatross. And this, the previously unimaginable idea, has emerged. Ndii’s article offers us a consideration of the end of Project Kenya, as the historian Professor Ogot had previously suggested. Ndii uses this Gikuyu phrase: Reke tumwano: Let us divorce. In other words: let us unplug ourselves from this thing already.

The public reaction has been mostly that of catatonic shock, screeching, but also a sort of resignation. Ndii’s article is still being referenced in so many forums— including this one. Yet in that proposition, there is a hint of grief, the reality of having to abort the stillborn dreams of a nation. To be invited to contemplate the loss of the national project is terrifying. We have grown accustomed to the fiction of its life and prefer to confuse the frenzy of movement within it with progress.

Visiting Britain does not necessarily clarify post-coloniality: in its dazzling capacity for amnesia or re-patterning of memory, the mnemonics of the histories of our encounters and attempt to dialogue with it must fall away. The preferred conversations, if they happen, tend to be from within the lexicon of the fig leaf of “development”, “Third World” and “participatory paradigms” on the one hand, and the character of corruption or AIDS in “Africa”, on the other. For the ex-premier David Cameron, to be able to ingenuously tut-tut about Afghanistan’s and Nigeria’s corruption is case enough for a desperate requirement for the UK to undertake what Catholics would call “an examination of conscience”.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers.

Serendipitously, I came across a short article that is worth reading in full, in which Neil MacGregor, the former head of the British Museum now helping to create a German equivalent in Berlin, interviewed by the Guardian’s Tim Adams, spoke of memory, atrocity, history and remembering. He noted other important things, and I quote:

“The thing I find striking is that in the centre of Berlin you keep coming across monuments to national shame. I think that is unique in the world. … There is still no appetite to look hard at British behaviour in Ireland. What I find so painfully admirable about the German experience is that they are determined to find the historical truth and acknowledge it, however painful it is. You can’t be an informed adult – or an artist – in Germany without doing that.”

On drawing our attention to the deeds of Islamic State today and its connection with the habits of nations, he observes: “At one level, the IS destruction has been about just shocking the world and terror. But part of it has been the deliberate reordering of history that is common to all wars.”

I suggest that the real First World War did not occur in 1914, but in 1884-5 after the so-called Berlin Conference whose amphitheatres were the countries and peoples of the world upon whom war was declared under the guise of the export of civilisation and values — I think it is called the export of democracy these days— to independent peoples, the majority of whom fought back hard and were then defeated, occupied, and restructured. The lexicon of the reasons the National Socialists used to wage war on and conquer Europe is not dissimilar to that used to justify the war on nations facilitated by the Berlin conference; and is not dissimilar to the phrases and words that are used today to justify invasions of sovereign states: regime change, democracy, collateral damage, sharing our values, removal of dictators, saving the people, mission accomplished.

Given the blood and shadows among our nations that remain unacknowledged, the clattering of the bones of shared ghosts, it remains a puzzle how the architects of the trials in Nuremberg that put Germany and its World War II conscience on trial, are still unable to delve within and memorialise the horrid dimensions of their own engagement with the world.

The post-colonial state, for the most part, has merely systematised and perpetuated the long arc of violence on peoples, resources and nations. The habit of hagiography and whitewashing of grubby deeds by the state is entrenched in many of the nations represented here: concentration camps, detaining opponents, extra-judicial murders, arbitrary slaughters, mass displacement of peoples, cultural and religious impositions, disappearances. Does the post-colonial creature admit to being infused by a specific wounding linked to the character of the nation? Would the post-colonial confess to inheriting relationships with absences, loss, the missing, the unspoken, the defeated, and the dead? Given this, is to be post-colonial to live the fall-outs from century-old wars that have never really been acknowledged or called off?

Today, we humans are living in a season of frenzy for the control of diminishing resources in a progressively overheating world; we are witnessing the rise and rise of opaque and abhorrent transnationals who roam the world unfettered, like Satans looking for anything to devour. We are in a world that demands the diminution and commodification of humanity. We know the games of bloodthirsty gods of war turning our landscapes into infernos, all offered in slick messaging that shows how cool it is that humanity can destroy itself. We tolerate asymmetric wars and war-vulture enterprises — the idea that one set of humans justify the destruction of civilisations for the purposes of growing their home economies by, among other things, securing reconstruction contracts, is a scene that comes straight out of hell.

To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers. We are co-opted by media outlets who frame narratives to excuse intentional evil, like the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and then squirm in silence at the abhorrent murders of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi under the banners of justice and democracy.

Regime Change is good, we tell ourselves and comfort ourselves with the assurance that the International Criminal Court is reserved for only brown, black and Eastern European villains. Even after the Chilcot report, it is unlikely that Tony Blair will be tried for extreme crimes against humanity. From there it is a small step to demonising migrants escaping wars created to feed flailing world economies. We now outsource murder to machines to appease putrid conscience. No one is responsible for the desecrated corpses of a hundred million nameless, mostly black- and brown-hued peoples stranded on far-away beaches. Our oppression of nature persists; the weather has changed and the large tuskers are facing extinction. We know that our human moral infrastructure is gutted, but treat those who demand a new ethical imagination as fruitcake heretics. As old certainties die, nobody seems to know what to say or do. Our lexicon is shattered by the weight of what we have become. But frankly, before the terrible witness of this epoch, silence is probably the most informed position.

A secondary character has now entered our post-colonial fray. The “Better Africa Future” set pieces are now being constructed in or by China. Given this reality, and I suspect the situation is not too dissimilar in other places of the world, the more accepted greeting is “Ni hao.” Please do not read me the wrong way; I am an awestruck admirer of China and the vision it has realised for itself. My concern is that a manual for becoming Sino-African has not yet been developed. Should we form a club where we can exchange confidences in Mandarin? Despite the reality of 1.5 million new influential African citizens of Chinese origin, which we are all still rather shy to talk about, if the future of Africa is written in Beijing skies what does this mean for the life of the Commonwealth in Africa? There is no point protesting: the bastion has been breached. No shots were fired.

China built the African Union headquarters. All they did was hand over the keys to our erstwhile kings. It is impressive, this Chinese phallic symbol piercing African skies. To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

A brief ode to Commonwealth-ness, especially after Brexit: I am from Nairobi. We do clubs. I am not an uninfluenced observer. We love clubs. The more Great Britain-connected, the better. Clubs are a community-creating process for us. We understand the indispensability of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. tea. Being Commonwealth is a secure space to soothe the occasional sweet anguish of nostalgia for might-have-been pasts and could-have-been futures. With the Commonwealth we can pretend that we are important to the world and our admonitions cause a pause in the flow of world history. We even observe other people’s elections draped in our Commonwealth mantles of dignified neutrality. To be Commonwealth is to set apart our Englishes from those of the United States of America. There we adjust to the how-now-brown-cow English variety in order to bewilder them. It amuses us when they ask us to translate “dustbin” or “pavement”. When they ask, as they invariably will, why you speak English as you do, it is the single time one admits with a touch of vanity that “we were colonised by the English”.

I know Boris Johnson had some illusion that by leaving the European Union, the Commonwealth glory may reassert itself, and those nations who call themselves Commonwealth shall bask in its restored gaze. Even though the old house is hollow and decaying, it is, however, a remarkable wreck. Old and new skeletons clutter its numerous sealed vaults, rusted pipes leak, some not-of-English-imperial-origin nations have been allowed in, the Booker Prize has been pawned to the rest of the world, the velvet is thin and frayed, and some members would like their crown jewels back, cobwebs gather amidst the bat dung and the butlers have not been paid their wages. Visits to the mother country are no longer free, and few in the world know why we exist.

I spoke earlier of crime scenes; our Commonwealth has not yet conversed with its ghosts, has it? At some point we will have to stand face to face and inhale each others’ fetid breaths and tolerate the stench and not flinch at our mutual suffering. At some point we will try again to hold each others’ gaze and struggle together to retrieve the human being from the debris of wars fought and lost, of unsigned armistices. We need to talk, really talk, about the things we need to talk about in a world failing with such violence to make sense of itself.

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in.

Perhaps, then, to be post-colonial is also to adhere to the notion of “place as palimpsest”, we are occupants of “multiple realities in one moment”. Ruins. These are palimpsests, matrices for imagining and re-imagining realities, I think.

I will start easy. From Kinshasa, DRC. Two people meet. Heads touch.

“Mbote,” They might say.

The history of this gesture comes from a legacy of ruins by the world’s most foremost genocidaire and architect of atrocities, with his sidekick Henry Morton Stanley, whose atrocities have not been recorded in our world. No memorials to a catastrophe. No literature by and of doomed descendants. No descriptions of how a great and beloved kingdom was turned into a demonic abyss by a man and his nation who went on to industrialise human exploitation, murder, horror, anguish and suffering in the quest for matter.

The German scholar Patrick Hoenig noted, in a conversation I shared with him, how the abiding monument to the apocalypse that became the Congo are systems built to lead outward; everything of the infinitely wealthy Congo is up for grabs and the infrastructure to send these out, come war or high water, remain intact. I suggested to a journalist in a fit of pique that the refusal of the world to respond with abhorrence and outrage to the witness of human evil that was Leopold’s and Belgium’s Congo, despite photographic evidence of such abhorrent and unrepeated evil, helped sow the seeds of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

The Antwerpse handjes (biscuits or chocolates made in the shape of a hand) are the only un-ironic memorials to thirty million still-nameless citizens of the Kongo Kingdom who were murdered, chopped, incinerated, petrified. Only these chocolate frivolities speak to what evil befell our humanity through them. Otherwise there is nothing else. Not even a placard in the DRC. I am not an academic, so forgive my question if it is foolish, but what is the point of knowledge sought and acquired if it cannot infuse transformation at the site of its engagement? The so-called plantation concessions from Leopold’s era are in the hands of multinationals like Canada’s Feronia. The attitudes and behaviour of the new landowners, we are informed, are a continuation of the past and remain, again, uninterrogated. I ask: Is this where one will find the line that demarcates the colonial from the post-colonial?

A final ruin. On March 2015, I was part of a group of residents of the Rockerfeller Centre in Bellagio, Northern Italy, who had taken a day out in the very wealthy city of Como. In the piazza, amidst the contented citizens and goggly-eyed tourists, were post-colonials from Pakistan selling shirts, post-colonials from India selling selfie sticks, post-colonials from Nigeria being pimped by UNICEF to hawk images of African children with flies in their eyes, and post-colonials from Senegal offering Hare Krishna pamphlets on one side and Jehovah Witness materials on another. There was a post-colonial from Ghana selling food in a stall and five other post-colonial brothers from West Africa begging—the only beggars in Como. As a fishmonger muttered to one in our group: “Before the Africans, no beggars.”

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in. Or maybe it is far too soul-shattering to have to confront the question of why the liberated African citizens would rather endure the seventy per cent chance of death than go through another day living under the glow of an enlightened post-colonial leadership. It would lead to far too many uncomfortable acknowledgments, wouldn’t it? To be post-colonial is to fake it, no?

There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

Anyway, as we traversed the cobbled streets of Como, my armpits were wet, my head lowered as if at any point I might be asked to explain Africa, our people, or why our most beautiful men were crouched in European corners playing the monkey to get a few coins. I wanted to assert, I am Kenyan. We don’t leave home. We don’t do exile. As I crossed the city in my special little group made up of an Indian artist, four white American professionals, a South Africa-based German scholar, also white, I happened upon another able-bodied African male – dark, tall, dreadlocked and with the face and large, dark eyes of a tragic Bob Marley, accosting people on the street, begging with aggression. I hastened my feet to speed away faster than the others, my eyes averted. Until from behind me he howled: “Sister from Africa, look at me. Please. Sister, look at me. Sister from Africa, see me!”

What do you want me to say? That I stopped?

That I looked back and saw a man? I didn’t.

I hurried on.

I did glance at shop displays, the back of my neck burning. He annoyed me. I needed his cry to be for someone else, not me.

None of our group mentioned that moment or man again. Yet, as you can see now, the man and his voice remain unforgotten.

The ghosts pursued me back to the continent where his voice was born. His words remain fresh, a public witness-bearing, in spite of my refusal to acknowledge the vision of my post-colonial woundedness revealed in a European public square. In his cry is a harsh invitation to dare to see for oneself, to look beyond the surface performance, name the unnameable, find the human being. So here is a slide without words for him. It is in the colour (brown, I think), that dreams choose when they fall apart.

There are still far too many fragments in the telling of our being, gaps in the soul and in the reading of our lives. There is an excess of ideas received without re-interrogations. There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

In reading ruins in imitation of those who look into stars and entrails for prognostications, I strain to see these for myself — these small autopsies — so that I might hear the memory of a past releasing its real name to the present and in the sound, the echo that speaks forth a future that suggests the best of us.

Amidst these figurative ruins, “there be corpses that rejoice to teach the living”. “See me!” – that invitation from a man, a body, on a far-off street – is a good enough place for me to look in a way that I could not before.

This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the 17th Triennial Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) Conference held in Stollenbosch, South Africa, in July 2016.  

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan writer and the author of the much-acclaimed novel Dust.

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BETRAYAL IN THE CITY: Kisumu’s residents grapple with a post-handshake future

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BETRAYAL IN THE CITY: Kisumu’s residents grapple with a post-handshake future

Kisumu city’s landscape, like the bodies of some of its residents, bears the scars of recent political protests and state repression in the aftermath of the August 8 election that was annulled by the Supreme Court and the 26 October “Jubilee election” that was completely ignored by four counties in Kenya’s western region (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya).

The visceral scars are a testimony to a cityscape whose residents are yearning for a total break from the politics of despondency and for a muting or re-writing of its political history, a history that will not be absolved or corrected by the Uhuru Kenyatta–Raila Odinga handshake that took place on March 9, 2018, its bewildering symbolism notwithstanding.

The fact that the city yearns for a fresh start is apparent to David Ndii, the National Super Alliance (NASA)’s economic advisor and strategist, but not to the Raila-led Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) MPs, whose narrow articulation of the Uhuru-Raila rapprochement simply calls for the compensation of life or limb lost during the protests.

Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape

Kisumu yearns for what Ndii refers to as Kenya’s kairos, but whether or not there is a consensus that this is the moment, and whether Kisumu’s scars equally constitute this moment, is debatable.

Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape, especially along the highway road signage. Charcoal black powder from burnt car tyres pepper many intersections on Kisumu’s roads, despite the recent heavy rains. At the Kenya Commercial Bank’s T-junction, where the Jomo Kenyatta Highway and the Oginga Odinga Street meet, angry protestors scratched off Jomo Kenyatta’s name from the road sign. Like the silver surface of an airtime scratch card, this left a dull metallic gray centre on the white metallic arrows where the words Jomo Kenyatta had been.

Across the road, on the walls of the city park’s main building, also known as Od Mikai, the name JARAMOGI, Palimpsest-like, has been superimposed on KENYATTA’s name. Never in Kisumu city’s history have the residents expressed such a strong desire to re-write, mute or erase the Kenyattas from the city’s political history and to obliterate memories of the traumas inflicted by the city’s bloody encounters with state brutality.

Despite the 1969 political tragedies – the annus horribilis in Kisumu’s post- independence history when Argwings Kodhek, the Mau Mau lawyer, died mysteriously in a road accident, when Tom Mboya was shot dead in broad daylight in in Nairobi and when Jomo Kenyatta’s security forces massacred at least 100 unarmed citizens, including children, during the official launch of the Kisumu Hospital (Russia Hospital) – Jomo Kenyatta’s name has always held pride of place in Kisumu’s central business district. The biggest public park and the longest road in Kisumu are named after Kenya’s first president.

Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire.

Further afield, Kisumu city’s market, officially named Jubilee Market, was popularly and hurriedly re-named Orengo Market by protestors in honour of the Luo lawyer and opposition leader James Orengo. Locally known as Chiro Mbero, it’s the market where the Kenyan historian, the late E.S Atieno Odhiambo, tells us the independence-era women traders sang “dine onge Odinga, nyithiwa dine Jomo otho e jela” (without Odinga, Jomo would have died in prison). Protestors scratched the name JUBILEE off the market’s signpost, and in uneven uppercase letters, scribbled the name ORENGO on the signpost’s half-scratched surface.

It seems Kisumu residents want nothing do with the Kenyattas or the type of government they represent. A few months ago, they swore to fight to the last man and woman standing for electoral justice. Angered by the conduct of the August 8 general election, the repeat presidential poll on October 26 and the state-orchestrated violence against civilians, many turned up for successive street protests, shouting in Kiswahili “ua ua…kill…kill” as volleys of teargas canisters were thrown at them by paramilitary or regular police and in defiance of the blood-curdling sounds of bullets that pierced through clouds of teargas.

Undeterred, certainly not by the rising death toll, these unarmed protestors were unflinching, angry, and contemptuous of the Jubilee government’s deadly use of force, shouting “ong’e ringo,” (no relenting) as they courted martyrdom, drawing cold comfort in the fact that their resolve to press for electoral justice was stronger than the government’s resolve to violently quell the unceasing protests. “Ok gi bi nego wa te,” (Kill they will, but they will not kill all of us.) Some of us will live to tell the tales of this war, others will be killed, but all will bequeath the next the generation with a different political world, they shouted.

Then, just when Kisumu residents thought they were done and dusted with the Kenyattas, Raila sued for peace in the name of “national reconciliation and unity”, pulling them out of their absolute resolve to detach themselves from their debilitating history and pushing them right back to the doorsteps of Harambee House, the seat of Kenya’s oppressive state power.

Raila’s handshake with Uhuru has effectively revived Kisumu residents’ cruel memories (memories they had hoped they could erase) of Kenya’s contested and chequered political history, a history that can neither be re-written from below, ORENGO Market style, nor from above, in the style of the famous handshake between the two leaders.

In the street corners of Kisumu, sounds of grand betrayal reverberate. The reverberations feel more like a spirited protest movement rather than the promising beginning of a national dialogue. At Kisumu’s K-city market, a scowl-faced middle-aged woman rhetorically asks, “Kalonzo, Wakamba osetho kodwa didi? Waluhya to….Nyithindo mane otho ne?” (How many time has Kalonzo, Wakamba died with us in this cause? And how about the Luhya…the children or the youth who died for him [Raila]?)

It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.

There is a feeling among Raila’s core constituency that he has betrayed his comrades and their support base for a brotherhood fellowship that is as confounding as it difficult to swallow. The net result has been the gradual disintegration of NASA, the once formidable opposition coalition.

“Wa chung Kanye?” (Where do we stand?), asks the woman at K-City market, as the news of the opposition NASA senator Moses Wetangula’s ouster and his replacement with James Orengo as the minority leader is broadcast in the car stereo next to the washing bay. It is now truly mindboggling to tell what either Raila Odinga or James Orengo now stand for after the handshake. Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire. The handshake has left Raila’s political base utterly confused. It’s a covenant that recalls Thomas Hobbes’ pithy quip: “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

Currently, only David Ndii’s take resonates with the protest scars on Kisumu’s cityscape. The protest crowds want to rake up the past. The ODM MPs’ talk of compensation as opposed to the 12-point gamut of the Uhuru-Raila handshake agreement certainly misses the significance of the marks on Kisumu’s roads signs.

In an interview with Citizen TV, Ndii strenuously and variously suggested that the handshake signaled Kenya’s Kairos – that opportune moment when the tensions and contradictions of Kenya’s neocolonial state, laid bare by the bloody 2007 presidential election, must be resolved. It is an opportunity for Kenyans, on their own or led by Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, to reconstitute the Kenyan nation and its moral underpinnings and to resolve its contradictions: It should be a moment when Kenyans decide whether we want to continue with dictatorship or want to embrace democracy. It should be a moment where we decide to do away with ethnic domination and consider ethnic inclusivity, through cross-party and cross-ethnic dialogues.

Ndii seems to suggests that the handshake signaled the end of ordinary times, times for everyday Kenyan political talk of “development,” “peace,” “unity,” “power-sharing or nusu-mkate”, the stock-in-trade phrases that the state and many reactionary Kenyans bandy around to silence dissent and to dismiss critics as unconstructive and unworthy interlocutors. For Ndii, Kairos is the moment for a markedly different kind of political conversation and action, which could rescue Kenya from its existential threat and ethnic implosion.

This moment underpins the desires of the Kisumu protest crowds, who have become cynical about both ODM and the Jubilee party.

Both the ODM and Jubilee’s disparate talks seem to be rewinding the historical clock, away from Ndii’s kairos, a historical watershed, and back to the Aden Duale–Fred Matiangi’s chronos, ordinary times, when and where evils still pays, and the soul of the men in charge of the government’s coercive powers is unrepentant. It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.

ODM MPs, having smelt state power, now have a spring in their steps as they arrogantly exert their powers within the now wobbly NASA coalition. Orengo, ensconced in his new position as the Senate’s minority chief whip, has now also come to symbolise betrayal. Increasingly, these MPs’ talk seems to be narrowing down people grievances to mostly to one type of injury: physical injury. They are also shifting towards the development/peace talk within the party’s core support base.

Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal.

At a newsstand in Nyalenda, one of Kisumu’s bustling ghettos, a young man quips, “Kalonzo odhi omos Ruto…wan waduaro kwe…wanwiwa ruko…mono jopinje moko keto mwandu gi Kisumu,” (Kalonzo should go and shake Ruto’s hands…we want peace…our penchant for protest discourages others from investing in Kisumu.) It a remarkable shift, a shift that echoes mostly ODM party officials’ and MPs’ views regarding the handshake and which also elevates Raila above his comrades-in-arm, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula and Musalia Mudavadi.

It is a disappointing end to a protracted struggle driven from below by fearless foot soldiers who had put their lives on the line for electoral justice and a Raila presidency. Kenya’s nascent broad-based opposition coalition has suffered a major setback. And the Jubilee Party has scored a major victory, albeit a momentary one.

The Jubilee securocrats believe that the opposition comprises dispensable actors in a liberal democracy, not insurgents who can defeat them through extralegal warfare. Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal. “Baba is always right,” say many, either as a way of expressing unquestioning loyalty to Raila Odinga or granting him the benefit of the doubt that he did not throw the opposition under the bus.

What will the two midwives of the Harambee House deal, Martin Kimani and Paul Mwangi, a counter-insurgent securocat and Raila’s everyday lawyer, respectively, deliver? Will they initiate a process to re-write the tragic history of the neocolonial Kenyan state? Or will they recast recent events as merely a glitch that temporarily halted the country’s relentless pursuit of “development”?

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OUR ANCESTORS’ WILDEST DREAMS: Reclaiming Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy

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OUR ANCESTORS’ WILDEST DREAMS: Reclaiming Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy

African traditions and cultures have always held an awareness of the life cycle, from birth to death and the afterlife. The life cycle made us aware of the transitions from birth, through initiations, to child-bearing and rearing, to old age, to death, and thereafter to the journeys to the spiritual worlds of the ancestors and spirits.

In the afterlife, ancestors held sway on the day-to-day life of every community in many ways. Ancestors were consulted, honoured, and venerated, and in moments of crisis, asked to intervene (or stop intervening), so that life could return to an even keel. In many ways, the ancestor was not just an idea, but also a part of daily living, part of the eldership. Interestingly, ancestors included both female and male persons who had lived and transitioned.

Scholarship is awash with various studies on the idea of the ancestor – a continuing member of society, an elder who has a say in the day-to-day life of the community. Growing up, we learned, some of us via folklore, and some via Geography, History and Civics (GHC) classes (and some of us, through both) that ancestors are an active part of spiritual life. In a sense, ancestors are an extension of God, the creator, the primordial ancestor, the source of all life, or at the very least, an active part of the pantheon of the spiritual life of the people, which included the Creator and the spirits.

“Civilised” Africans stopped the practice of venerating ancestors because of an internalised conflict that pitted these ancestors with a God that was a watered-down white variation, incapable of seeing the value of honouring those from whom we came, those that walked before us and prepared the way for us.

Of course, critical discourse on ancestors has waned over the years, in part due to what I call the colonio-patriarchal gaze, which introduced functionalism and structuralism as part of its anthropological and religious distortions of African culture. The “civilising” and “missionising” discourse that classified our understanding of ancestors as a pagan and primitive practice consigned the nuanced view of the afterlife to a fixed idea of worship. “Civilised” Africans stopped the practice of venerating ancestors because of an internalised conflict that pitted these ancestors with a God that was a watered-down white variation, incapable of seeing the value of honouring those from whom we came, those that walked before us and prepared the way for us.

Worse, the colonio-patriarchal gaze also consigned women to the margins, entrenching racist-patriarchy as the default position. While in Old Africa women held esteemed positions of honour and of power, post-colonial Africa conceptualised women on a Victorian model that needed women to be hapless and helpless before men. Nanjala Nyabola, in one of her op-eds in the Tana Forum, calls this the “patriarchal understanding of the role of women that merely exchanged European patriarchy for an invented African tradition that has all but erased the herstories of women”. This erasure was based on an invented African tradition extended to the continuum of the living and the afterlife, and worse, to the understanding of women’s being as only relevant where connected to men.

We see this in our storytelling, for example, where women are either Mama-so-and-so, or a wife/part of a harem of wives/ a saintly grandmother, full of wisdom, demure. Women’s needs must subscribe to a certain way of being, despite the many ways in which women have continued to resist from time immemorial. We only need to think of women like the late Prof. Wangari Maathai and the women who resisted the occupation of Uhuru Park alongside her to understand that women have historically resisted the proscriptions of colonio-patriarchy.

Which brings us to subject of the transition of Mama Winnie Madikizela As soon as news of Mama’s passing broke, the Kenyan dailies joined their international counterparts in weaving a tale deeply steeped in colonio-patriarchy. “Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie dies at 81”, the Standard newspaper announced, setting the tone that positioned Winnie as irreverently connected in a previous way, an ex to the great Nelson Mandela.

“Winnie Mandela: South Africa’s flawed heroine dies”, the Nation broke the news, further positioning this ex of a great man as fundamentally flawed. Three days later, the Nation would follow up with the headline: “Mandela and his 3 wives: Evelyn, Winnie and Graca”, diverting the story from Winnie’s transition from life to the afterlife to the male prowess of Mandela, who had three wives. In this article, quoted from AFP, Mandela’s first wife Evelyn, a “cousin of ANC stalwart Walter Sisulu”, was described as “a demure country girl in sharp contrast to…his feisty wife Winnie” – (of course, even the framing of Evelyn’s identity as also connected to the Walter Sisulu apart from being Mandela’s first wife cannot be missed).

To erase Mama Winnie’s herstory is to erase the injustices of apartheid. It is to condemn her for fighting during war. It is to ridicule her for not being a demure, village girl in the face of violence, rape, plunder and racism. It is to reward apartheid and its adherents.

The “contrast” is made deeper when we are told that while both women came from the same village, “Winnie took to the city”. Indeed, the idea that the city as a space that “unsanitises” women from demure to troublesome is as old as colonio-patriarchy itself. The city becomes the place where women are “urbanised” into becoming ungovernable, mainly through empowerment, education being the top of the list. While Evelyn “buried herself in religion”, Winnie would deliver incendiary speeches, get jailed, and even kept a “young lover”. These qualities, decidedly non-rural and non-religious, turning Winnie into a “flawed” phenomenon. These “flaws” became the sum total of her life, the distillation of all her life’s work, including keeping the fire of revolution burning in South Africa while her husband spent 27 years in jail.

Even her imprisonment is framed differently. For Mandela, prison life only served to turn him into a monkish sage who would preach forgiveness and win the Nobel Peace Prize. For Mama Winnie, prison only served to enrage her, morph her into a beast that would kill innocents such as Stompie, take young lovers, and create the football club that she used as a personal militia. Let us also not forget that while in prison, Winnie was subjected to the most humiliating torture.

While married to Nelson Mandela for about 38 years, it would emerge that the couple only spent a total of five years together. These five years would become the lynchpin of the reading of Winnie’s life – how she spent her solitary years being unfaithful and indiscrete towards her iconic husband, how she disgraced him by using her young lovers to kill innocents, and how she dared to “maintain” her young lover even after her larger-than-life husband came back to her from a 27 year-jail term.

Those who have advocated for a more nuanced reading of Winnie’s life have been vilified and asked to consider that Mama Winnie was not perfect, that she had her flaws. While a compelling argument, the point is not lost that those pointing at her “flaws” are doing it from the position of colonio-patriarchy.

The timbre of these reports is not just disturbing; they, for me, point to a deeper narrative where women who transition from life to the afterlife are not accorded the same dignity and veneration that men are. This is one of the lasting legacies of colonialism, where women were relegated to the margins of men’s lives, both when living and in death. The invention of a picture of “African womanhood” that does not work for the majority of African women who stand up to be counted becomes problematic because it does not work, period. To erase Mama Winnie’s herstory is to erase the injustices of apartheid. It is to condemn her for fighting during war. It is to ridicule her for not being a demure, village girl in the face of violence, rape, plunder and racism. It is to reward apartheid and its adherents.

Compare, for instance, the soft, even magnanimous, approach to the death of P.W Botha, who was actively opposed to anti-apartheid activities and was found guilty of human rights violations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Or the rewarding of F.W. de Klerk with a Nobel Peace Prize despite his support of apartheid and state-sanctioned violence against South African blacks towards the end of apartheid when he was the president of South Africa.

For both men, apartheid is contextualised so that their crimes against blacks appear less abhorrent than those committed by their predecessors. For example, history is kind to Botha for not being as “brutal” as his predecessors. This kindness and nuanced reading is missing when Mama Winnie is dubbed a “flawed” ex-wife. In fact, her crimes take on a salacious character. The brutal murder of Stompie is often connected to her supposed “flings” with younger men. The story even subtracts from the horrible death of Stompie, and becomes firmly hinged on Winnie’s supposed and imagined sexual life.

Such salacious readings are mainly consigned to women throughout history. The great painter Frida Kahlo’s story has always been centred on her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera, and hinged on her imagined sexual life, rather than the breathtaking beauty of her work, and her incredible life story. Many pundits seek to remind us of the ways in which the late Prof. Wangari Maathai was divorced from her husband, and led a “nude protest” at Uhuru Park. Her hard-won Nobel Peace Prize becomes a footnote, as does her life’s work in education and the environment, which she began as a teenage girl.

Female ancestors, embodying the earth, were seen as giving the earth its fertility. Part of the pantheon of the spiritual, their names were evoked for blessing, fertility and the wellbeing of the earth.

So why then must we see these women who have transitioned as ancestors? Why must we honour them, and seek to vociferously end the erasure of their lives? Film-maker Ava Duvernay popularised the saying “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams” after breaking out as the first African-American woman to direct a big-budget film production. In subsequent interviews, she directly made reference to female ancestors, paying homage to them by saying that she would never had accomplished her life’s work if these female ancestors had not laid the groundwork.

For us in Kenya and in Africa, this is doubly true. Our female ancestors have continued to lay the groundwork for us, propelling us to become who we are today. Our departed grandmothers and mothers have left us with nuggets of wisdom, joy, and even pain, with which we have forged ahead into becoming. Our female elders and ancestors, from Queen Nzinga of Angola to Mekatilili wa Menza of the Mijikenda, Queen Lozikeyi of the Ndebele, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti of Nigeria, Miriam Makeba, Wangari Maathai, and now, Winnie Mandela, have all dug on rock to ensure we find footing in soft ground. They have led revolutions, won wars, led armies, and won countless, if unappreciated and erased, victories. Paying homage to them as elders and ancestors is the least we can do. Paying forward their labours is imperative. The soil they dug up from rock cannot be desecrated with erasures, and without action. We must resist erasures, and continue with the tasks of planting where they gave us soil, so that future generations will find rock-hewn forests.

Female ancestors, embodying the earth, were seen as giving the earth its fertility. Part of the pantheon of the spiritual, their names were evoked for blessing, fertility and the wellbeing of the earth.

There is also the belief that the state of the earth is commensurate with the status of women, both those that are alive and those that have transitioned. If we are to observe the state of the earth today, it is clear what the status of women is. The transition of Mama Winnie reminds us that we must resist and reclaim the spaces of our female ancestors from colonio-patriarchy. This is the urgent and imperative assignment of our generation.

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A NEGOTIATED DEMOCRACY: Factors that influenced Somaliland’s 2017 election

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A NEGOTIATED DEMOCRACY: Factors that influenced Somaliland’s 2017 election

On 13 November 2017, the people of Somaliland went to the polls to choose their fifth president since breaking away from Somalia in May 1991. Despite a delay of 28 months, international and local observers described the election as credible and peaceful. The fact that the election finally took place, and did so in a calm and orderly manner, was welcomed with a tangible sigh of relief, at home and internationally, and with pride on the part of Somalilanders.

A number of “firsts” added to this sense of achievement. Voters were registered using iris recognition technology to preclude double voting, making Somaliland an early pioneer in embracing biometric technology in elections. Unlike in the past, the incumbent was not a candidate, paving the way for a more robust campaign that featured, for the first time, a televised debate between the three presidential candidates, and the three vice-presidential candidates. It was also the most inclusive election, with all six regions taking part. The government made its largest financial contribution to an election, underlining how seriously Somaliland was taking its political future. For the first time, the government agreed to a code of conduct with the media to ensure balanced coverage by the state-owned media.

The advances in the 2017 electoral process took place against a background of widespread and profound frustration within Somaliland with a hybrid system of government that combines clan-based representation with Western political institutions. Over time, the merger became a fusion of weaknesses, incorporating neither the integrity and clarity of the traditional system nor the institutions and levers of accountability that underpin Western norms of governance. The multiple delays in holding the presidential elections also led to the gradual erosion of public trust in government institutions and to diminishing international goodwill. By November 2017, there was a convergence between domestic dissatisfaction and international pressure, making the election a defining moment in Somaliland’s political trajectory.

From remote villages to big towns, everyone from nomadic pastoralists across Somaliland to the elites in the capital, Hargeisa and in the large Diaspora communities, followed the election closely even if they did not vote. While they had different views of what they hoped for, there was a strong consensus that the political landscape needed an overhaul after seven years of the same administration.

Voters’ priorities

Desire for tangible improvements in their living standards dominated voters’ expectations. In our conversations with both urban and rural voters, the provision of water and enhancing the quality and coverage of educational and health services was repeatedly emphasised. The urgency of tackling crippling inflation, which has increased food prices and made poor people feel even more impoverished, was underlined across the board. Employment among youth and the development of road networks, electricity and other public utilities were also high on the list of priorities for most people. Rural communities, reeling from the effects of a severe drought in which they lost most of their livestock, the main source of their livelihood, called for investment in agriculture.

The advances in the 2017 electoral process took place against a background of widespread and profound frustration within Somaliland with a hybrid system of government that combines clan-based representation with Western political institutions. Over time, the merger became a fusion of weaknesses, incorporating neither the integrity and clarity of the traditional system nor the institutions and levers of accountability that underpin Western norms of governance.

Voters in urban areas, particularly young people, view political favouritism as one of the major impediments to their employment prospects and the reason so many of them embark on the treacherous journey to Europe ((known as tahrib). Consequently, the role of government in creating a fair and equitable environment for employment, business opportunities, economic investments, the distribution of resources, access to government services and political appointments, mattered to all voters. Fighting corruption, making the legal system work for everyone, curbing the powers of the police and putting an end to the arrest and detention of journalists also carried weight with voters.

However, these priorities did not, for the most part, shape the decisions made when voters actually cast their ballots.

Official party programmes and campaigns

To guarantee the formation of political associations with cross-clan representations, the Constitution of 2001 imposed a limit of three political parties. In addition to Kulmiye, the party of the sitting President, two other parties, Waddani and the Justice and Welfare party (UCID), joined the contest in 2017. While Kulmiye and UCID were participating in a presidential election for the third time, Waddani, registered in 2012, was a newcomer to the political arena. The leader of UCID had sought the presidency in earlier elections, but Waddani and Kulmiye fielded new candidates.

All three political parties had written programmes, popularly referred to as manifestos. Those of the opposition – Waddani and UCID – were largely a response to what were described as the shortcomings of the ruling party. They pledged major changes across all sectors. The party in power, Kulmiye, spelt out what it saw as its achievements and promised continuity while making further improvements.

Economic and social issues, international recognition and good governance all featured prominently in the manifestos. With the use of social media and increased media coverage, more voters than ever had access to party manifestos. Some of the parties held presentation sessions across all six regions to give voters the chance to question senior officials about their stated plans.

The manifestos, however, were not intended for all voters, especially given the high levels of illiteracy, particularly outside the main towns. Target audiences were the slim minority of educated voters, mainly young people, seen as independent of clan interests and who might, therefore, be swayed by a party’s stance and ideology. But they constituted an insignificant proportion of voters, their impact further undermined by the fact that they are scattered.

Illiteracy, reinforced by a strong oral culture, meant that a large percentage of voters were influenced by what they heard at rallies and in private meetings and what they witnessed on television. An official for Waddani said his party put at 65% the voters “who are not interested in the programme.” Their recruitment, he added, required using what he called traditional methods to get their support. This largely consisted of bringing party officials from their area “to show where their clan fits in the party hierarchy and probably in the next government”, as well as discussions about the sharing of power and resources.

One civil servant blamed constituents for letting politicians get away with making “blank statements about impossible deliverables which lack the how part.” People, she said, never asked the parties for concrete solutions and preferred instead to listen to speeches about “heavenly rivers flowing through their neighbourhoods.” At the same time, she acknowledged that voters know, from experience, that party programmes are not implemented after elections precisely because “parties are built on the foundation of clan interests and not ideologies.”

Yusuf Osman Abdulle, a poet known as Shaacir, said it was unrealistic to expect the population in Somaliland to choose between political parties based on written documents. “Given the low literacy rate and the very poor quality of our educational system, you don’t expect our society to be where they can choose parties based on what they are promising or what they have done in the past,” he explained. “The thing everyone understands is: Who are the candidates? What clans do they belong to? What is the relationship between his clan and my clan?”

And that indeed was what mattered. The heartbeat, and heat, of the campaigns was not about policies.

Forging alliances

As happens with elections the world over, 2017 revealed the patronage system at work. In Somaliland, the politics of vote-seeking is directly tied to the clan-based social structure. Far more significant and decisive than the large public rallies held during the official 21-day campaign period were the numerous behind-the-scenes meetings between party leaders and traditional elders, politicians and businessmen, which had kicked off during the previous six months.

Voters in urban areas, particularly young people, view political favouritism as one of the major impediments to their employment prospects and the reason so many of them embark on the treacherous journey to Europe ((known as tahrib).

As in previous elections, parties found it easier to maximise votes by securing the loyalty of clan elders who then become responsible for bringing the vast majority of their constituents on board. The campaigns that mattered were outsourced to elders, often from the same clan as the candidates, to meet with other clan leaders and build coalitions. Historical relationships between their respective clans and forging new relationships going into the future became the focus of discussions.

At the same time, party leaders also met with the elites of clans – elders, politicians and businessmen – to give clan-specific assurances in exchange for garnering political support, including political posts and development projects. At times, these pledges were captured in written documents signed by the party leadership. Party officials from those clans were given centre stage to show how well they were represented in the party, photo opportunities which were then broadcast through the media.

An official involved in the youth wing of Kulmiye in Hargeisa was straightforward about the political calculations at play.” A key winning strategy both for the ruling party and the main opposition party [Waddani],” he said, “was to bring in as many known figures as possible in the party from a certain clan. You can then expect more votes from that clan.”

Saying it was too simplistic to argue that parties go out and seek votes from clans, he underlined the importance of “intermediaries” between the parties and the clans, or what others referred to as political brokers. These are men [always], close to both elders and the party leaders, who work hard to implement the elders’ decisions. Parties, he commented, make either personal or group promises to them in exchange for influencing their clan or constituency. “When we talk about political parties spending millions of dollars in election campaigns, this is where the bulk of it goes to. And perhaps these elites distribute a fraction of that money to their followers.”

A party official in Borama, the capital of Awdal region, contrasted his “official” responsibilities and his true mission. As a regional official, he was charged with overseeing different offices and addressing crowds. But what he defined as the more important task “took place behind the scenes and it was to mobilise voters from my sub-clan.”

His counterpart in the small town of Salahley, 60 kilometres from Hargeisa, said elders had more powers over the community. He conceded that they, and not he as a party official, attracted the most votes. He attributed their hold over people to the fact that “everyone knows they will need the elder at some point.”

In the small town of Abdaal, in Sahil region, a young Waddani supporter worked with other members of football teams to oppose the elders, most of whom were behind Kulmiye. He said people did not take the challenge of competing with elders for votes seriously and “they were right”. Asked about politicians and elders who were not strong advocates of clan solidarity, an elder in the same town, Abdaal, was quick in dismissing their relevance. “There were very few of them and they had almost no influence over voters since they had defied the position of their clans,” he said.

The task of the elders, supported by their politicians, is to persuade, or pressure, their clan members to fall in line with the party of their choice. The lure of public service jobs for the youth and commitments to develop the region are stressed. Financial contributions are made for ongoing activities in the area, such as the construction of roads, schools and clinics, and money and khat are liberally distributed to men during campaign periods. In rural areas, affected by the 2016/2017 drought, the distribution of water, food and non-food items made a crucial difference to the outcome.

The blend of the traditional clan structure with modern governance institutions is reflected in the fact that the clans of the three presidential candidates were the stable base of support for their parties. Success, therefore, depended on establishing as broad an array of partnerships as possible with other clans. This is demonstrated, for example, in the parties’ choice of their vice-presidential candidates.

Practical considerations deepen the dependence of parties on the political clout of elders. Political parties do not have permanent offices at the district or regional levels, as became apparent when we visited a number of regions in February and March. They are, instead, concentrated at their headquarters in Hargeisa. Without grassroots branches, there is little to bring parties close to communities and foster a sense of belonging to, and ownership of, the parties. By the time senior officials visit the districts, usually close to elections, elders have already laid the groundwork.

“The thing everyone understands is: Who are the candidates? What clans do they belong to? What is the relationship between his clan and my clan?”

The difficulties parties face in raising their own funds currently makes it nearly impossible for them to keep their distance from elders. The three parties are closely associated with their founders and/or individuals who occupy key positions. Consequently, they become dependent on businessmen and contributions from their clans, including households. One observer commented: “If they campaigned purely on policies, they will not generate funds.”

The political influence of clan elders

An academic in Hargeisa described the election as “a clan project run by elders, politicians and the economic class.” Despite its many encouraging aspects, the last election was seen as inimical to Somaliland’s future as a democracy. No election has been so openly clan-based and so visibly steered by elders.

The campaigns featured inflammatory speeches, ugly rhetoric and defamation of individuals and clans – messages that were spread by the traditional media and extensive use of social media. Since clans were the deciding factor, the messages were designed so as to attract a specific clan and unite some against others. Since clans tend to reside in the same localities, even in the same neighbourhoods in towns, it was easier to hone messages and target particular groups.

Having co-opted clan elders as their principal vote-gatherers, party leaders gave them unfettered power to guide voters. Elders did not mince their words or moderate their actions, threatening reprisals against those who did not toe the line. Several party offices for both Waddani and Kulmiye were attacked and vehicles stoned.

The fact that all three candidates came from the largest clan family in Somaliland, the Isaaq, amplified inter-clan dynamics, pushing people into further sub-sub-clan classifications. Small villages and towns, populated by the same clans or sub-clans, were divided into the smallest possible units, sometimes reaching household levels. A Kulmiye organiser in Salahley spoke of several sub-clan assemblies with each setting up meeting places for their party.

The media – print, television and websites – and especially the privately-owned outlets, contributed to the charged political atmosphere in countless ways, through selective reporting, fake news and endless reportage of elders and politicians insulting each other. The huge number of events hosted by parties, whereby people speaking in the name of a certain clan had deserted another party to join theirs, were given extensive exposure by virtually all news outlets. One TV network, in an effort to paint Waddani as a pro-Somalia party that planned to impose federalism on Somaliland, showed a false photo of the Waddani leader meeting with the current President of Somalia who was at the time a candidate for that office.

The toxic nature of these campaigns inevitably created a pernicious political environment that threatened Somaliland’s most treasured asset – a long reign of peace.

The moment of truth

Unfortunately, and to the detriment of Somaliland, the near exclusive emphasis on clan considerations, channelled through the media, social media and clan gatherings, swayed many voters, including the youth. Discussions with those who voted show they had, for the most part, positive expectations of candidates from their clan or the candidate supported by their clan, and voted to express support for the clan’s position. They also paint an entirely negative picture of the opposing candidates from other clans, out of fear and/or animosity. A young university student in Hargeisa spoke of her mindset when she voted: “I was influenced by what I saw as a threat that can personally affect me should the candidates from other clans win the election. It was a battle between clans.”

Underlining the extent to which voting along clan lines is inextricably linked with perceptions of self-interest and fairness, she added: “You have better chances of getting employed if the President or a Minister is from your clan. I know it is not a healthy feeling, but it is just a reality.”

Angry about what he saw as the political marginalisation of his clan, a young and educated employee of an NGO said resolving social and economic problems did not figure in his calculations. His sole aim was to see his candidate triumph even though he considered the other two candidates “way better on most issues.”

A party official in Borama, the capital of Awdal region, contrasted his “official” responsibilities and his true mission. As a regional official, he was charged with overseeing different offices and addressing crowds. But what he defined as the more important task “took place behind the scenes and it was to mobilise voters from my sub-clan.”

Some voters, while admitting they voted in line with their clan, believe this was in the broader interests of Somaliland. A man living in the small town of Dilla in Awdal region argued that voting in step with his clan “was for the good of Somaliland so as to prevent two clans establishing dominance.”

Amal said that politicians only come to her village of Tuli in Awdal during elections and she expects nothing in return. Nevertheless, she found herself vulnerable when politicians descended on Tuli in 2017 and “labelled us as sub-clan X and sub-clan Y.” Amal, along with her neighbours, succumbed to the messages the intensified as 13 November, the date of the election, approached. Speaking in late February, she said a united community had been torn apart and people no longer communicated as easily as in the past.

Bucking the trend

Not everyone, of course, bowed to the wishes of their elders and local politicians. Some voters made independent choices. But many of those who stood their ground, particularly women who were expected to vote as decreed by their menfolk, said they paid a heavy price for their position.

Many of those who did not vote, despite the insistence of close relatives relaying messages from elders, said they based their decision on what they regarded as the absence of realistic and feasible programmes by the parties. A staff member of a human rights group in Hargeisa said he failed to find “timelines or convincing details of exactly how they would carry out their commitments.” A long-term civil servant in Hargeisa said she had seen ministers come and go over the years without any attention paid to election manifestoes. So why, she asked, “should I spend my energy for nothing?”

Khadar, a driver in Dilla, said his income had doubled, and his life had become easier and safer since a tarmac road was built by the previous administration connecting Dilla, Borama and Hargeisa. When it came to the elections, the construction of this road, he said, and not the opinion of his elders, determined which party he voted for.

Maimuna in Dilla held out against intense pressure, including being labelled a traitor. Elders, her own children and her in-laws failed to convince her when she refused to support one of the opposition parties. Her customers boycotted her business but she would not budge. Calling her position “odd and 100% personal because women’s choices are strongly affected by their husbands and male community elders”, she cited an aversion to change as the reason she went with the ruling party. Describing 2017 as “a very divisive election”, she said “it ruined relationships between individuals and families.”

In Salahley, Rahma had initially agreed with her elders to back Waddani. But when the head of UCID announced the Quran would guide the actions of his party, she switched to UCID and refused to back down despite entreaties from her local elders.

Regardless of internal divisions, voters in Somaliland see elections as an important step towards the prospects of international recognition.

Aspirations for international recognition

Asked about the most vital issue at stake in November 2017, Mustafa Awad, who follows Somaliland’s political fortunes closely, did not hesitate to say it was “the same as every other election since the 2001 referendum – international recognition.” The pursuit of Somaliland’s recognition by the international community is of course intensely political, not only domestically, but also in the region and internationally. It is also a practical issue, in terms of greater diplomatic and commercial ties with the outside world, acceptance of Somaliland passports to ease the current nightmare of travel and an increase in foreign aid.

An academic in Hargeisa described the election as “a clan project run by elders, politicians and the economic class.” Despite its many encouraging aspects, the last election was seen as inimical to Somaliland’s future as a democracy. No election has been so openly clan-based and so visibly steered by elders.

The feeling of being a voiceless and invisible people, of not belonging to the community of nations, has left a deeply felt psychological wound. Commitment to the electoral process, and consolidating Somaliland’s position as a democratic oasis in a region not known for free, fair and peaceful elections, is regarded as “the gateway to this much-coveted recognition” in the words of Mustafa.

The aftermath

It is imperative for Somaliland to reflect collectively over the recent elections, particularly because elections for both parliamentary and local government councils will be held in less than a year. To move forward and capitalise on its achievements, every society needs self-analysis in order to correct mistakes, assess weaknesses and improve on its successes.

Some of the key challenges mentioned by voters, and those who abstained, include healing the rifts created or magnified by the elections. The extent to which relationships between clans, between communities living in close proximity and even within families were disrupted, entrenching old divides and creating new political and social fault lines, is uppermost in the minds of most people. The consequences of the unparalleled level of discord are still felt across Somaliland, especially because the animosity was intimate, between people who know each other and interact on a daily basis.

Other issues of common concern include how to hold the new government accountable from a non-political perspective and as ordinary citizens and the absence of opportunities for remaining politically engaged outside the existing parties. Dissatisfaction with the role and performance of parliamentarians and local councils, the absence of sufficient platforms for political debate and discussion and a host of problems related to the mechanics of voting were also mentioned repeatedly.

The transition of elders from politically neutral peacemakers to powerful politicians is an acute and widely shared source of disquiet. The pivotal role of elders in enabling Somaliland to overcome the internal conflicts of the 1990s, precisely because of their detachment from political squabbles and their prioritisation of peace above all else, has been well-documented. The loss of this neutrality has worrying implications for the resolution of future conflicts and for democratisation.

Safia, a civil servant, wants to see elders confined to their traditional role, and banned from speaking on behalf of voters, in the hope that people will then organise themselves into groupings of their choice. The difficulty of coaxing people to demand public action over a common cause, such as poor roads or the absence of water, underlines for many the dangerous and debilitating encroachment of clan politics in everyday life.

Focusing on the larger public interest, however, requires room for manoeuvre, which parties in Somaliland currently do not have, given their dependence on their clan constituencies. Cutting ties with elders and prominent clan figures risks loss of support and creates resistance, a prospect no politician with an eye on the next election is likely to welcome.

The transition of elders from politically neutral peacemakers to powerful politicians is an acute and widely shared source of disquiet. The pivotal role of elders in enabling Somaliland to overcome the internal conflicts of the 1990s, precisely because of their detachment from political squabbles and their prioritisation of peace above all else, has been well-documented. The loss of this neutrality has worrying implications for the resolution of future conflicts and for democratisation.

Unless voters can hold a government to account, it is impossible to compel a new administration to deliver on its election commitments. The space for accountability in Somaliland is already limited. This is further constrained by the low level of rights awareness among both the public and government officials, and by the nature of a system where most people voted out of clan allegiance. Successive governments have promoted a perception of demands for accountability as an opposition-fuelled process, leading to controversy and pitting pro-government and anti-government supporters against each other, often along clan lines. This situation will persist as long as politics is trapped in its current form.

The irony, as pointed out by Khaled Ismail Abdi, who works with media groups, is that people who voted for change then wait for the government to solve all their problems, imposing an unrealistic burden on an administration with few resources. When the hoped-for-changes fail to materialise, there are few avenues, outside of the clan, to seek redress. Addressing the government, as an expression of civic responsibility and a right, is not seen as an option.

Two decades is a very short period, particularly in the wake of war and conflict, to institutionalise the norms of a full-fledged democracy. In that time, Somaliland has indeed made strides that can be built upon to strengthen its political infrastructure and, for the sake of future generations, move away from being a clan-based polity. This requires an engaged citizenry to encourage the emergence of political leaders and parties independent of clan identity and committed to reinforcing Somaliland’s nascent democratic institutions.

Note: Pseudonyms have been used throughout this article.

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