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RETURNING THE GAZE: Representing poverty and precarity in a post-colonial world

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RETURNING THE GAZE: Representing poverty and precarity in a post-colonial world

To a greater power and a better nature you, free, are subject, and these create the mind in you that the heavens have not in their charge.
Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.

~ Marco the Lombard’s counsel, from Dante’s Divine Comedy

Novelist Pankaj Mishra, referring to “the history of modernisation”, observes how despite pretentions to rationality and order described by the American originators of the term in the 1950s and 1960s, modernisation’s history “is largely one of carnage and bedlam” that disproportionately afflicts a targeted,othered”, dehumanised, inferiorised population invariably classified as poor, who by implication are also made responsible for the pathetic state in which they find themselves.

A polarisation of conscience means that little solidarity can be extended to those who suffer the greatest burden of the consequences of the worst of human impulses and choices. Do we imagine that the gaze infected by the paradigm in which it thrives can refocus its witnessing lens from a place of profound empathy for and with humanity, and see itself in the suffering of the other?

There is nothing objective in the human gaze. We know this. Yet we collude with this post-Enlightenment, neoliberal hubristic production system that even proposes its own transcendence and omniscience— and does so while denying or erasing the reality of the shared experience of suffering so that it can lay claim to transcendent objectivity. How can a corrupted witness purport to offer a truthful testament to human experience? How unbiased is the evidence (images, stories) that such a witness brings forth?

Humanity now thrashes about in a chasm of the absence of a real vocabulary of beingness today, while at the same time, makes excuses for a parasitic ideological structure that requires the stories of others’ vulnerabilities in order to shore up itself and its peculiar myths. An obsessive and pornographic preoccupation with the wounds of others serves two key purposes: one, it enables the observers to feel, what is that imbecilic word…superior, and two, it helps the observers to avoid engaging with their own internal contradictions and pathologies, it buries their fears.

Against such a backdrop, what does our own articulation of post-coloniality, social development, vulnerability and poverty actually mean here and now? What does “representation” become when forged through an epistemological structure that fragments the world so that it can elevate itself as the “universal” and the standard by which the human race measures its progress. In referring to this dilemma, the thinker Santiago Castro-Gomes calls it the problem of the “hubris of point zero”.

This is the epistemology that, despite its, yes, many virtues, treasures, and achievements on behalf of its select, could also declare those on the right of the screen as virtuous and righteous in their actions against those on the left, who are consistently classified as soulless, valueless, ungovernable and unmournable savages, barbarians, terrorists and heathens— not entirely human and, therefore, exploitable and dispensable. The mostly Euro-American collective societal imagination, in particular, was co-opted into this belief. The paradigm deliberately enlisted science and academia to develop a literature and theory to absolve itself from this, its public evil. The desecrated bodies on the left of the screen are rendered undignified and nameless even in their ancestral homes—and there are no plaques to commemorate their histories, achievements, their existence – while museums are built to enshrine the so-called exploits of those on the right.

An obsessive and pornographic preoccupation with the wounds of others serves two key purposes: one, it enables the observers to feel, what is that imbecilic word…superior, and two, it helps the observers to avoid engaging with their own internal contradictions and pathologies, it buries their fears.

What we see and hear now has a history and a template. Given this, what then should a person do with an array of stories and images embedded in a diminished, diminishing and disordered framing of life, that from its origins, and despite the evidence of its horrid impulses, has never been forensically interrogated?

In a 1999 New York Times article, Nigerian author Wole Soyinka reminded us how “the great philosophical minds of Europe, like Hume, Hegel and Kant, bent their prodigious talents to separating the species into those with rights and those with none, founded on the convenient theory that some people were human and others less so. The Encyclopedists of France, products of the so-called Age of Reason, remain the most prolific codifiers of the human (and other) species on an ambitiously comprehensive scale, and their scholarly industry conferred a scientific benediction on a purely commercial project that saw millions of souls dragged across the ocean to serve as beasts of burden. Religion and commerce … were reinforced by the authority of new scientific theories to divide humanity into higher and lower manifestations of the species. The dichotomy of the world was complete.”

I am compelled to ask how truthfully a person of this epoch can speak to precarity, poverty or marginalisation without making incisions into the profound moral and existential vacuum that are their sources and causes, which the human collective treats with amnesia. We are enduring a season of an unprecedented crisis of being and vision – and the devastation of lives we see and label as “precarious” are symptomatic of this.

Reality, they say, is relational, not representational. I retreat once more to Marco the Lombard’s counsel from Dante’s Divine Comedy for guidance:

To a greater power and a better nature you, free, are subject, and these create the mind in you
that the heavens have not in their charge.
Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.

Do we really have the adequate tools of analysis that will lead us into an immersive experience of the realities to which we refer? We live a lie-laden un-reality where communities of the most resource-rich territories of the world are interpenetrated by the most devastating forms of poverty while those of the resource-consuming lands are lauded as the most advanced, the wealthiest, the best, when the questions that should be asked are: How does the world’s wealth get to be transferred, from where, by whom, for whom and at what price? Who sets the rates? To what obscene extent are precarity, marginalisation and poverty in themselves a profitable by-product of a way of being in the world? How are these accepted by-products of an accepted global industrial ideology? Will we explore poverty in its multiple designs and constructions in Bretton Wood cults, in the numerous multinational boardrooms, and in all those resource-hunting, territory-scouring Trojan horses that first appear as non-governmentals and then collude with emasculated, lobotomised post-colonial governors masquerading as leaders of so many nations?

We find ourselves entangled in and by a culture that, for example, knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, still allowed its privileged liars, those contemporary high priests of baal, a gateway to create and launch a grotesque unending war fifteen years ago that has since devoured an ancient civilisation and pushed our earth into the cusp of a human-caused apocalypse. This alleged “war on terror”, an abominable act, co-opted forty other nations, all of which fly the banner of democracy and human rights, and who have wilfully and continuously committed atrocities before slithering away to reconstruct a narrative of righteousness by evolving new euphemisms that deny the horror that their choices have visited upon millions and millions of innocents.

I am compelled to ask how truthfully a person of this epoch can speak to precarity, poverty or marginalisation without making incisions into the profound moral and existential vacuum that are their sources and causes, which the human collective treats with amnesia.

The abomination is today visited on Yemen for no real reason other than Saudi Arabia, this paradigm’s favourite pimp, wishes to test its war chops and spread its particular version of self-rightousness. Saudi Arabia is spending trillions of dollars on weapons sold to it by nations, that offer themselves as ‘paragons of human values’ weapons that are sometimes procured through second or third parties. Money gratefully received without question. Later, when the images of devastating Yemeni starvation hits your Christmas screens, some scrawny Englishman will compose a “Do they know it’s Christmas?” dirge so that we can all send our one pound to help the poor, the starving and the helpless. Meanwhile, it is Christmas every day in our weapon-manufacturing communities; the war in Yemen is a ceaseless bounty.

I ask you, are there any stories today, any images of the full Yemeni reality? Of course not. We will neither reveal the images of the generals overseeing the devastation of an already weak land, nor will we show what bullets and grenades do to human bodies. Why should the truth of what sustains our economies and guarantees our lifestyles interfere with the pleasure of our morning cappuccino? But God help the ones who emerge from the inferno of our making. They become our revenants. Their bodies and haunted lives are fingers pointing at us, which without a single word, mock our presumed innocence.

Here is our world now, this massive entangled bruise of traumatised, alienated, marginalised, terrorised, impoverished hundreds of millions, a world offering itself to the possibility of self-annihilation as entertainment.

This epistemological framing by which we live has won for its adherents entire territories that are relabelled as, for example, the United States of America, Australia, Canada, and then elevated as “universal” beacons of high human values that also confirm the hegemonic paradigm’s transcendent delusions, those mythologies that are adorned with titles such as “civilisation”, “democracy”, “scientific”, “advancement”, “philanthropy” and “human rights”, so many gilded fig leaves positioned to conceal the wound and its questions, which may include:

What is the origin of this nation?

How did the current governance structure evolve? Who and how many had to die to invent this “country”? How did they die?

Who atones? Who does not atone?

This dominant system, including its knowledge systems, generates and reinforces a malignant Military Industrial Complex upon which entire economies depend. And it seduces us with amnesia. Forget! it suggests. In exchange we may frolic carefreely amidst the flowers of Orwellian doublespeak – collateral damage, for example, a euphemism for lies, transference, prevarications, perception management, propaganda, erasure and rewriting and rebranding of horrors. Meanwhile, in a world of abundance, how is it even possible that eight men from the same cultural paradigm have gained control of 80 per cent of the earth’s wealth? Is this the culmination of the so-called Age of Reason?

Today we accuse Kim-Jong-Un of impoverishing North Koreans, but do we also reflect on the meaning (today) of the American war in Korea (1950-3)? The wilful carpet bombing of a country by one set of humans until everything is rubble, as the generals casually cited that 20 per cent (a conservative estimate) population death rate? Why do we act shocked when grieving, starving, devastated, traumatised people turn their backs on a world that turned its backs on them? And we suddenly have something to say about…what?

Please don’t get me wrong; I am not excusing insanity. What I ask is if the prevailing global paradigm and its tributaries—-modernism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism…with their penchant for laundering their darkness – are what can gainfully articulate the dimensions, meaning and language of profound human suffering. In the end, after we have described, or gazed upon, the poverty- stricken, the marginalised, the oppressed, the dehumanised, in whatever forms these take, what actually changes for the common good as a consequence?

A different point.

We neither see nor imagine the same thing when we say “poverty” or “precarity”, do we? Despite our preferred assumptions, there is no uber-state of poverty or precarity that is the universal template. Yet so very rarely do we allow an exploration of the varieties of consciousness that imbue human seeing, recognising, describing and attending; or the reality of philosophical and cultural divergences.

This alleged “war on terror”, an abominable act, co-opted forty other nations, all of which fly the banner of democracy and human rights, and who have wilfully and continuously committed atrocities before slithering away to reconstruct a narrative of righteousness by evolving new euphemisms that deny the horror that their choices visited upon millions of innocents.

To some, poverty is an asset in a world where shareholder profit is the Holy Grail, where consumption is the measure of nirvana. So valuable it is that should the economies of certain nations decline, wars must be manufactured. As long as weapons can be sold and jobs created, a necessary magic happens—these economies are rich and stable again and can hold themselves up as beacons of world development and order, right? But the blood-price that designated scapegoats have paid remain obscured and untold.

Precarity does, however, explain how humanity has turned vampire to humanity, feeding on its own lifeblood, its harrowing collective gaze always turned outward and elsewhere. Precarity (or what some might refer to as precariousness, which is a less enduring/permanent condition) – a word that was apparently coined by the Catholic monk and anarcho-communist Léonce Crenier (1888-1963) – has been defined as “the politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks…becoming exposed to injury, violence and death”. Precarity is a condition that is often associated with neoliberal capitalism and its perverted logic of blaming the victim for his or her suffering, rather than examining the skewed power and economic relations that might have contributed to that suffering – a logic that relies on scapegoating to absolve the inflicter of suffering from any blame.

What the scapegoater’s target (the poor, the starving, the helpless, the victims) may have to give up is the power to name themselves. If they survive the struggle, they will be doomed to be spoken for, depicted, analysed and approached with the delicious frisson of Freud’s unheimlich — the uncanny. But sometimes, sometimes, it is true, that the monstered being growls back using the tools and technology of the paradigm against itself.

We, the inhabitants of this earth, are caught up in the matrix of a dark drama that services our fears, our violence, our silences, our looking away, and in some cases, our approval. This grotesque dance is justified with epic headers: Age of Discovery, War on Terror, Humanitarian Interventions. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Mother of All Bombs. Later, imagine our surprise when survivors from such expeditions flee their homes seeking refuge and peace in our midst. Having even been robbed of their names, we are now able to label them poor, marginalised, migrants, refugees, precarious, as if what befell them happened through their own fault. We negotiate encounters so that their suffering is kept as far away from our lives as possible.

Their courageous odyssey, their spirit and strength in the face of overwhelming intimate losses are rarely voiced, lest they expose our cowardice. Their desperation is often criminalised, as if it is infectious. We may safely look at their drowned bodies on television, but having seen enough of these, no longer notice them. We engineer them into concentration camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda, Jordan, Greece and Libya. Meanwhile, we neglect to act on the reality that we know that their powerless bodies are minute by minute being brutalised, experimented with and traded. Their organs are being auctioned, their children are being raped, their women are being violated, their men are emasculated, humanity is being brutalised by humanity using its most insidious weapons: human absence and human silence.

To some, poverty is an asset in a world where shareholder profit is the Holy Grail, where consumption is the measure of nirvana. So valuable it is that should the economies of certain nations decline, wars must be manufactured.

In April last year, the American military dropped what they christened the “Mother of All Bombs” over the Achin district in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, a public display of the same casual evil that created the Nagasaki and Hiroshima slaughter, a prelude of what is to come, perhaps? There is still to this day a terrible silence over the actual number of Afghani casualties, which have already been pre-stigmatised as ISIS, not to speak of the devastation of the landscape and environment. There are no independent verifications, no counter-checks, no accountability, no display of bodies other than those of living American soldiers standing in caves that are still intact and whose locations cannot be verified.

So, when a surge of humans in deep distress whose environment has been poisoned and shattered will flee Afghanistan trying to find new homes, will they be returned to the source? Will we try and find the reason for their fleeing and hold to account the responsible nation? Of course not. That would require what seems to have been leached out of the human collective: a will to truth and courage. Indifference has been made cool. “Post-truth” has been invented. When the desperate immigrant carrying his remaining child peers through a fence, won’t we line our words and images to articulate a preferred trope that reinforces our framing of poverty, powerlessness, and precarity regarding him and his country?

Shall I go on?

Weeks before the bombing and Donald Trump’s foray into Syria, American soldiers and their Saudi friends were implicated in the mass slaughter of a boat filled with innocent people escaping Yemen. After the announcement of the mistake, nothing. There was also the horrible and mistaken slaughter of innocents in Mosul involving the so-called coalition forces. After the initial alarm, nothing. You who study representation, have you heard anything more of these crimes against the earth, decency, morality and humanity that sink without a trace, without a second bleep? The silence, though, does make it simpler to rationalise the sacrifice of humans to tomahawk missiles while the enabler eats chocolate cake—or was it vanilla?

It is to specific and targeted realms of anguish that we send our image capturers and story makers. The consistency of the ideology calls for the permitted symbols of doomed desires: the sacrificeable, the pitied and – despite the pathos – the unmournable body (preferably in a particular melanin shade and from a particular culture). This paradigm allows the media to use and expose them as the poor, the less fortunate, the marginalised, the victims. So the advantaged—and that is the adjective always used – might make meaning by pressing a forefinger on the donate button and dispatch two euros fifty to support one of a hundred thousand non-governmentals who promise the miracle of turning coins into medicine and water for the ones, who, fortunately, are not us. These days it is accompanied with a hashtag. But no questions.

So what do we have to show, we humans speaking about poverty and precarious lives lived in ineffable margins? What do we have to show that amplifies our abysmal and wilful unknowing of the actual and inner lives of those whose histories we choose to condense into a single, transient thumbprint, captured, edited, and distributed by a thinned-out imagination? In the academy’s retelling of precarity, poverty and their representation, what room exists for a multidimensionality and multiperspectivity that breathes fresh knowledge and insight that might actually transfigure our humanity?

Let us change track and look at some art, okay?

The cover image of Job’s Friends by Lenny Caccio is inspired by the biblical Book of Job. It features three friends – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite – who show up to supposedly console a terribly afflicted Job. Encountering the extreme suffering and wounded spirit and body of their friend, they first choose to sit in shock. After a suitable interlude, now accustomed to the spectacle of suffering, they proceed to diagnose the disease from a safe space that does not require them to touch Job. They also evolve a branding plan in which they excuse everything but Job, who is somehow made responsible for his fate. They offer a scholarly treatise on meaning, suffering and Job’s responsibility. They wonder why Job is not more like them, they who are favoured by God. If he were, such suffering would not be his fate. Nay indeed, since they know the mind of God, actually, in a way, this makes them, like God…if not God Himself.

Meanwhile, we neglect to act on the reality that we know that their powerless bodies are minute by minute being brutalised, experimented with and traded. Their organs are being auctioned, their children are being raped, their women are being violated, their men are emasculated, humanity is being brutalised by humanity using its most insidious weapons: human absence and human silence.

Suddenly, certain of their transcendence, they authoritatively proceed to make decisions for Job. They go on and on until Job became a scientific and social development project. They discuss the alleviation of Job’s poverty, precarity and disease. Dear Job is sucked into the eye of the cyclone of stupidity and is compelled to reclaim a semblance of humanity by trying to explain the inexplicability of his existential harrowing.

In the eyes of the three idiots, Job, the scapegoat, must not be perceived as innocent, for through this judgment he is designated as the carrier of the pathologies and terrors that afflict the human journey; upon him rests the entire mystery of human suffering. Now Job is the heathen. The savage. The pagan. The terrorist. The infidel. The Third World hordes…or was it swarms (David Cameron). The extreme other from whom our lives are detached, whose suffering is alien to our righteous ease. Behold this, the detached collective observing human suffering, not as witnesses, but as judges and gossips. They fail to see that Job is a mirror and witness to the reality of life. These idiots (yes, I am judging them) look and look and turn blind.

It does end rather well, with a schadenfreude twist. The mysterious Source of Existence in whose name much was suggested by the trio shows up from out of the whirlwind, the storm, the chaos, and is in a very bad mood. He stormily affirms and underlines the truth of human unknowing before the immensity of life. Some paraphrased bullet points from within the storm: You are not the authors of nature or life. You are all subject to the mystery of suffering, pain, death, and the unknowing. In other words, as a millennial friend once put it to me, you know shit about life.

The three self-appointed dunderheads get their knuckles thoroughly rapped by a God who makes them dependent on Job for a dramatic gesture of forgiveness and sacrifice that will release them from the hell their presumptuous babblings have driven them into, thus demonstrating another useful point: You need one another other in order to get yourselves out of your self-created hell.

Back to earth.

On January 24, 2017, a 22-year-old human being, a man named Pateh Sabally, either jumped into or slipped into Venice’s Grand Canal. Witnessing this were about two hundred men and women. They were cited as cursing, mocking and abusing him as he flailed and cried.

What did Pateh see? What did he experience as he started to die? To know that the last human gaze Pateh experienced was the gaze of hatred is such a weight on a sensitive human conscience. What looks out of the gaze of this mob in Venice, finding satisfaction in the slow death of an ebony-bodied stranger in a canal?

A dying man entered the doorway of death with the sound of over two hundred apparently “sane” human beings mocking his life, urging him to annihilation, amused by his suffering. What did Pateh see? What did he experience as he started to die? To know that the last human gaze Pateh experienced was the gaze of hatred is such a weight on a sensitive human conscience. What looks out of the gaze of this mob in Venice, finding satisfaction in the slow death of an ebony-bodied stranger in a canal? And death and dying are such a private, intimate happening, even among creatures. So, what has become of a people and their interior values who seek and find intense porno-visual satisfaction in the death of a stranger? What turns these people into a howling beast, a mob that has lost access to the grammar of life? What is in the gaze of the human in the canal looking at his audience?

We have been here before, haven’t we?

I was surprised, and then not surprised, that the horror did not generate greater contemplation in the media or in societal reflections and that the only images published were those of the drowning Pateh, with the mob offered as a faceless mass without a shape that melts into the day when invited to account for their manner of witnessing. I am struck by the length of time that the mob spent observing, archiving, recording and commenting on Pateh’s dying, and the eerie idea of profound satisfaction in the experience. The mob is so preoccupied with their perception of Pateh’s otherness, his immigrant-being, that nothing of his humanity penetrates their gaze. What is this epistemology of life that makes of human beings a thing that finds pleasure in the dying and death of a man? Why has it not been hacked to pieces yet? Unless, of course, its diminished conceptualisation of who a human being is has its worshippers. In this event, who in our epistemological structuring would be the subject of our reflections on poverty, precarity and pity? Pateh or his mob?

Second case: On September 8, 2015, a woman who had veiled her face, protecting herself from the contagion of encounter, filmed the flow of human sufferers crossing into her country, Hungary. She would at some point drop her camera to focus on extending her foot to kick two children and their father, a former Syrian football coach, Osama Abdul Mohsen, who carrying one son, stumbled to the ground. It is not possible to list the many ways that this man, travelling without his wife, was humiliated. A man has lost his home through no fault of his own, has lost his country, is compelled to impoverishment, and struggles with life in ways that not many in the world can. He traverses unknown worlds, deserts, storms, wars, water, death, displaying the noblest human spirit and its will to live and hope.

This human seeks refuge among other humans, strangers. Reduced to scrambling across a man-caused frontier, he runs in the direction of a camerawoman, who is masked to preserve herself from the diseases he purportedly carries. Let us think carefully about the gesture as she pauses her filming and puts out a leg to trip a man carrying his son, who flails and falls. That fall, friends, is a wounded gong in the deepest soul. A warning. This episode is enshrined as the Petra László incident. It travelled as a cold slithering shiver across the world. In our house in Nairobi, when we saw it, no one could speak. But it was recognised for what it was.

I am struck by the blank in the place where people have absented themselves from, or even worse, have become so paralysed by human uncertainty that they do not know how to be hospitable to and receive, perhaps through an embrace, the wounded among and within them.

My own gaze stays on the camerawoman Petra László. I want to meet her. I have questions to ask. What drives a human being to this place of cruelty? I have traced her narrative of defence. Her first explanation: “I just snapped.” The second: “The man lied.” The third: “I am in danger.” The fourth: “I shall sue Facebook, I shall sue the witnesses.” It goes on.

The discomfort for us is this, the reason for our unspeaking witnessing: Here is the public revelation of the disintegration of humanity, the evidence of the wound. And no, this is not about privilege. Petra is a mirror, you see. Here also is my emptiness. Here is my terror of the mysteriousness of another. Here is a symbol of my impoverished humanity. Here is the sign of the unspoken wound that tears through my own soul, that if unattended for much longer will turn septic and evil—for here precisely is what I do not wish to be.

So who are these people? And why does society and popular media collude in an act of amnesia and erasure, not of the dead or suffering, but of the agents who amplify the suffering of others? It is not labelled as anything, is it? There is no name offered for this precarious condition. Why? There is the gaze. But what is heard? What is told and repeated? What gets muted so that an image can be explained differently?

In August 2016, police in Rome received a phone call from a stranger asking them to investigate a situation. An 84-year old woman and her 94-year old husband were in their apartment. They had been wailing so loudly for a good part of the day and their cries were now disturbing their neighbours. When the police entered the house, they found an elderly couple who were so overwhelmed by an existential loneliness, who having watched the news were horrified by the state of the world, that all they could do was wail, and wail, and wail. The media story slides quickly to the part where the police cook pasta for them. But I am interested in the spaces of silence and absences of neighbours, of family, of community. I am interested in the gaps occupied by this profound human keening, the sensitivity of a man and woman who feel the wounds of the world so profoundly.

But I am mostly struck by the communal unhearing and unseeing and unfeeling and unregarding. The story is not only about the police and pasta, but also about the meaning of that human cry, and the reactions of those who heard it. I am struck by the blank in the place where people have absented themselves from, or even worse, have become so paralysed by human uncertainty that they do not know how to be hospitable to and receive, perhaps through an embrace, the wounded among and within them. Yet here are the kind of people who would press the contribute button on the computer to send one euro to pay for a borehole in Timbuktu.

The worst of these are the leaders of nations whose people are compelled to flee to find life elsewhere, despite the wealth and treasures of home. Each of these leaders, through their incompetence, cowardice and collusion, are culpable and accountable for the extremes of suffering experienced by their people.

What has happened? Do you know? I don’t. But does our lexicon for poverty and precarity encompass this, the marginalisation of persons from themselves? The meaning of lives no longer at ease with embracing, holding, comforting, or mourning each other?

For the Bretton Woods and United Nations indices on global well-being, this scene scores high on the wealth index. It shows evidence of the consumption of pasta. Poverty or precarity, under the dominant paradigm does not figure, does it?

There is an adjunct to this that often skips our global headlines: The state of the elderly in European and American societies, evidenced in excessive winter mortalities, is a reality that is carefully left out of developmental indices and global conversations about precarity. Yet the paradigm to which our world has pledged its visioning will implode before it admits that its mythology is erasing the top end of its generations. It would be cynical to imagine, I guess, that the wild reaping of a generation judged as no longer productive is a desired outcome for a worldview obsessed with human usefulness, wouldn’t it?

What I am trying to say, perhaps not too eloquently, is that perhaps, primarily, for me, this conversation we are having about ‘precarity’ is about humanity and its choices, this is an examination of a communal consciences in an attempt to see a way to engage that is transformative to our humanity and its dignity.

Allow me to make brief references to two key aspects in the global value chain of the misery economy that have a role in informing our constructions and perceptions of poverty and precarity:

First, the matter of forced philanthropy, one of the studios and markets for the representational images of poverty and devastation that social development paradigms offer. The business of imposed philanthropy is a fascinating study of human delusion to omniscience, the exercise of power through the mask of pity and the subversion of genuine human compassion for the purposes of profit and personal glory. It too has a history that reaches deep in the roots of the alleged Age of Discovery that I do not need to go into now. Its patterns are the same. The designated beneficiaries are always rendered choiceless, voiceless and nameless and subject to the character profile the philanthropist imposes upon them. Their most intimate lives are exposed to an irresistible gaze. The philanthropists have the power to speak for and represent an entire people and their experience. It is like the ventriloquist who seeks dummies into which he can throw his voice and reiterate his agenda.

Deus ex machina. I will not names.

Caught up in a devastating existential struggle, the targets rarely fight this denudation of their humanity—because, admittedly, some coins to alleviate immediate suffering are made available. Those who object to this business model are often labelled as out of touch, people who are denying or manufacturing reality. For the patron society must always reaffirm its intrinsic goodness. Its people are good. Its intentions are good. And the vulnerable are a blank canvas upon which stories can be repackaged. And if the images are from the imagined African milieu, I promise you a fly on the face shot, even if it has to be photo-shopped in. But this imposed philanthropy serves its most potent purpose: it offers the paradigm a messiah, or many messiahs.

We lament the body of Aylan but immediately censor our awareness about the link between his sea-washed body and that of the CEO of the weapon-making factory that supplied the manufactured rebels with the guns and bombs that destroyed the Kurdi family life in Kobani, Syria.

An overview of this ecology of suffering would be dishonest if it did not refer, at least once, to the role played by the useful idiots, those too-numerous colonial (they pretend to be “post-independent”) governments – those impotent venal agents of collaborative coloniality, betrayers of hopes, repellant homeguards. The worst of these are the leaders of nations whose people are compelled to flee to find life elsewhere, despite the wealth and treasures of home. Each of these leaders, through their incompetence, cowardice and collusion, are culpable and accountable for the extremes of suffering experienced by their people. Entangled in a grammar of violence and oppression, they have woven their individual lives into a life-destroying global economic paradigm at the expense of a vision for the world and their own people; they create new demons and excel in the creation and sustenance of a hell that destroys even the future of their land and generations of people. They engineer displacement, and do so in the name of social development. Yet their governments spend twenty times the resources allotted to national development to buy weapons abroad for incompetent armies trained to turn their weapons inward. These caretakers of disaster have nothing to say about a reality that has turned their people’s bodies into the most tradeable and the most disposable, mere containers for other people’s organs. (Many of their people now lie on the bed of the Mediterranean as undersea ghosts.) What a wreckage. What an abysmal poverty of spirit and imagination.

Is there a repository of more profound ideas, values, and words that can engender transformative human relationships so that we do not have to bear the burden of human anguish and injustice alone?

We lament the body of Aylan but immediately censor our awareness about the link between his sea-washed body and that of the CEO of the weapon-making factory that supplied the manufactured rebels with the guns and bombs that destroyed the Kurdi family life in Kobani, Syria. In the representation of poverty, precarity and alienation, where are the images and stories of the weapon factories and the military or prison industrial complexes? We side-eye bodies that have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea but block our ears to the reality of a multi-billion-dollar human trafficking/slavery network owned by an amoral global elite for whom business has never been better, certainly in the supply of human organs that had been a problem before but is no longer an issue in most of the world now.

How can one enter the soul of this theme without a life-giving mythology of presence so that when we speak of human poverty and precarity we do so justly, and in a way that shelters all that is shamed, broken, unjust, flawed, deaf, blind, lost, wounded or sad? What framework do we have that can call out the normalisation of unmitigated evil and our human dalliance with a violence that excuses itself and erases the voices of the most vulnerable?

Is there a way to interrogate the entrenchment of a seemingly omnipotent economic complex that mocks humanity by calling itself not only humanitarian but also just? What do we do with processes and ideologies with which we cohabit that glorify hatred, injustice, fear and violence that turn others into bogeymen? What ideologies of being exist that are capable or brave enough to hold perpetrator predatory systems and cultures accountable for their wilful desecration of life and meaning? Is there a repository of more profound ideas, values, and words that can engender transformative human relationships so that we do not have to bear the burden of human anguish and injustice alone?

Paraphrasing Mignolo, it must be possible for our humanity to imagine “institutions at the service of life rather than life at the service of institutions.” There has to be a way of being and seeing that deepens the witness’s gaze, a daring to first love—yes, I said it, love – and, therefore, make representation a true gift, a grace of human encounter, of human discovery, dignity, enchantment and knowing.

 

This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the Gesellschaft für Anglophone Postkoloniale Studien / Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies (GAPS)Annual Conference on the theme, ‘Representing Poverty and Precarity in a Postcolonial World’, held from May 25 – 27, 2017 – at the University of Bonn, Germany.

Author’s preamble:

The ideas this essay puts forward are mined from many disciplinary spaces and are especially energised by proposals from thinkers like Enrique Dussel, W.D. Mignolo, Santiago Castro-Gomes, Arturo Escobar, among others, who dare to interrogate the reality of the extended and always-morphing life-cycle of coloniality existing in a dominant historical framework that informs the state of the world today. My intention is to exhume a few sacred graves, particularly those masked in silences. This is a basic exploration of, to borrow from Dussel, “negated alterities”.

I want to now confess to you that writing this was a struggle for so many reasons, some not too clear. For one, what really is an adequate analytical framework through which to enter a thorough exploration of the contemporary iconography of profound human suffering? In considering this question, I was forced to recoil before the dominant post-Enlightenment, modernistic ideology and paradigm that fakes its break with its myriad pasts, while embedding and consolidating its humanity-displacing values and intentions To pretend that the paradigm—modernism, post-modernism, post-colonial, neo-liberal, whatever – is not also a violence-based, suffering-denying, scarcity-inducing, wound-causing, human-dividing, difference-criminalising, consumption-adoring, crisis-creating, self-aggrandising, disordered belief system, with its prosperity gospel, slaughtering priests, elaborate infrastructure, instruments, and institutions that favour a pre-selected few would be ingenuous of me.

In which case, how then does one truly speak about representation, for example, within the framework of this overarching epistemological ecology? How does one address its systemic propensity for blood-letting, dependency on the commodification of life, a habit that is soothed by an instinct to euphemise atrocities that include presiding over a protocol that governs which images and narratives are allowed, sought, desired, derived, edited, distributed, sold and pre-explained? This essay is my attempt to deconstruct the representations and present a life- and human-affirming mirror to those doing the gazing.

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

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WHO IS RUTO? The handshakes and the fear it is spreading

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WHO IS RUTO? The handshakes and the fear it is spreading

The now (in) famous March 9, 2018 “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and the opposition coalition supremo Raila Odinga has ushered in a season of political “handshakes” between presumed antagonists.

After Uhuru, Raila shook hands with former Presidents Daniel Toroitich arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, on April 12 and April 20, when he went calling on them at their homes in Kabarak, Nakuru County and Muthaiga, Nairobi County respectively.

Weeks later, during his annual State of the Nation address to Parliament, the President in a live-and-let-live gesture asked the House members to “cross-over” and greet each other, supposedly signaling the end of electoral hostilities and the beginning of a political détente and healing through an overplayed public act of penance.

Leading the way, Uhuru shook hands with the youthful Babu Owino, the vociferous MP for Embakasi East, who, during the electioneering period in 2017, is supposed to have epitomized the opposition’s collective hatred of him.

The spin-off effect of this publicized “presidential pardon” was a cacophony of contrite pleas from and between politicians, led by Deputy President William Ruto, who took to Twitter to seek forgiveness from those he may have “sinned” against, even as he forgave those who had “sinned” against him.

However, beneath the feigned efforts of the political class to ingratiate themselves to a discerning but disengaged electorate, the undercurrents of the 2022 presidential succession are raging.

Since that first handshake on the steps of the Harambee House, which took him by complete surprise, Ruto has not been resting easy. Raila’s meetings with Uhuru, and subsequently with Moi and Kibaki, have re-calibrated and re-oriented his political program for the next 4 years.

However, beneath the feigned efforts of the political class to ingratiate themselves to a discerning but disengaged electorate, the undercurrents of the 2022 presidential succession are raging.

Attuned to brinkmanship and sabre rattling, Ruto’s initial attempt to respond may have boomeranged on him. If the stories swirling around are to be believed, he was denied an audience with Moi after arriving unannounced and uninvited at the Kabarak home of the man whose tutelage paved his path to political prominence. He and his entourage that included his close confidante, Charles Keter, the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, were nonetheless served with hot lunch, in the truest African tradition of welcoming even your presumed enemies, when they drop by suddenly.

Moi, through his interlocutors, was magnanimous in acknowledging the visit by the Deputy President of the Republic and assured Ruto that at an appropriate and properly arranged time, he would indeed meet with him. The DP was nevertheless flustered by the apparent public rebuff. In an effort to deflect from the missed opportunity, he blamed his woes on Moi’s son, the Senator of Baringo, Gideon Moi, who he accused of shielding his father from him.

Had the DP imagined himself in this situation so soon after the elections?

“The gloves are off,” said a member of the Mt Kenya Foundation, an influential lobby group that consists of some of the richest Kikuyu barons in Kenya and which helped bankroll Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential campaigns in 2013, as well as 2017. We were at Sagret Hotel, in Nairobi, drinking bone soup, accompanied with sizzling hot mutura (traditional sausages stuffed with offal). Sagret Hotel, which has existed since the 1960s, has been the haunt for old Kikuyu money, patronized by some of the richest Kikuyu men and who’s who in Kikuyu society.

“Who is Ruto?” asked the mzee, a typical Kikuyu ethnic chauvinist: arrogant, contemptuous, entitled and moneyed. The loaded question presupposed, Ruto was a non-entity in Kenya’s dynastic politics. “Who was his father?” he mused aloud. “Bururi ni wa andu atatu: njamba, gitonga na muthamaki (A country belongs to three types of people: the brave, the rich and the anointed leader). It is true Ruto could be a brave man … Yet, that alone does not qualify him to rule over us. Raila is [also] a njamba, but we Kikuyus did not give him the presidency.”

The tycoon said the country’s influential political families had rejected Ruto. “Who are we to say he can lead us? Ikienda guthejuo, ndionagio kahiu (if you decide to slaughter an animal, you do not make it obvious by dangling a knife in front of it). Ruto should read the sign on the wall”, he said.

That the question of “who is Ruto”, now openly being asked by the Kikuyu elites, was also quickly gaining currency among the Kikuyu rank and file, dawned on me when I bumped into my long-time friend, Njuguna Gatheca, in the city centre recently. A city of Nairobi political operative since the inaugural days of plural politics in the early 1990s, Njuguna pulled me aside and animatedly told me: “giothi ni githaruranie” – the game had changed. “Who is Ruto?” It was a rhetorical question and he was not expecting an answer from me.

A country belongs to three types of people: the brave, the rich and the anointed leader). It is true Ruto could be a brave man … Yet, that alone does not qualify him to rule over us. Raila is [also] a njamba, but we Kikuyus did not give him the presidency.

“This country cannot be left to a person whose political pedigree is questionable,” said Njuguna. “Who knows, there might not even be an election in 2022. You keep abreast with global politics…you know what happened in Russia with Putin when his term was coming to end? Let me whisper something to you: Uhuru is not going anywhere, he must stay around to guard his family’s empire”.

Vladimir Putin was inaugurated on May 7, 2018, for his fourth term as president and has ruled Russia for 18 years, save for a brief period when he served as the Prime Minister in 2008. My friend was telling me that the Kikuyu would not vote for Ruto. He described Ruto as a man who really itched to be president – a familiar label previously attached to Raila in his effort to wrestle the presidency from Kibaki and later Uhuru. Now it had conveniently shifted to Ruto. “We know Ruto’s plan: he wants the presidency so much, so that he can gleefully bring down Kikuyus’ riches. We will not give him the pleasure of doing that,” said Njuguna.

“Ruto should not think we have forgotten, what he did in the North Rift and especially at Burnt Forest church,” said the old man at Sagret Hotel. He was referring to the violence that followed the bungled 2007 presidential election, much of it targeting Kikuyus in the expansive Rift Valley region, for which Ruto was prosecuted at the International Criminal Court. Three dozen of them were killed in a single incident, when a mob set fire to a church they were sheltering in.

I began openly hearing the “Burnt Forest church fire” narrative after the repeat October presidential election. But the fact is, the narrative had all along been there, but more muted after Uhuru and Ruto teamed up in 2012 to run for the presidency. “We are not foolish and we are not forgetful,” said the businessman. “We had to be tactical not to torpedo Uhuru’s presidency – but now we are free, we owe no one any apology or debt.”

He described Ruto as a man who really itched to be president – a familiar label previously attached to Raila in his effort to wrestle the presidency from Kibaki and later Uhuru. Now it had conveniently shifted to Ruto.

The mogul told me that as a Christian, he had forgiven Ruto for what he did to Kikuyus in the North Rift, but that did not mean he was welcome to be the nation’s president. He reminded me of the Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz’s famous aphorism: “The stupid neither forgive nor forget, the naïve forgive and forget, but the wise forgive, but don’t forget.”

He continued: “If Ruto is not tamed, his plan is to dethrone the dynastic families of Kenyatta, Moi and Jaramogi in that order, from future political participation.” To do that, “he must of necessity first destroy their business empires. For him to survive as a president and consolidate his powers, he must bring down the Kenyatta and Moi families down. That is the only way he will be president.” The mzee saw Ruto’s hand everywhere in the government, and thought it did not portend well for the nation if he became president: “He will finish the country.”

The old man was buoyed by the fact that in Kenya’s chequered political history, “vice presidents traditionally have not succeeded the president save for Moi only. Moi was a special case because President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died in office, hence allowing for a smooth transition,” He did not find it necessary to mention that the Kikuyu Mafia had opposed Moi’s ascension to power from 1969 (when Kenyatta suffered a stroke) and increasingly from 1974, when it was evident that Kenyatta’s death was imminent because of his frailty. Kenyatta died in 1978.

“Even Kibaki, who was at one time Moi’s Vice President did not succeed him directly: He had to find another route. (Kibaki was dropped as VP following the disastrous mlolongo (queue-voting) elections of 1988 and left Kanu in 1991 to found the Democratic Party). The others, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Dr Josephat Karanja, Prof George Saitoti, Musalia Mudavadi, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, Moody Awori, fell by the way side.” Kibaki’s first deputy, Michael Kijana Wamalwa, died after just eight months into the job. 36 years before, Joseph Murumbi had also lasted less than a year when he resigned in 1967. “Ruto will not be the first,” opined the businessman.

The old man told me Ruto is both feared and reviled by many Kikuyu MPs and politicians. “They are too afraid to come out and oppose him. All they can muster to say in their safe confines is that ‘Ruto is bad because he is not good’”. In April 2013, the Mt Kenya Foundation members hosted some of Ruto’s bosom buddies at Blue Post Hotel off Thika Superhighway, 40km from Nairobi. “We wanted to find out from them, what exactly was Ruto’s political ambition,” confided the tycoon. He claimed that one of Ruto’s men told them: “Ruto anajua Wakikuyu hawawezi kumchagua…anataka kutengeneza pesa tu.” (Ruto knows Kikuyus cannot vote for him; he just wants to make money). But it was now evident that Ruto wants to be a powerful president like Daniel arap Moi was.

“The handshake had obviously disrupted Ruto’s post-October 26, 2017 election program,” said a Kalenjin friend, who worked closely with Ruto’s campaign team. We were sitting at a popular pub in Langata, south-west of Nairobi city centre. “His program was time specific: on Jubilee Party assuming state power, he would begin by dismantling the NASA coalition, in whichever way he could – separating and scattering the four principals, by the first half of the year. In the second half, he was to clean and revamp his image, by sprucing it up as a development conscious leader.” He said Ruto has had to reorder his priorities after he was taken by the handshake surprise.

“It is now a matter of urgency for Ruto to rebrand as a development conscious leader – far from his rabble rousing and cantankerous image, having spent nearly the whole of his first term in office hurling insults at the Opposition and especially at Raila Odinga,” said the friend. “He is also now vigorously pushing for the “hustler narrative” to repackage himself as this struggling, humble man who is now seeking the presidency against all political odds. If you were keen, you would have noticed the cap Ruto was wearing during the April 23, Kamagut chicken auction was branded ‘Jamaa wa Kuku’. The branding project had to be fast forwarded and will increase its tempo as Ruto combats the notion that he is perpetually in campaign mode.”

The “hustler narrative” is assiduously being propagated by Mutahi G. Ngunyi, the chief architect of “Tyranny of Numbers” myth that in 2013 fanatically excited scores of Jubilee Coalition supporters. In the new narrative that Mutahi is fashioning, Ruto is being cast as the underdog who, after a long and arduous political journey, is ready to be crowned the “peasant president”. In crafting the “Dynasty vs Hustler Nation” message for Ruto, Mutahi is targeting the voluble millennial generation, which constitutes a significant part of the Kenyan electorate. Still, more specifically, Mutahi’s new assignment is largely informed more by the emerging realization that the GEMA (Gikuyu Embu Meru Association) nation may, after all, not vote for William Ruto as a bloc. The question therefore that Mutahi is posing to the millenials is this: “In Ruto’s battle royal with the dynastic families that have controlled the politics of Kenya since 1963, who best captures your political imagination and who in your estimation mirrors your daily struggles?”

“We wanted to find out from them, what exactly was Ruto’s political ambition,” confided the tycoon. He claimed that one of Ruto’s men told them: “Ruto anajua Wakikuyu hawawezi kumchagua…anataka kutengeneza pesa tu.”

The other person who is pushing the “peasant president” agenda is the easily-provoked and provocative city lawyer, Ahmednasir Abdullahi. He has several times, through his Twitter handle, falsified Kenya political history, in his impressionistic efforts to portray Ruto as the first son of a peasant to contend for the country’s top seat.

The Kalenjin millennial who patronize the Langata pub I met my friend in are mostly the children of the Kalenjin elite who thrived during Moi’s 24-year-old reign. They are completely sold on Ruto’s presidential ambitions and his impending take-over in 2022. “Ruto’s a go-getter and that’s the kind of person, we want,” said one to me. “This talk about Ruto’s wanton corruption and enriching himself is just bull talk – who in this country among his accusers can hold a candle against Ruto? We know how the political dynasty families made their riches. You do not help to form a government then be expected not reap from it. If Ruto has a found his way of making money, why begrudge him?”

According to this group, Ruto has proven that he can deliver what he promises: “He delivered Langata constituency to us – for the first time in the history of Nairobi politics, we have a Kalenjin MP – Nixon Korir in Nairobi County. We believe Ruto is the person who will hold our hands after he gets the presidency in 2022, just like Moi held our fathers’ hands, when he became the president in 1978.”

Like Jomo Kenyatta before him and Kibaki and Uhuru after him, Moi rewarded his ethnic base with government jobs. One of the parastatals that came to be identified with Kalenjins was the then Kenya Posts and Telecommunications. “There was a time when Kalenjin dialects were the languages of instruction; nearly everyone from the Managing Director to the tea-girl and the corridor sweeper was a Kalenjin,” said a retired engineer to me.

The Kalenjin population resident in the greater Langata is neither accidental nor coincidental: many of the Kalenjin who came to Nairobi in the 1980s and 1990s from the largely rural Rift Valley, came as government employees. As it were, they were the beneficiaries of the government houses in Langata and elsewhere in the city.

If the Nairobi Kalenjins are of the view that Ruto is the man who will carry their collective aspirations, the rural Kalenjin is even more wedded to the view that Ruto should be the next president. Sila, a friend from Kapseret, in Eldoret, told me the issue is non-negotiable. “Tunataka kura millioni nne kutoka kwa hawa Wakikuyu.” We want four million votes from these Kikuyus. Kapseret is 20km from Eldoret town, near the Edoret International Airport on the Eldoret-Mosoriot Road. Some of the richest Kikuyus in Eldoret live in this general area. They have hotel businesses, hardware shops and restaurants.

The question therefore that Mutahi is posing to the millenials is this: “In Ruto’s battle royal with the dynastic families that have controlled the politics of Kenya since 1963, who best captures your political imagination and who in your estimation mirrors your daily struggles?”

Said Sila, “tunajua Wakikuyu wote pale wanaishi Uasin Gishu County, tutaenda kwa nyumba zao kuwaitisha kura…kuna watu watahama hii counti wakileta kujua.” (We know where all the Kikuyus in Uasin Gishu live. We will move home to home, asking for their vote … there are people who will vacate this county if they try to be too clever). To test Sila’s assertion, I talked to some of the Kikuyu residents from Kapseret and Mosoriot. “Look at these houses, are they made of mud?” one Kikuyu man asked me. “We will vote with the people here. We do not want to court trouble. We have lived in relative peace since 2013. Kikuyus from the central region do not speak on our behalf.”

At West Indies, a middle class suburb, I talked to Grace Gathoni. She emigrated to Eldoret in 1980, from Nairobi, but is originally from Warubaga, in Elburgon. “The new post-election narratives being formed by the political elites within the Jubilee fraternity are being closely watched by Kikuyu resident in Uasin Gishu County and elsewhere in the Rift Valley region,” said Gathoni. “I will tell you this: the Kikuyus in Rift Valley will vote for Ruto. It is not a question of whether we like him or not – we don’t. It will be a question of peace and survival.”

“There are some brutal facts to be faced,” said Gathoni. She blames Ruto for the brutality Kikuyus suffered in Uasin Gishu. “But he also teamed up with Uhuru Kenyatta and did what they did to form the government. Uhuru in 2013 and 2017 could not have formed the government without Ruto’s help. If you cohabited with an ogre, you don’t one day wake up and just walk away from it, it will certainly devour you. You must cleverly device a system to disengage yourself from it.” Gathoni told me that surprisingly, despite the 2008 violence, more Kikuyus had moved to Uasin Gishu, especially after 2013. “Today, many are engaged more in business and less in farming. And unlike pre-2007 and post-election violence, majority of them live in urban centres – Eldoret, Kitale, Moi’s Bridge, Matunda, Turbo. Those in farming nowadays just lease the land. They also became the wiser: not many of them live with their nuclear families. The men returned, but their families are in Juja, Kajiado, Kitengela, Ngong and Rongai.”

The outbreak of handshakes in Nairobi has startled Kikuyus in the Rift Valley where they thought they were safest. Meeting some wazees from Ng’ombe Imwe in Bahati constituency, Nakuru County, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) elders told me word was already quietly being subtly spread around that “it is paramount that Kikuyus wherever they are in the Rift Valley seek to live peacefully like they have been doing for the last couple of years.” Ng’ombe Imwe is one kilometre from Tabuga, where the Deputy President was hosted by the PCEA Church for a Sunday service on April 23. Listening to these wazees and Gathoni, it sounded to me like peace had been commodified in the greater Rift Valley region.

Another mzee, from Elburgon, told me how some Kalenjin men pointedly told him: “It is true the Kalenjins terrorized the Kikuyus in the North Rift during the post-election violence in 2007, but I hope you people, as we approach 2022, will appreciate the cost of peace. You’ve lived well with us for the last five years. It is important we continue living peacefully.” It was a chilling warning. “People have built permanent houses here,” he said. “They have crops in the farms and animals in the fields; the last thing they want is disruption, death and destruction. I will tell you this: Kikuyus from this area and the adjoining areas of Kuresoi, Molo, Mauche, Njoro and Solai will vote for Ruto, come 2022.”

It was Heinrich Himmler, one of Nazi’s most influential and powerful cadre who best captured the power of political terror: Said Himmler, “the best political weapon is terror. Cruelty commands respect. Men may hate us. But we do not ask of their love, only for their fear.” Talking to the 70-year-old from Elburgon, I could see terror in his eyes. The horror of the 2007 post-election violence in his area and the fear that filled his family and relatives, all were coming back to him. “I’m old now, I want to live the rest of my life here on earth in peace and watch the growth of my grandchildren,” he says.

“I will tell you this: the Kikuyus in Rift Valley will vote for Ruto. It is not a question of whether we like him or not – we don’t. It will be a question of peace and survival.”

The post-handshake fear and panic has also spread to the top echelons of Ruto’s squad. An Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission official stationed in Kitale whispered to me that the triple resignations in April of IEBC commissioners, Paul Kurgat, Margaret Mwachanya and Connie Maina, were a choreographed event allegedly orchestrated by Ruto himself. “This was done with the intention of ostensibly disabling he IEBC and buying time, in case the push for a referendum catches momentum,” said the official.

Ruto’s middle name is Kipchirchir. Chirchir in Kalenjin etymology, means “too quick”. When in a seemingly political crisis, Ruto supposedly does too many thing too quickly. When in the storm of the International Criminal Court in November 2010, he took the bold and risky step of travelling to The Hague in the Netherlands and spent 30 hours at the Court. He met everyone except the ICC’s then Chief Prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo. His mission flopped. When he came back, he took up a verbal war with everyone, blaming his woes on everybody but himself.

My Kalenjin friends like reminding me that the traditional symbol of Kalenjin leadership – the Sambut – a traditional cloak, has always remained with Moi and therefore never been transferred to anyone. In 2007, months before the controversial general election, in what came to be known as the Eldama Ravine Declaration, Ruto was enthroned as the Kalenjin leader, “but that was not the true enthronement,” say the friends. “Until and unless he hands over the Sambut, Moi will remain the true Kalenjin leader. When the apparently impulsive decision to fly to Kabarak for a photo-op backfired, Ruto again blamed everyone and everything save himself.

If he stays true to form, there may be tough times ahead for Kenya, regardless of all the handshakes.

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THE BLACK PANTHER PHENOMENON: Bridging the rift between Continental Africans and Black Americans

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THE BLACK PANTHER PHENOMENON: Bridging the rift between Continental Africans and Black Americans

The peering into that deep void never quite stops. I’m talking about that troublesome, discomforting place that separates the global black family, the rift between Continental Africans and Blacks who are descended from slaves. It’s a rift created by forces and events too painful and shameful for many to want to talk about, yet one that often feels over-hyped, a conversation that stays at the tip of the tongue and never concludes. Is there anything more to explore beyond what you will find in abundance on YouTube and the blogosphere?

There is no shortage of sensational clatter that plugs a hunger for instant gratification when it comes to discussing that eternal antagonism between Africans and Blacks. It is the proverbial tale of sibling rivalry – Essau and Jacob, Sendeyo and Lenana, Thor and Loki, Wuriri and Mabemba… I lost you on the last one. There’s an arresting tale from the Taita people about a rivalry between two sisters that takes one of them through death and mystical destruction, and the redemptive re-membering of body and bond until their relationship is newly restored.

It often seems pointless to rehash an emotive break-up for the sake of resolving it, especially one that has grown larger than life and seems to demand the very institutionalisation of the rivalry that defines it. After all, such a rivalry gave birth to the story that recently took the world by storm – the Black Panther movie – and got people talking all over again about this very rift between the global Black family.

However, beyond the trivial endless beefing – the derogatory name-calling and the beliefs and stereotypes we hold against each other, there is still a sincere hunger for peeling off layers of masks from each other’s faces in the hope that we shall find the long-lost sibling and reach full acceptance at the final unmasking.

There is no urgency on the personal level for a momentous kumbaya between Blacks and Africans; otherwise we would be seeing a lot more inter-marriages between the two by now. The urgency is at the global level. Yet the dissection of this rift towards a global unity of the Black family cannot be done without exploring the trivial nuances that contribute the most to the daily rancor. This also comes with the danger of generalisations, a process that takes one right back to the place of rancor when an argument does not apply to the singular. Having lived, schooled and worked in the United States as an African, now married to an African-American, I will claim the privilege of making informed generalisations on this issue. A reminder that I will use “Blacks” to refer to African-Americans and “Africans” to refer to Continental Africans.

Generalization 1:

Blacks and Africans do not like revisiting the past. This is a trait that has kept both groups numb to their own pain. They fail to appreciate each other’s past from the point of separation. Blacks have not had a powerful movement dedicated to the demand for reparations, neither have Africans dedicated any significant effort towards reparations for colonisation.

Blacks and Africans do not like revisiting the past. This is a trait that has kept both groups numb to their own pain.

In Kenya, a lawsuit against the British was a low-key process spearheaded by human rights lawyers without the forceful wind of national activism. Reparation is an integral part of healing the past, in this case, repaying a people who went through Maafa – the entire gamut of the African Holocaust. Black people are still going through this targeted catastrophe, only now redesigned as mass incarceration, violent racism and economic subjugation.

Other people have received reparations – the Japanese for the suffering that America put them through when they corralled them into concentration camps; the Jewish people for the Holocaust; groups of Native Americans for massacres that occured across the Americas; Aboriginal people for the great suffering as a Stolen Generation.

For the descendants of slaves, no amount of literature, song or grioting can ever truly capture the impact of their holocaust. It is tragic that a history of two-and-a-half centuries of official slavery has not pricked the conscience of any American administration enough to legislate reparations. It is a necessary step towards removing the poison of racism that still courses through America’s veins and reconciling historical injustices. Equally tragic is the fact that there has not been a collective effort by African nations to confront their colonial masters. This neglect of the past has exacerbated the rift between Blacks and Africans whose knowledge of each other is generally superficial and lacks comradeship.

Generalization 2:

The post-Civil Rights generation of Black people do not want anything to do with Africa, and Africans remind them of an identity they are embarrassed about. This statement is bound to raise consternation among Blacks who have taken pilgrimages to the Door of No Return, those who have actually settled in Africa, and those who have married Africans.

But I’d argue that the Blacks who have embraced the African identity have little to no clout to shift the whole Black awareness centre towards a Pan-African awakening. They are too few. Many young Black people will say Africa is as strange to them as Mongolia, their African ancestry notwithstanding. Very few who take holidays ever consider Africa as a destination. Why should they, when all they see through American mainstream media’s keyhole is a continent in continuous throes of devastation? Oprah Winfrey said it, as did Dr Henry Loui Gates, that growing up, to be called “African” was an insult deeper than the N-word.

Africans who come to the United States soon learn that they are a notch below the African-American on the social strata. Naturally, it is the person right above your head that gets to step on you the most. The rift between Blacks and Africans is widened by the fact that a lot of the put-downs Africans suffer while abroad come directly from Black people.

It is easy to forget that the weight of oppression that comes from the top is suffered by both Blacks and Africans. By no means does this excuse Black people who find Africans easy targets to deposit long-seated anger and frustration. Indeed, one of the most emotional debates following the debut of Black Panther was on a thread where Africans confronted Blacks for suddenly feeling proud of African costumes and accents. Black Panther made it cool to have an African accent, yet many times Blacks have told Africans to stop speaking “African” when they speak English with heavy African accents. All the direct racist taunts I’ve received in America have come from Black people, mainly for my accent and my style of dressing. Black people’s fear and shame of their African identity is not difficult to understand, and not at all difficult to forgive.

Africans who come to the United States soon learn that they are a notch below the African-American on the social strata. Naturally, it is the person right above your head that gets to step on you the most.

Sadly, the same fear and shame is being reciprocated by Africans against Blacks. This wasn’t the case with Africans who came into the US before the turn of the century, I being one of them. At least in Kenya we were never exposed to derogatory media about Black people in America. This was a new phenomenon, one that followed the rise of hip-hop in African countries. Older generation Africans who now have kids born in the US do not want anything to do with African-Americans. They have also been poisoned by negative keyhole perspectives of Black people.

While finding their place in America, Africans are unwilling to understand the struggles of Black people and choose to either keep to themselves or marry white. A Kenyan-American teenager said to me that he dislikes it when his parents tell him that if he wants to make it, he should not mix with losers, meaning Black people. This young man identifies himself more as African-American than as Kenyan-American. This myopic view of Black people causes Continental Africans in the diaspora to miss out on the gains they could make if they joined hands with their Black brethren in the countries where they now reside. They become insular in their immigration woes, choosing to hide rather than fight.

The Kenyan diaspora community, for instance, has lost its unity and has become an each-one-for-themselves society, at best uniting around ethnic identities. This kind of unity is weak and ineffective when it comes to moving legislation in the diaspora’s favour. Only recently, the self-styled “General” Miguna Miguna, who has aligned himself with the National Resistance Movement in Kenya, toured the US and became a major magnet for diaspora Kenyans; only it was mainly one ethnic group that showed up for these rallies.

These ethnic-driven passions do nothing to solve the needs of the diaspora. Continental Africans in the diaspora have completely ignored the power and resourcefulness that could come with aligning themselves with Blacks. Fortunately, the young second-generation Africans align themselves more with Blacks than with Africans, and that might spell the realisation of a much needed Pan-Africanism.

Cultural appropriation:

Cultural appropriation is a concept that should not be given room to flourish. Black movements have always come with some form of African pride expressed through fashion or re-invented nuggets of African traditions. Black people who have arrived at a point of reconciliation with their African identity also pick and choose what, when, where and how much of this identity they can add on to give authenticity to who they are. A dashiki here, an African name there – one with just the right phonaesthetics.

Whether the declared African meaning is real or imagined is inconsequential, and that’s just fine. A black model named Roshumba once said on national television that her name meant “beautiful” in Swahili. At the time, I was flabbergasted, and that’s because I was still newly arrived from the motherland and had not learnt the intricacies of lost identities that are the burden of brothers and sisters shipped here hundreds of years ago.

As a descendant of a people violently separated from their culture and identities centuries ago, a people who have lost track of where on the continent they came from, Roshumba has every right to arbitrarily attach semantic value to a name that she or her parents decided is Swahili. Forget that no such word exists in the Swahili language. It does not become a corruption of the language; it becomes a creative addition to a language, not by a colonial force but by a fellow African long separated from her unknown language by tragic circumstance.

My journey as an African in the diaspora who has had a close and personal connection to African-Americans has stamped in me a fierce responsibility to defend the right of Black people to find their own African identity, as long as that process does not diminish African people. While Africans can and should provide a correction to a cultural misnomer, they also do not have a monopoly to decide what is African. For example, naming a child “Mwizi” and declaring that it means “king” in Swahili when it actually means “thief” is something a Swahili speaker can correct. At the same time, such corrections should not come with an expectation that “Mwizi” should always mean “thief”.

My journey as an African in the diaspora who has had a close and personal connection to African-Americans has stamped in me a fierce responsibility to defend the right of Black people to find their own African identity, as long as that process does not diminish African people.

A lesson I learnt in my linguistics class many years ago is that the relationship between a morpheme and its semantic value is arbitrary. In other words, a word can mean anything its speaker wants it to mean, and that is how language evolves. If the person who named their child “Mwizi” was misinformed, and the child has grown to believe it means “king” and no one questioned it because no one else knows the original meaning, then the semantic value of “king” becomes valid among those found within that region.

I take pains to unpack this identity repurposing because it’s a conversation we Africans have had often concerning strange “Swahili” names that Black people acquire and their equally odd meanings. Granted, the current generation of Blacks has adopted a trend of creating names based purely on stylish phonetics devoid of semantic value, such as De’Quisha. That too is valid cultural dynamism that is both unique and self-affirming. My own ethnic community has names whose meanings have been completely lost to time and traversing.

Continental Africans should also remember that those who were captured into slavery as late as the eighteenth century preserved African traditions that retain an ancient authenticity. The Gulla-Geechee people of North Carolina and Georgia maintain the highest concentration of African customs brought in from Sierra Leone where their ancestors were captured in the 1700s. Some have migrated up north and carried with them these authentic African traditions. They are much like the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia who have maintained some of the oldest Jewish traditions as a result of thousands of years of separation from other Jews.

The sudden spike in African pride, thanks to Black Panther, could be a flash in the pan. It could also potentially enhance the rift between Blacks and Continental Africans in the diaspora by the latter claiming to be the authentic custodians of everything African, especially the good stuff. Let us not forget that one of the greatest gifts, in my opinion, that Black people have given to the world is the Kwanzaa festival, a non-religious ceremony that uses African language, symbols and consciousness. The value in Kwanzaa transcends race, religion and nationality and could easily become as universal as Christmas.

Black people should embrace active custody and practice of all good things African, be they real, reimagined or repurposed for the greater good. This points to a socio-cultural diplomacy where African conscience becomes a lifestyle and an aspiration on a global scale. It would be an equivalent to the spread of the American Dream, which played a major role in boosting America’s economy and stature in the world. It is mind vibranium, a soft power for launching a 21st century Pan-Africanism that young people can buy into.

The Old Pan-Africanism

A young generation now lives out its life largely through social media. Africa has the world’s largest young population, which the United Nations estimates at 200 million aged between 15 and 24. They have time and again shifted centres through social media activism, using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Kenyans On Twitter, for example, got CNN to retract and apologise to Kenyans for calling the country a “hot-bed of terror”.

Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a famed writer and speaker from Botswana, makes the case for a Social Pan-Africanism led by the digital revolution. She is young, she has roused up globally trending hashtags such as #IfAfricaWasABar, and she understands the bee-hive effect of social media platforms that can be used to usher in a new Pan-Africanism. She calls it Social Pan-Africanism, an idea that would allow Africans to communicate and solve the issues of their times unencumbered by borders or nationality, untouched by oppressive governments or censorship. It also easily bridges this great void made worse by African peoples’ unwillingness to think beyond nationalistic, ethnic or diasporic enclaves.

Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a famed writer and speaker from Botswana, makes the case for a Social Pan-Africanism led by the digital revolution.

But I see a crater that could swallow all the efforts towards a youth-led social Pan-Africanism if they don’t sustain it through a merger with the foundations of political Pan-Africanism that established freedoms for African peoples across the globe. Political Pan-Africanism is rooted in the painful place that young Continental Africans and Blacks do not want to revisit. They do not need to dwell in the past, but they need to tether themselves to the anchors of the past in order to create a mind-blowing future.

This is a lesson Black Panther communicates well for those familiar with Africa’s history. Wakandan Afrofuturism was a reality somewhere in the past, albeit without the sci-fi gizmos. For a stretch of 700 years, economic Afrocentricism ruled the world when African kingdoms controlled global trade. The last powerful monarch, Mansa Musa of the Kingdom of Mali, saw the construction of a global university and an empire so advanced that Europeans, then in the dark ages, might have looked upon it as we did when Wakanda technology flashed before us.

Let us remember that before slavery and colonisation there were African kingdoms across the continent in various stages of political and economic power, well before the United States rose to be a superpower. If there was one thing that led to the fall of Africa’s “Wakanda” past, it was the Europeans’ discovery of trade routes through the Atlantic that erased the powerful Trans-Sahara trade routes. The cheaper and more efficient sea routes controlled by Europeans opened the doors to shipping more merchandise from Africa, including humans, which became easier after African kingdoms began to weaken in the 16th century.

The last powerful monarch, Mansa Musa of the Kingdom of Mali, saw the construction of a global university and an empire so advanced that Europeans, then in the dark ages, might have looked upon it as we did when Wakanda technology flashed before us.

Reconstructing an African people united by common past and common destiny started during slavery with the abolitionists who also advocated a return-to-Africa movement, and continued through the Civil Rights movement and into the African independence struggles. The fact is that the Black diaspora that descended from slaves has always been an active participant in seeking the liberation of colonised Africans. Marcus Garvey, W.E.B DuBois, the Congressional Black Caucus, the TransAfrica Forum, the Nation of Islam and the Rastafari Movement all held a Pan-Africanist soul at their core, a belief in the common struggle and destiny of the Black race that drove them to reach across oceans to save fellow Africans suffering under colonisation and apartheid. They did this through activism, legislation, art and scholarship. There should be a monument of African-American Pan-Africanists in African countries. It is fitting that Ghana recognized W.E.B Du Bois’s role and built a Centre for Pan-African Culture in his name.

While celebrating Venezuela’s Independence Day at their embassy in Washington DC, I ran into a now elderly Harry Belafonte, and he told me about the time he, together with Miriam Makeba, sang at Kenya’s independence celebrations. He spoke of Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau movement with pride. Belafonte has blended art, diplomacy and activism for the Black cause with power and dignity. As his tall frame faded off towards his car, it struck me that there is a fading generation of Black diaspora Pan-Africanist giants that have been bridging this Black divide for a long time. Organised Pan-Africanism started soon after the First World War when the 1st Pan-African Congress met in 1919 expressly to demand that Africans be granted home rule by their colonial masters, a demand Du Bois revised to self-rule at the second Pan-African Congress.

Black Noah

Kwame Nkrumah drank from the fountain of Garveyism. Marcus Garvey was a Pan-African purist who believed in the segregation of the races and preached an Africa-for-Africans philosophy. His faith was made true by his works, evidenced not only by his founding of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) early in the twentieth century, but more significantly by the Black Star Line he started for the purpose of shipping Black people back to Africa. He was the black Noah that built a boat to save the African race from the deluge of Maafa and its drowning effects. He believed it was the responsibility of the diaspora African descended from slaves to save the African in Africa from the oppression of colonisation. Only his plan for salvation did not quite work out the way he envisioned, and the floods of imperialism in Africa and Jim Crow in the United States remained regional catastrophes the Black race overcame without the global unity he had purposed.

Politically, African countries were moving farther away from any form of Pan-Africanism as the formation of successful independent nations became a greater priority. The formation of the Organisation of African Unity did not foster much of a shared responsibility towards Africa’s common destiny. Many founding leaders of newly independent African nations turned to their colonial masters instead of building an Africa that could depend on itself. African nations became pawns on the neo-imperial chessboard of their former colonial masters. For a continent as endowed in natural wealth as Africa, it is tragic that the plausible dream of Pan-Africanists like Garvey failed to take root. But it is not all together dead. Garvey left a dream of the rise of Africa that one can glean from restless young and awakened Black activists. Erik Killmonger picks up where Garvey left off. Where the Black Star Lines failed, the Killmonger attitude will step in to usurp power from insular African leaders who have failed to use their resources for the good of the African people.

I have met Erik Killmonger, and he is a Republican. I have met him in the minds of Black Republican friends in Washington DC longing for the rise and liberation of the Black race from the high rates of poverty, neglected neighbourhoods, incarceration and political powerlessness. In conversations whispered in shared car rides, a Republican friend narrates to me the vicious circle of need in inner city black neighborhoods, and how Democrats are to blame because they’ve been in leadership in these cities far too long. My friend says she has spoken to many Black single mothers who do not want welfare hand-outs. They want opportunities, and Republicans want to instill in that get-it-at-all-cost attitude. It’s the Killmonger drive – grab fearlessly what is due to you, fight for it and do not expect entitlements.

I’m a Democrat. And a Kenyan. I’m not too religious about party politics. I agree with what she is telling me, and on any good day, she might have converted me. Except that when I zoom out and take in the Republican view of global politics, I cannot buy into it. I find it to be one that seeks domination as opposed to cooperation. Doctrines such as with-us-or-against-us, as espoused by former President George Bush, have justified preemptive attacks and wars that have killed too many in foreign countries. African countries have become battlefields in a global war against terror that they never started, one that benefits a corporate world that runs the world’s economy. That is also the Killmonger hunger for domination.

For a continent as endowed in natural wealth as Africa, it is tragic that the plausible dream of Pan-Africanists like Garvey failed to take root.

It is tempting to buy into the rise of Africa as a dominant power, knowing we have been there before, but this time around, Africa would have the advantage of new technology. But that would mean nothing short of an arms race and wars. Nations have thrived better through cooperation than through exclusivism and domination. If there was a Killmonger in real life, perhaps Muammar Gadaffi could have fit the bill. He was a Pan-Africanist who believed in an African currency that could easily dominate the world economy. After all, Africa’s natural resources, such as coltan, are still the “vibranium” that drives new technology.

Bridge To Kibera

“I was in Kenya last year,” my Republican friend continues.

“Oh?” I want to hear this. It’s always a pleasant surprise to know an African-American has travelled to an African country. I hold my breath, hoping she will say something good about Kenya. During my last trip to Kenya, I had been robbed at gun-point. I was not ready for a guest’s sh*thole testimony about my country.

“And I stayed in Kibera during my entire stay!” My heart sunk. Couldn’t she have stayed in a hotel? For heaven’s sake, Kibera? What was she thinking? She has money, a lot of it, and she is someone who has held advisory positions with several Republican White House administrations. So why does she sound excited about having stayed in Kibera for… what? Did she just say three months?!

“My Kenyan friend welcomed me to her home in Kibera!” She truly was excited about it. The way she said it, as if there was nothing to it but someone’s hospitality in its purest form. I will never doubt a Black Republican’s down-to-earth passion for the well-being of Black people anywhere in the world. No matter one’s political leaning, true Pan-Africanism has to have the heart to extend from the White House to Kibera.

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THE NEW SCRAMBLE FOR EAST AFRICA: How rising debt and IMF loans have shielded kleptocrats and stunted human development in the region

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THE NEW SCRAMBLE FOR EAST AFRICA: How rising debt and IMF loans have shielded kleptocrats and stunted human development in the region

“National liberation, the struggle against colonialism, the construction of peace, progress and independence are hollow words devoid of any significance unless they can be translated into a real improvement of living conditions.”
Amilcar Cabral, African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde

Given the disparity between Uganda’s economic growth and the increasingly precarious existence of most of her citizens, Ugandan economists need to devise a measure of economic growth that reflects the needs and aspirations of the indigenous population.

Economic growth, as measured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Uganda, is not synonymous with access to life-supporting conditions. GDP is primarily used as an indicator for aid decision-making by investors. Investors – whether charter companies, venture capital funds or multinational companies – have served to create employment and to raise living standards in their countries of domicile. Debt is the means by which net outflows of wealth from developing countries is achieved.

Human development indicators stand outside GDP and may or may not be considered (and are usually not considered) in the measurement of progress. What is required is an indicator of economic growth that is linked to the health, well-being, education and general prosperity of Ugandans. To have any real use, the measure would also have to factor in the impact public debt repayments have on household access to basic requirements, such as water, food and useful education.

Insisting, as the government and international lending agencies do now, that debt repayments are sustainable as long as they remain under 50% of GDP masks the fact that even with that debt-to-GDP ratio, the prevalence of undernourishment in Uganda remains high and access to improved water and sanitation remains low. Uganda’s debt repayments stand at 38% of GDP and between 26% and 36% of the population is undernourished. Now that public debt has risen to 50% of GDP, it is misleading to paint a rosy picture of the economy.

The IMF’s World Economic Outlook of April 2018 reported Uganda’s annual economic growth rate to be 5.2%, compared to 5.5% for Kenya, 6.4% for Tanzania and 7.2% for Rwanda. The East African Community’s other members, Burundi and South Sudan, were reported to have low or negative economic growth rates (0.1% for Burundi and a negative rate of -3.8% for South Sudan), the result no doubt of the ongoing internal conflicts in these countries.

Insisting, as the government and international lending agencies do now, that debt repayments are sustainable as long as they remain under 50% of GDP masks the fact that even with that debt-to-GDP ratio, the prevalence of undernourishment in Uganda remains high and access to improved water and sanitation remains low.

However, growth statistics reported for Uganda and the East Africa region may really be a reflection of the activities of and benefits enjoyed by multinational corporations, other investors and political elites and could have little relation to the average Ugandan or East African. An East African or Ugandan Economic Statistics Review Group could usefully be set up to find more meaningful measures, including non-monetary factors, that would reflect the improvement, deterioration or stagnation of the standard of living. It is a major in-built weakness in governance to rely on external entities (whose priorities are not necessarily our priorities) to manage and report on the economy.

Against the background of inadequate human development, Roger Nord, the deputy head of the IMF, approved the findings of Uganda’s Debt Sustainability Analysis of December 2016. As is now known, that report stated erroneously that Uganda was at low risk of debt distress and that there was no risk of domestic debt undermining the country’s ability to meet debt repayments.

Adam Mugume, the executive director for research at the Bank of Uganda, thought differently. He warned that falling commodity prices and the sliding value of the shilling had the potential to worsen an already precarious debt position. More recently, the Central Bank has warned that sovereign default remains a real danger. The Auditor General weighed in with a warning that interest payments on domestic debt are pushing the country towards debt distress. However, the IMF’s opinion prevailed for reasons that go back to the 1884-1885 Berlin ‘Scramble for Africa’ Conference and all that came after it.

The IMF followed up its misleading assurances in April 2017 when Mr Nord said on KTN that although the economic outlook for Africa was generally subdued, the one bright spot was East Africa where regional integration was progressing. He cited the flow of goods, services and people without indicating how IMF policies have impacted those flows since 1986/7 when the structural adjustment programme (SAP) began. Integration in to one economic bloc, Nord said, would make East Africa an even more attractive destination for foreign investment in much needed but expensive infrastructural development – a message of encouragement to investors that took no account of human development.

Federation has clear advantages connected to economies of scale in developing infrastructure. What is argued here is that integration could also consolidate corruption and the accompanying means of repression. Loans already spent have not always yielded value for money, a fact the IMF does not acknowledge. As it is, there is a need to be hypervigilant at the national level in monitoring debt and the terms and conditions under which it is incurred. Uganda would have done better to strengthen her own governance before embarking on ever closer union with other countries.

Foreign direct investment is often financed by credit made available to investors under government schemes in their own countries for projects that they propose to the target countries. Recently, the UK launched the Export Finance (UKEF) line of credit under which the government of Uganda borrowed €270 million to build an airport. The condition is that British companies are to be used to do the work.

Federation has clear advantages connected to economies of scale in developing infrastructure. What is argued here is that integration could also consolidate corruption and the accompanying means of repression. Loans already spent have not always yielded value for money, a fact the IMF does not acknowledge.

Britain now produces 60% of her food requirements and imports 30% of the rest from the European Union. Her emergency reserve is good for five days. Britain has a perpetual balance of payments deficit which will only be made worse after Brexit when imports from the EU will become more costly. It made sense therefore to offer British companies credit and so far, in addition to an airport, from which GBP100 million worth of exports to Uganda is expected to result, the UK won contracts in Uganda worth over US$2 billion in 2017 alone.

Whether Ugandan leaders looked beyond the easy availability of the credit and considered with enough rigour the prioritisation of an airport, the strength of the technical proposals or the relative cost remain to be seen. What is almost certain is that no effort was made to ensure that Ugandan businesses and professionals participated in those development projects and that there was a transference of skills.

The history and purpose of federation

Britain’s reasonable interest is to maintain employment to enable her workers to purchase food. One MP summed up the situation up as: “We have to buy our food from outside, and in order to buy our food we have to exchange manufactured articles, but before we can exchange manufactured articles we have also to buy from outside the raw materials from which to manufacture them.”

East African federation has always been seen as a solution to Britain’s economic challenges. During the slump of the 1920s, UK’s parliament considered possible solutions. These included encouraging the three million unemployed to migrate to the Dominions and to the colonies and creating more jobs in the textile industry by creating a larger source of cheap cotton to substitute the more costly American variety. This was to be done by investing in a railway and harbour through which to export the cotton from Uganda and Kenya. The beauty of it was that it would be paid for out of cotton taxes and native poll tax paid by the growers.

Federation was first formally considered for East and Central Africa by parliament in 1925. An early triumph or regional cooperation was the co-financing of the Mombasa port and the Uganda Railway. The benefits were not evenly distributed – Kenyan customs collected and retained the duties paid for Uganda’s trade through Mombasa for the first ten years. The Uganda Railway itself began and ended in Kenya from where a steamer completed the journey.

Later there was a movement in colonial Kenya to break away from Britain and form an autonomous state similar to the Union of South Africa. Kenyan settlers who dominated the Legislative Council proposed that Kenya be allowed to spend GBP80,000 (roughly the equivalent to the annual budget of the Colonial Office) to build the East African High Commission as the future administrative building for an expanded Kenya.

The anticipated self-governing federal state was to incorporate Uganda and Tanganyika. There was talk of uniting a future East African Federation with the Central African Union (of Rhodesia and Nyasaland). From Uganda’s point of view, this was undesirable because European settlers in Kenya had already planted the seeds of apartheid-style economic domination; they were exempt from income tax; they had exclusive rights to the cultivation of profitable crops like maize and coffee granted by British government ordinances (thereafter claiming entitlement to privileges because they carried the economy); they were entitled to use forced labour and the pay scales were lower for Africans than for Europeans and Asians. Salaries were usually calculated on the basis of a single man living in a hostel near a mine or a farm. In this way, poverty became entrenched as families left behind on Native Reserves tried to eke out a living on the increasingly over-populated Reserves.

The cost of Kenya’s colonial administration was much higher than anywhere else in the region because, as explained at Whitehall, the administration had to be predominantly European to service the settler community. An example given was that a European suspect could not be expected to submit to arrest by an African policeman, therefore expatriate policemen paid on an expatriate pay scale were needed.

Some high-cost social services for use by the Kenyan settler population were paid for with ‘loans’ from the Ugandan treasury. Examples include Hill School, Eldoret, a boarding school for European pupils from the region and the Mombasa Municipality water supply financed in 1959 by a 15-18 year loan to Kenya of GBP1 million. In Uganda there were already segregated educational, medical and recreational facilities for Europeans, Indians and Goans.

To attract more settlers to Kenya, especially from among the unemployed, the Imperial government offered them an existence in which their interests took precedence over those of the indigenous population. Collateral damage to Africans included involuntary population transfers as commercial farms were established, compulsory labour, child labour, flogging, exploitation of women and abandonment of their children and venereal disease.

In 1932 the parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Closer Union in East Africa was set up to examine the issue. The opposition argued that settlers could not be entrusted with the welfare of the Africans and that Britain should continue to play their self-arrogated role of trustee. As in 1925, the committee recommended that the prevailing model in the region be maintained i.e. that the British government through the Colonial Secretary maintain the authority to intervene directly in the affairs of the East African colonies.

Post-independence African leaders entrusted with the welfare of the indigenous population act as middle-men, receiving support for their elections and monetary benefits in return for serving external economic interests. Investors need only secure physical access to leaders or their relatives before emerging with tax-holidays, waivers of environmental law, hectares of free land and permission to displace any local communities in their way.

How different is the subjugation of the interests of the general population by those pre-independence elites from the current situation in which potential investors are offered incentives that are ruinous to the local economy? The only difference between pre- and post-independence multinational corporations is that instead of dealing with colonial administrators they now deal with African kleptocrats.

The East African Legislative Assembly will be able to approve loans. East African federation makes the region more attractive to investors because larger collateral spanning the entire region can be extracted. Having failed to reign in a national parliament that consistently fails to keep public debt at manageable levels and on reasonable terms, there is little reason to expect the East African Legislative Assembly to act any more prudently.

How different is the subjugation of the interests of the general population by those pre-independence elites from the current situation in which potential investors are offered incentives that are ruinous to the local economy? The only difference between pre- and post-independence multinational corporations is that instead of dealing with colonial administrators they now deal with African kleptocrats.

In pushing for regional integration to boost foreign direct investment without paying at least as much attention to raising living standards, the IMF is carrying on from where the Imperial government left off.

The evidence of deepening regional cooperation cited by Mr Nord was “growth remaining quite high and investment proceeding” and regional integration evidenced in the launch of the single passport for East African citizens. Regarding the criteria countries are required to meet before joining the Union, Mr Nord said, “Debt levels are all within – uh – limits. Fiscal deficits remain still on the high side but in most countries are heading down.” He expects a monetary union by 2024. Meanwhile, Uganda’s fiscal deficit is growing.

What the IMF omits from its glowing investment portfolio for East Africa is the fact that all debts incurred by corrupt leaders are likely to be audited. Wherever it is found that they led to abuse of civil rights or that they yielded insufficient value for money, they are liable to be repudiated. Non-ethical investment no longer makes financial sense.

Mr Nord’s condescendingly vague remarks offer little justification for his optimism. (He is often referred to as the ‘Super Minister of Finance of Uganda’.) Civil unrest is constantly simmering in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. Sudan reverted to all-out war after a hiatus of only two years. The fact is that post-independence East Africa is being set up for exploitation on a new level by foreign corporations and vampire investors aided and abetted by its leaders.

Civil unrest and state brutality

As in colonial times, the current social unrest is symptomatic of underlying problems, chief among which is the lack of economic advancement of the vast majority of East Africa’s population. Civil unrest and state violence are critical economic indicators. This was understood in the past by some British MPs, two of whom are quoted below:

Why is it that the Colonial Office still permits in new ordinances, restrictions on the civil and industrial rights of the peoples of the Colonial Empire? In Sierra Leone, there has been a new spate of legislation designed to increase the powers of the Government in regard to the literature that may be read, in respect to deportation orders and trade union organisation. Recently, there was a new Sedition Law in Trinidad. If these Colonies have been able to get on for scores of years without this legislation being necessary, what new factors are there in the situation which require that these new ordinances of a repressive and restrictive kind should now be passed? Is it that at last the people are demanding that justice should be done, and therefore, it is necessary to put further checks on their powers of expression?

Arthur Creech Jones MP, contributing to the Colonial Office debate in the House of Commons on 7 June 1939

 

I ask any hon. Member opposite if he thinks millions of people engaged under conditions like that, having to work for miserably low wages like that, including sometimes some amount of food, can be expected to be in a state of contentment with affairs as they are? Does any hon. Member opposite blame them if occasionally they are inclined to break the law to try to make things better? If the Colonial Secretary tried to look at those problems in that way, instead of bringing down on these people, with all his might and main, every possible policeman, he would be a success.

–Wilfred Paling, MP during the Affairs in Africa debate, 16 December 1953

 

Sixty years later, failure to gain access to the most basic requirements of decent living, while others live in fear of losing the access they enjoy, it is no wonder there is disaffection among the population. Where there is disaffection, repression is to be expected because Kenya and Uganda retained repressive colonial laws enacted as a response to agitation for independence.

That the IMF deems this state of affairs ‘progress’ is sad but not surprising. Illicit transfers of wealth on the current scale can only be continued by force. From the point of view of an organisation whose primary aim is to secure the signatures of African leaders on contracts committing the region to debt regardless of its sustainability, East Africa is a success. The five strongmen leaders and President Nkurunziza of Burundi are kept in power by foreign aid, which is used to provide the services for which the government should be responsible.

As in colonial times, the current social unrest is symptomatic of underlying problems, chief among which is the lack of economic advancement of the vast majority of East Africa’s population.

The IMF’s campaign of disinformation provides the façade of ethical investment while foreign corporations siphon out the wealth of the African continent.

Beyond austerity to destitution

The latest available figures show that, on average, one third of the population of East Africa is undernourished. (This figure excludes Burundi and South Sudan for which no figures are available but reliable refugee sources have spoken about feeding stations in the towns in both countries.) Despite having the highest economic growth rate in East Africa, nearly half of Rwanda’s population is undernourished. (Rwanda succeeded Uganda as the exemplar of the rightness of structural adjustment.)

The prevalence of undernourishment in Uganda rose by 13% to the current 39% of the population between 2006 and 2015. In addition, Uganda has pockets of prevalent stunting, a high primary school drop-out rate, and low access to improved sanitation facilities (19% for Uganda, 30% for Kenya, and 15% for Tanzania. These three countries, the original East African Community, have been applying IMF-prescribed economic policies for much longer than Rwanda and Burundi where access to improved water and sanitation stands at 61% and 41%, respectively.)

Prevalence of undernourishment (% of population)

Fig. 1

Source: World Bank Health Nutrition and Population Statistics. No undernourishment data on Burundi. Last Updated: 12/18/2017

The prevalence of undernourishment in Uganda rose by 13% to the current 39% of the population between 2006 and 2015. In addition, Uganda has pockets of prevalent stunting, a high primary school drop-out rate, and low access to improved sanitation facilities (19% for Uganda, 30% for Kenya, and 15% for Tanzania.)

Hunger is endemic in parts of the East and Karamoja and the population there is fed and watered by the World Food Programme. Periodic influxes of refugees from South Sudan only serve to exacerbate the problem. At the current growth rate, coupled with the downward spiral in commodity prices and the fall of the shilling to half its 1990s value, it is unlikely that the level of undernourishment or the lack of access to safe water will be significantly reduced.

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