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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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A DARK TRUTH: The racist dynamic at the heart of Kenya’s conservation practices and policies

MORDECAI OGADA explains why black Africans are almost completely absent in the field of conservation in Kenya, which has been hijacked by whites and foreigners who pander to prejudices that have been cultivated by romantic or colonial notions about Africa and its wildlife.

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A DARK TRUTH: The racist dynamic at the heart of Kenya’s conservation practices and policies

The practice of conservation and the narrative around African wildlife is a kingdom, albeit without a single monarch. The monarchy and nobility consist of an eclectic mix of royalty, commoners, idlers, misfits, scientists, killers (who refer to themselves as “hunters”) across a very broad spectrum of backgrounds. We have youthful cowboys in their 20s, and we have octogenarians. There are also wealthy lords and scruffy backpackers. The one thread that links them is the fact that they are all white.

Their race is also what confers upon them a unity of purpose and mutual sympathy in lands where the indigenous majority are black. This kingdom is absolute and doesn’t tolerate dissent from its subjects. Those who serve the kingdom faithfully are rewarded with senior positions in the technical (not policy) arena and international awards and are showered with praise and backhanded compliments in descriptions like “being switched on”, “a good chap”, and best of all, “a reformed poacher”. This praise also manifests itself in the form of the Tusk Conservation Award, which is conferred annually by the Duke of Cambridge, HRH Prince William, on the local conservationist who best serves as an implementer or enforcer of the kingdom’s conservation goals.

Structured conservation practice in East Africa began largely when demobilised World War II soldiers started looking for a field where they could apply one of the few skills they had gained in the war (shooting) without harming people. The rise of the conservation officer or protector was actually preceded by the establishment of the first hunting reserves at the turn of the century a few decades earlier.

However, there was a new recognition that the resource was finite and needed to be preserved for the exclusive use of the colonial nobility that was necessarily defined by race; hence the need for enforcement. Exploitation of African wildlife by Western consumers began in the early 1900s with hunting safaris, which were basically tests of resilience and skill with the target of harvesting the biggest and largest number from this bounty under pretty harsh and rustic conditions. It was closely followed in the 1960s by the photographic safari and cinematography that cemented the romanticism of these adventures in the African wild. This led to a spurt in tourist interest, which no doubt pleased the foreign exchange-hungry newly independent states.

Intellectual desert

Two major pitfalls arose from the romantic age between 1950 and1970 – pitfalls that continue to determine how wildlife conservation is practised today. The first major pitfall was the illogical link and valuation of wildlife based on tourists’ appreciation and (where hunting was allowed) consumption. The second pitfall was the firm placement of black Africans as “props” who were destined never to be equal intellectual participants in the management of and discourse around African wildlife. Thus my compulsion to describe Kenya (rather harshly, in some of my readers’ estimation) as an “intellectual desert” as far as wildlife conservation is concerned.

Two major pitfalls arose from the romantic age between 1950 and1970 – pitfalls that continue to determine how wildlife conservation is practised today. The first major pitfall was the illogical link and valuation of wildlife based on tourists’ appreciation and (where hunting was allowed) consumption. The second pitfall was the firm placement of black Africans as “props” who were destined never to be equal intellectual participants in the management of and discourse around African wildlife.

Indeed, photographic and hunting safaris have since then included a very obvious but unspoken element of domination over black Africans – we can see it in the nameless black faces in white hunters’ photographs and in the postures of servile African staff attending to white tourists in the advertising brochures. Black Africans are totally absent as clients in all the media and advertising materials and campaigns. When hunting was legal in Kenya, it was normal for a photograph of a hunter with his guides, porters and gun bearer to be captioned: “Major F. Foggybottom and a fine leopard bagged in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, September, 1936.” Fast forward 80 years or so. Black Africans are prominent in their absence from the reams and hours of literature and footage on Africa’s spectacular wildlife. The uniformity of this anomaly is startling across the board, whether one is watching the Discovery channel, BBC, or National Geographic.

With the advance of neoliberalism, market forces have become important drivers of both tacit and explicit policies all over the world. In African conservation policy and practice, the black African has become like an insidious impurity that sometimes leaks into the final product but should ideally be absent in anything considered “premium”. This is not to say that media houses and marketing firms are deliberately engaging in racial discrimination; however, they are, sadly, pandering to prejudices that have been cultivated by romantic or colonial notions about Africa and its wildlife.

The colour bar

Blatant racism becomes much more evident in the conservation field, which in Kenya is dominated by whites. From a strictly academic standpoint, the open discrimination and obvious colour bar evident in the conservation sector in Kenya is fascinating for two major reasons: one is its longevity – business, agriculture, banking, education and all other fields have changed beyond recognition in the last few decades, but conservation remains firmly in the “Victorian gamekeeper” mode, where conservation is basically about protecting wildlife from the proletariat so that the nobles can consume the same for luxury/ recreational purposes.

The second is the acceptance of this status quo by senior indigenous state officials and technical experts across the board. Wildlife conservation is the one field where highly-qualified black Africans are routinely supervised by white practitioners of far lesser technical pedigree or experience. Indeed, some of the supervisors are American or Europeans relatively new to Kenya and with very rudimentary knowledge (if any) of Kenyan wildlife and ecosystems. Examples that come to mind are the appointment of one Peter Hetz (MSc, American) as Executive Director of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum in 2011 to supervise one Mordecai Ogada (PhD, Kenyan) who was appointed as Deputy Director. The recent appointment of Mr. Jochen Zeitz to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) board is another case in point. Here I have used very pointed racial references because it is quite simply a racial divide. We simply do not find non-Caucasian foreigners in wildlife leadership positions in Kenya, nor do we find Latin Americans or Asians. We also don’t find Kenyans of European descent in any of the subordinate roles.

Wildlife conservation is the one field where highly-qualified black Africans are routinely supervised by white practitioners of far lesser technical pedigree or experience. Indeed, some of the supervisors are American or Europeans relatively new to Kenya and with very rudimentary knowledge (if any) of Kenyan wildlife and ecosystems.

How, an observer might ask, is this hierarchy maintained without any disruption by the growing number of indigenous Kenyans pursuing advanced studies in the conservation field? How do the academic exertions of all these technicians fail to moisten the intellectual desert in Kenyan conservation?

One reason is because, just like water never produces vegetation on seedless ground, the intellectual barrenness of indigenous Kenyans has been built into the training facilities and curricula. It goes without saying that Kenya’s ecological diversity and abundant wildlife are key pillars in the country’s economic, social and cultural identity, but Moi University, the de facto leading local institution in this field, only offers a degree course in “wildlife management”, which basically equips local wildlife practitioners to be technicians or foot soldiers for conservation, not to be fully engaged with any of the intellectual challenges that exist in the sector. Those who are better trained and experienced in this field are a small minority who seldom find acceptance in the sector because they inherently threaten the existing hierarchy.

KWS itself has two training facilities: the Manyani field school and a well-resourced training institute in Naivasha. Manyani is a proven centre of excellence in tactical field training necessary for wildlife rangers. The Naivasha training institute, which was established in 1985 to develop the “soft skills” and policy thinking around conservation and fisheries, changed in 2009 when it began offering rudimentary naturalist and paraecologist courses more geared towards serving the tourism industry than the cause of conservation. As one would expect, the academic contribution of this institution to tourism falls so short of the standards required by Kenya’s highly developed tourism industry that in the final analysis, it is a lost investment. One of its more recent distinctions is the levels of academic performance advertised on its website as requirements for admission, which are far below what an institution training custodians of any country’s most valuable resource should be.

Closer analysis of these institutions and their low intellectual ceilings reveals a far subtler, but important, perspective on the colour bar in Kenyan conservation. The people being trained in these institutions are replacing the gun bearers and gamekeepers of feudal England and colonial Kenya.

Kenya as a nation still struggles with this colour bar and our public arena is replete with the symptoms of it. One that stands out is the dropping of charges against the late Tom Cholmondeley for the killing of Samson Ole Sisina, a KWS officer, at the scene of an industrial bushmeat harvesting and processing operation on the former’s Soysambu ranch. Those familiar with Kenyan society know that the killing of a security officer on duty is a (judicial or extrajudicial) death sentence in Kenya 99.99% of the time. The truth is that there were absolutely no mitigating circumstances here, other than the victim’s race. Barely a year later, in May 2006, Cholmondeley shot and killed Robert Njoya, a stonemason who lived in a village that borders his 50,000-acre estate, a crime for which he was jailed in 2009 following public uproar.

Closer analysis of these institutions and their low intellectual ceilings reveals a far subtler, but important, perspective on the colour bar in Kenyan conservation. The people being trained in these institutions are replacing the gun bearers and gamekeepers of feudal England and colonial Kenya.

More recently, in January 2018, there was a memorial service for the late Gilfrid Powys, a renowned rancher, conservationist, and KWS honorary warden. The service was attended by a plethora of top brass from KWS in full uniform, as well as several government leaders, as befitted his status in society. I suspect many in the congregation were taken aback when one of the eulogisers, Mr. Willy Potgieter, read a long and touching tribute where he detailed how the departed wasn’t a particularly religious man but would indulge his spirituality by hunting buffalo every Sunday morning. The discomfiture of the uniformed staff and company gathered was palpable and would have been amusing had it not been such a stark testament to the existence of conservation apartheid in our country and our society’s acceptance thereof.

Sanitised terminology

Apartheid in conservation matters. The duplicity that exists within many people and institutions purported to be dedicated to conservation may seem bizarre to those unfamiliar with the sector. Here is how it works: Basic psychological examination of wildlife hunting reveals that it is a uniquely complex aspect of human endeavour because it occurs at both ends of the spectrum of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Subsistence hunting is firmly at the bottom of the hierarchy as it fulfils physiological needs while sport hunting is at the top, within the realm of self-actualisation. This is illustrated by the celebrated blood sports of falconry and fox hunting pursued by royalty in the Middle East and Britain, respectively.

The highly sanitised terminology is also in striking contrast to the derogatory terms like “bushmeat poaching” used in reference to subsistence hunting. This highlights the role of the media in cultivating the racial divide because in Africa the term “poacher” or “bushmeat” is never applied to the activities or diets of people of European descent, regardless of legality.

Likewise, the term “hunter” is never applied to the activities of black people. These three degrees of separation in the hierarchy of needs are the basis of the colour bar. They are the reasons behind the flawed belief that we can allow white people to kill (not poach) wildlife and shoot black people suspected of being “poachers”. This is also the basis of the ongoing nonsensical scheme of a “task force” going around Kenya trying to gather support for proposed “consumptive use” of wildlife, an activity de facto delineated by race. It stands to even casual examination that the practice of structured legal hunting of wildlife in Kenya (and much of Africa) is an activity controlled by, and indulged in, by people of Caucasian extraction.

The highly sanitised terminology is also in striking contrast to the derogatory terms like “bushmeat poaching” used in reference to subsistence hunting. This highlights the role of the media in cultivating the racial divide because in Africa the term “poacher” or “bushmeat” is never applied to the activities or diets of people of European descent, regardless of legality.

It also goes without saying that the colour bar we live with in Kenyan conservation is an anachronism that we should have escaped from in the mid-20th century. But before we can achieve that freedom, we must squarely face up to the problem and appreciate its full extent. It is systemic.

When the board chairmanship of KWS fell vacant about four years ago, our government turned, almost reflexively, to the ageing Dr Richard Leakey, who is no longer at his physical or intellectual best, and who, in my view, is not even the best candidate for the job. The spectacular failure, frantic inactivity, and deafening silence on conservation issues that characterised Dr Leakey’s last tenure at KWS came as no surprise to those of us familiar with the man’s capabilities. The most poignant memory of this is a photo of Leakey posing with the black board members holding tusks beside him – an image that evoked memories of the “great white hunter” of yore. The photo itself was taken during the torching of 105 tonnes of ivory in 2016, a fairly logical conservation activity, but the carefully structured pose shows a board composed of people who have no knowledge or reading of the history and culture around wildlife conservation in Kenya. If they had even rudimentary knowledge of the history of conservation practice in Kenya, they would have recognised that their photo was misplaced in space and time. There is little doubt that Leakey (and possibly Brian Heath, in the back left, distancing himself from the ivory) were aware of this nuance and were the only intellectual participants in this photo – and therein lies a snapshot of our enduring tragedy.

The intellectual desert that is Kenya’s conservation sector remains as barren as ever in 2018. The sporadic and disjointed efforts to moisten it with sprinklers will all come to nought unless we concurrently plant the seeds of indigenous knowledge and expertise.

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Bobi Wine and the Politics of Revolution

ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE documents the rise of the “Ghetto President” who has become a person of particular interest to the Ugandan state. By ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE

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Bobi Wine and the Politics of Revolution

‘‘I believe in the politics of friendship. Without the politics of friendship there can be no radical movement.’’ – Srecko Horvat

‘‘…struggles, incarcerations and whistle blowing bring people together through friendship to try and do something. Will we succeed? Who knows! Who cares! What matters is the actual process of trying to do it… the chances may not be good. But we have the moral obligation to try’’

– Yanis Varoufakis

It came as a huge relief to many – especially to his wife Barbara and their four children – to learn that the highly popular Ugandan musician and MP for Kyaddondo East, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – popularly known as Bobi Wine – was still alive following his dramatic night arrest on August 13, 2018 in Arua town, Northern Uganda. The country’s political machinery – including President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and Dr. Kizza Besigye Kifefe of the opposition’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) – had descended on Arua Municipality to drum up support for their respective candidates in a hotly contested by-election necessitated by the June 8, 2018 shooting to death of the incumbent MP, Ibrahim Abiriga, a Museveni loyalist who was killed alongside his bodyguard by hitmen riding on a motorcycle.

Kyagulanyi, who some say appears to have been flirting with the idea of establishing a people’s movement – a third force of sorts away from the Museveni-Besigye historical antagonism – arrived in Arua with clarity of purpose. Lately, he had been preaching that Uganda’s problems would not be solved through adherence to political party positions, and had been urging his supporters to think of broader formations, a proposition which sounded a little vague and amorphous.

On arriving in Arua, Kyagulanyi chose to back a different candidate from those backed by the big boys, Besigye and Museveni. Addressing a packed rally, he acknowledged that the divided opposition risked losing the seat to Museveni’s NRM, seeing that the crowded field of contestants had five individuals who passed for progressives. The way out, he suggested, was if the opposition overwhelmingly voted for the most suitable candidate out of the five. He endorsed Kassiano Wadri, a onetime MP and parliamentary whip in Besigye’s FDC, who ran as an independent. On August 15, Wadri won the seat from his prison cell.

Two notable events happened during the final round of campaigns in Arua. The first was when Kyagulanyi led a huge procession of cheering supporters – him riding atop a vehicle and urging his followers on – past a relatively well-attended Besigye rally, forcing the former army colonel to cut short his speech and wait for the noise to subside, seeing that the uninvited guests had overpowered the strength of his microphone. The whole episode had a somewhat humiliating effect on Besigye, the long-time undisputed symbol of opposition politics in Uganda. He nevertheless maintained a straight face, eventually succumbing to a group dance once the music started playing, seeing that the only way to ignore the intruders was by getting busy.

The second incident took place when President Museveni’s convoy was driving out of Arua and passed a group of supposed Kyagulanyi supporters who jeered the head of state. However, according to Museveni’s version of events, as posted on his Facebook page, his convoy was stoned, resulting in the shattering of the rear window of his official vehicle. It was this second event that resulted in Kyagulanyi’s troubles.

In a hurried tweet sent on the fateful August 13 night, Kyagulanyi released a photo of the lifeless body of his driver, Yasiin Kawuma, shot inside the MP’s vehicle. “Police has shot my driver dead thinking they’ve shot me. My hotel is cordoned of…” read part of the tweet. The message was perturbing. Kyagulanyi’s followers expected more updates from him but none came.

The following day, news broke that the MP had been arrested, alongside 33 of his colleagues on the Arua campaign trail, their whereabouts remaining a mystery. It was alleged that Kyagulanyi had been found in possession of a gun in his hotel room, and was being charged with treason before a military court. There were fears that he and his colleagues had been heavily tortured.

In a hurried tweet sent on the fateful August 13 night, Kyagulanyi released a photo of the lifeless body of his driver, Yasiin Kawuma, shot inside the MP’s vehicle. “Police has shot my driver dead thinking they’ve shot me. My hotel is cordoned of…” read part of the tweet. The message was perturbing. Kyagulanyi’s followers expected more updates from him but none came.

***

Kyagulanyi became a person of particular interest to the Ugandan state following his June 29, 2017 victory in a parliamentary by-election in Kampala. Running as an independent against Museveni’s NRM and Besigye’s FDC, the new kid on the block seemed to have brought with him the multitude of supporters accumulated through his music career, merging showbiz with the new business of commandeering an insurrection in Uganda, shifting from artist to politician and vice versa.

The Ghetto President – Kyagulanyi’s other moniker – had taken Uganda’s political establishment by storm, and possibly by surprise, some having imagined that the satirical (or not) ghetto presidency had no tangible political implication. However, the residents of Kyaddondo East – the real and proverbial ghetto Kyagulanyi governed – showed through the ballot that his “presidency” was real.

One of the early signs that Kyagulanyi would prove troublesome to the Museveni regime was his defiant and confrontational conduct during the debate to abolish the presidential age limit, a sneaky NRM-driven amendment that sought to scrap a constitutional provision barring anyone beyond 75 years of age from contesting for the country’s presidency. For the NRM, it was necessary to leave a window of possibility open for Museveni were he to entertain thoughts of participating in future elections. Kyagulanyi, as part of the opposition’s Red Beret movement, became a star attraction when violence broke out, turning parliament’s debating chamber into a boxing ring.

Photographed and filmed physically facing off with overzealous state security agents who breached parliamentary protocol and sneaked in to manhandle opposition MPs, Kyagulanyi engaged in fist fights with Museveni’s henchmen, who seemed to have marked him as a prime target. When the same series of events were repeated a second time, Kyagulanyi uprooted a microphone stand and used it as a weapon against the security men, proving that when push came to shove, he was willing to use his fists in defending the things he believed in. Museveni took note.

***

Kyagulanyi had only been an MP for a year when a new group of pundits began comparing him to the FDC’s Besigye. The young MP was holding massive rallies wherever he went in Uganda, a spectacle previously seen as a preserve of the consummate FDC leader. Suddenly, Besigye appeared to have a challenger for the opposition’s throne.

Before Arua, there had been a number of other by-elections in Jinja East, Bugiri, then Rukungiri, Besigye’s home district. In an interesting turn of events, Besigye’s FDC candidate won Jinja East, with Bugiri going to Kyagulanyi’s candidate. However, when it was Rukungiri’s turn, Besigye and Kyagulanyi combined forces and campaigned together for the victory of the FDC candidate. In his party’s acceptance speech in Rukungiri, Besigye said that the election was won not because they had the numbers but because of defiance, and thanked Kyagulanyi for his support, a clear acknowledgement that the veteran appreciated the capabilities of the rookie. It is through these successive by-elections that Kyagulanyi got an early chance to test his support outside of Kampala.

Kyagulanyi had only been an MP for a year when a new group of pundits began comparing him to the FDC’s Besigye. The young MP was holding massive rallies wherever he went in Uganda, a spectacle previously seen as a preserve of the consummate FDC leader. Suddenly, Besigye appeared to have a challenger for the opposition’s throne.

Upon Kyagulanyi’s arrest in Arua on the night of August 13, among those who demanded for his immediate release were Besigye and other leading FDC figures, including Kampala’s Mayor Erias Lukwago, who was acting as one of Kyagulanyi’s attorneys, and the former head of Uganda’s military and FDC stalwart Major General Mugisha Muntu, who stood front and centre in his defense.

Yet the Besigye-Kyagulanyi comparisons wouldn’t go away, even at this dicey time. On leaving Kampala’s Lubaga Cathedral on August 22, where prayers were being held for Kyagulanyi, a journalist asked Besigye if he might be a stumbling block to the young MP’s political project for Uganda. ‘‘People have to get this clear,’’ Besigye said. “I am not contesting for any seat and there is no leadership contest between Kyagulanyi and I.”

From the cathedral, Besigye headed for a night radio interview, where he furthered the gospel of freeing Kyagulanyi. The following morning, on August 23, Besigye took to social media to post familiar photos of police vehicles barricading the road leading to his home in Kampala’s Kasangati area in an effort to block him from standing in solidarity with Kyagulanyi, who was being presented before court. The residences of Mayor Erias Lukwago and Ingrid Turinawe, the head of the FDC’s Women’s League, were also cordoned-off. Coincidentally, a 2016 video of a defiant Turinawe confronting policemen and throwing open roadblock spikes placed outside the road to Besigye’s home had been trending.

***

In reading Ugandan journalist Daniel Kalinaki’s book Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution, one realises that fighting Museveni is not a walk in the park. Detailing the early days of the National Resistance Army (NRA) – later NRM – bush war, Kalinaki takes one on the long journey Besigye travelled as a comrade of Museveni before the two fell out. Besigye had come to realise that Museveni had gone rogue and had started to shop around for comrades who were courageous enough to stand up to the latter’s fast growing dictatorship.

In an interesting turn of events, Besigye even asked his wife, Oxfam’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, if she thought she could lead the onslaught. When everyone else thought they weren’t ready yet to lead the revolt, Besigye grudgingly decided to be the man of the moment, starting a journey that would take him to prison, exile and back, which cost him broken limbs and more.

There is no doubt that Kyagulanyi has become a political sensation in Uganda. It also has to be said that depending on how things go – considering factors within and outside his control – he may have a truly bright future as an important leader in the struggle for the liberation of Uganda.

However, throughout this period of his detention, and looking back at his meteoric rise as one of Uganda’s most visible opposition figures, one wonders what this moment portends for Kyagulanyi, since, as many had predicted, it was only a question of when – and not if – Museveni would strike back with the might of his state security apparatus. It is in looking at individuals like Besigye – on whose shoulders Kyagulanyi must stand, one way or another – where some answers, certainly not all, will arise. It is the likes of Besigye, who have travelled this road before and who refused to compromise, who may offer Kyagulanyi some clarity. It is through such associations that Kyagulanyi may learn how to navigate certain difficult terrains. Kalinaki’s book shows how a youthful Besigye was forced to make tough choices the moment he chose to oppose Museveni, lessons that Kyagulanyi can benefit from.

There is no doubt that Kyagulanyi has become a political sensation in Uganda. It also has to be said that depending on how things go – considering factors within and outside his control – he may have a truly bright future as an important leader in the struggle for the liberation of Uganda.

***

In “wanting to stress that we live in dangerous times in which everyone opposed to the political and financial powers might soon become targets”, a unique series of events held in July 2016 titled ‘‘First They Came for Assange’’ happened simultaneously across 14 cities, marking four years since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. It was during such an event in Brussels that Greece’s former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, while in conversation with the Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat – both of whom are Assange’s close friends and regular visitors to his place of isolation – said the following:

“We talk about brave people like Julian… all those people that are putting themselves in the line of fire on behalf of that which is good and proper. But there is a lot of cowardice today, friends, ladies and gentlemen. Julian Assange has a problem with his shoulder. Do you know that it is impossible to get a shoulder specialist to come into the embassy and take a look at him? Because they fear they will lose their clientele. We have to remember that human beings are capable of the best and the worst. Our job as a movement is to cultivate the former against the latter.”

Julian Assange may or may not be some people’s ideal example of a freedom fighter, but there is no denying the fact that through his continued isolation at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, he has become a contemporary example of how persecution can be meted out on an individual for reasons directly or indirectly linked to their revolutionary actions and beliefs.

Importantly, the words by Varoufakis underline one truism that is apparent as we witness the overwhelming outpouring of support for Kyagulanyi. With hundreds, if not thousands, using his silhouette as their profile picture on social media, we must come to the conclusion that there can be no successful revolution in these times we live in – where everyday struggles push us into little survival cocoons – without the politics of revolution embracing the politics of friendship. Even a retweet or an M-Pesa contribution can trickle into a massive pot of support that may just turn the tide.

The journey will be long and tedious – especially after Kyagulanyi’s release.

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BATTLE FOR THE PEARL: Bobi Wine, Museveni and the future of Uganda

President Museveni successfully thwarted political opposition until Bobi Wine came along and posed a formidable challenge to the ageing leader’s ambitions. By ERIASA SSERUNJOGI

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BATTLE FOR THE PEARL: Bobi Wine, Museveni and the future of Uganda

Thirty-six years ago, in 1982, the year Bobi Wine was born, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was busy commanding the war that eventually led him to power. At 36, Museveni had run for president in 1980 as a rabble-rouser representing the new Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM).

His party did not even stand an outside chance of winning the election, with Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and Paul Ssemogerere’s Democratic Party (DP) being the hot favourites. In the end, Museveni even failed to win his own parliamentary seat. During the campaigns, he had warned that he would start a war should the election be rigged, and he did indeed start a war after UPC controversially claimed the election for itself amidst claims that DP had won.

Paulo Muwanga, who was the head of the interim Military Commission government on which Museveni served as Deputy Minister for Defence, had arrogated himself the powers that were entrusted in the Electoral Commission to announce election results, returning UPC as the winner, with Obote proceeding to form a government for the second time, having been earlier deposed by Idi Amin in 1971.

Museveni had watched the intrigue and power play and how the gun had emerged as the decisive factor in Ugandan politics since 1966. He had decided early in life that his route to power would be through the barrel of the gun. His determination to employ the gun became manifest when he launched a war against Amin’s new government in the early 1970s.

Museveni’s Fronasa fighters were part of the combined force that was backed by the Tanzanian army to flush out Amin in 1979. Also among the fighting forces was a group that was loyal to Obote. Museveni’s and Obote’s forces and other groups were looking for ways to outsmart one another as they fought the war. It was a time when Bobi Wine was not yet born.

Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi), who has been a Member of Parliament for just a year, has followed a different path. He is one of those Ugandans who believe that Museveni should be the last Ugandan leader to access power through the barrel of the gun. He wants future leaders to work their way into the hearts of Ugandans and convince them that they can take the country forward.

Bobi Wine first rose to popularity through music. Even though the popstar is new to Ugandan politics, he has for over a decade been disseminating political messages through his songs, in which he positions himself as a poor man’s freedom fighter.

Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi), who has been a Member of Parliament for just a year, has followed a different path. He is one of those Ugandans who believe that Museveni should be the last Ugandan leader to access power through the barrel of the gun.

Through his music, he has criticised the government when he felt it sold the people short; he has castigated the Kampala City authorities over throwing vendors and other poor people off the streets; and he has sought to encourage Ugandans, especially the youth, to take charge of their destiny.

“When freedom of expression becomes the target of oppression,” Bobi Wine said in one of his songs, “opposition becomes our position.” That was before he joined active politics.

When he married in 2011, he made sure that the marriage was celebrated by the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in the capital. When he was incarcerated recently, there were prayers for him at Rubaga Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic Church in Uganda. Catholics are the biggest religious grouping in the country.

Bobi Wine was born in Gomba, one of the counties of Buganda, the biggest ethnic group in Uganda. He has worked his way into the Buganda king’s heart, dubbing himself “Omubanda wa Kabaka” (the King’s Rasta man).

In Uganda’s music industry, Bobi Wine and his “Fire Base Crew” rose to the very top in their category, with Bobi Wine calling himself the “Ghetto President”, whose retinue included a “Vice President”, a cabinet and other members. He also has a security detail. His chief personal bodyguard – Eddie Sebuufu, aka Eddie Mutwe – was picked up at night by suspected military operatives on August 24, 2018.

Bobi Wine has over the past decade traversed the country where he has been performing as an artiste. Then, shortly after his election to Parliament, he travelled to many places within the country to introduce himself this time as a politician. He enjoys name recognition across the country that no Ugandan politician of his age and experience can command.

Battle for the youth

Bobi Wine plays the music that many Ugandan youth want to listen to, but he also preaches the gospel of change and prosperity in a way that is attracting crowds to him. He was born in rural central Uganda but he moved into a shanty neighbourhood of Kampala early in life, struggling through what most young people in the city experience. Although he went school up to university level, he went through all the hassles that young Ugandans go through. He speaks their language.

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) projects that at the mid-point of this year, Uganda had 39,041,200 people. Of these, only 648,000 people were projected to be 70-years-old or older. This means that Museveni, at 74 years of age, is among a lucky 1.7 per cent of Ugandans who are alive at the age of 70 or above. In fact, only 450,500 people, or 1.2 per cent of Ugandans, according to the UBOS projection, are as old as Museveni or older.

Reliable numbers on employment in Uganda are hard to come by but it is generally agreed that the country has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. Museveni’s opponents often cite his age to make the point to the youth that their future is not safe with a 74-year-old leader who has been in power for 32 years.

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) projects that at the mid-point of this year, Uganda had 39,041,200 people. Of these, only 648,000 people were projected to be 70-years-old or older. This means that Museveni, at 74 years of age, is among a lucky 1.7 per cent of Ugandans who are alive at the age of 70 or above.

Museveni being Museveni – the Maradona of Uganda’s politics – has tried to tilt the debate on age to his advantage. He has, for instance, distinguished between “biological age” and “ideological age”, saying that many Ugandans are young biologically but very old ideologically. He has identified “ideological disorientation” as one of Uganda’s “strategic bottlenecks”, positioning his “ideological youth” as the solution. For one to be “ideologically young”, Museveni says, one needs to have the right ideas and mindset on how to transform society. He regards himself as a master in that. He says biological age is of no consequence in politics.

In his State of the Nation address last year, the Ugandan president said staying in power for long – and therefore being old – is a good thing because the leader gains immense experience along the way. In the wake of the recent arrest of Bobi Wine and 32 others who were charged with treason after allegations of stoning the president’s motorcade, Museveni wrote at least six messages on social media addressed to “fellow countrymen, countrywomen and bazzukulu (grandchildren)”. He now takes comfort in addressing many of his voters and opponents as grandchildren.

The choice of social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) as the preferred way of transmitting the president’s messages also raised debate. From July 1, social media users had a daily tax imposed on them because the president said people used the platforms for rumour-mongering. Many social media users have avoided the tax by installing virtual private networks (VPNs) on their handsets and so the “rumour-mongering” on social media continues. Since younger people spend a lot of time on social media, their septuagenarian president has decided to follow them there. Whenever he has addressed them as “grandchildren”, there have been hilarious responses in the comments section.

Beyond the debates, Museveni has in past election campaigns come up with a number of things to attract the youth, including recording something akin to a rap song in the lead-up the 2011 elections. But if it is about music, Museveni now faces Bobi Wine, a man less than half his age who has spent all his adult life as a popular musician.

Museveni’s government has tried one thing after another in an attempt to provide the jobs that young people badly need, with initiatives ranging from setting up a heavily financed, but highly ineffectual, youth fund in the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. After the 2016 elections, in which Museveni suffered the heaviest defeat in Kampala City and its environs, he set out to dish out cash to youth groups to promote their businesses. Not much has come out of this initiative.

When he shot to power in 1986, Museveni rebuked leaders who overstayed their welcome, saying that the vice was at the root of Africa’s problems. As time went by, and with him still in power, he changed his views. He now says that he actually prefers leaders who stay in power for long periods. Museveni’s opponents latch onto such contradictions as they keep piling up.

Is it Bobi Wine’s turn?

Over the last 32 years that he has been around, Museveni has had a number of challengers and Bobi Wine is now threatening to storm the stage as the new kid on the block.

When he shot to power in 1986, Museveni rebuked leaders who overstayed their welcome, saying that the vice was at the root of Africa’s problems. As time went by, and with him still in power, he changed his views. He now says that he actually prefers leaders who stay in power for long periods.

Many of the people who were in the trenches with Museveni in the earlier years and who dreamt of picking the baton of leadership from him have dropped their ambitions because age and/or other circumstances have come into play as Museveni stayed put. Former ministers who once nursed presidential ambitions, like Bidandi Ssali, Amanya Mushega, Prof George Kanyeihamba and even the younger Mike Mukula, for instance, have since retreated to private lives. Others, like Eriya Kategaya and James Wapakhabulo, have passed on.

Of the Bush War comrades who harboured ambitions of taking over from Museveni, only four-time challenger Kizza Besigye and former army commander Mugisha Muntu remain standing, with the largely silent former prime minister Amama Mbabazi thought to be lying in wait for a possible opening.

By staying in power for so long – since January 1986 – Museveni has worn out his ambitious former comrades and perhaps even ensured that the chance to rule the country passes their generation by, a reality that has made it more likely that he will face a challenger who is younger than his own children.

But Museveni will not allow this generation of youth to win. The ruling party consistently stifles the emergence of younger leaders. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, for instance, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party saw a rare surge in activity championed by younger people. One of Museveni’s in-laws, Odrek Rwabwogo, was among them. Rwabwogo had resorted to penning a string of articles in the partly state-owned New Vision newspaper about how the ruling party’s ideology could be sharpened to take care of the new Uganda. A number of other younger leaders within the party vied for space and expressed their visions in what was interpreted by some as a jostle for a front row seat as Museveni was expected to be standing for his last term in preparation for retirement in 2021.

Then, shortly after returning to power in 2016, Museveni engineered the removal from the Constitution the 75-year cap for presidential candidates, which would make him eligible to run again for as many times as he would be physically able to handle. This was a sure sign that Museveni was not willing to hand over power to a more youthful generation.

Repression heightens

The move to remove the age limit for presidential candidates from the Constitution inevitably invited stiff opposition from those who for decades have worked towards removing Museveni from power. In September last year, army men invaded Parliament and beat up and arrested Members of Parliament who were trying to filibuster the debate and perhaps derail the introduction of the bill to remove the age limit. Two MPs were beaten to a pulp and one of them, Betty Nambooze, has been in and out of hospitals in Kampala and India over broken or dislocated discs in her back.

This unfortunate incident, however, did not stop the State from bringing charges against her when after the shooting to death in June of an MP, Ibrahim Abiriga – who was one of the keenest supporters of the removal of age limits – Nambooze made comments on social media that the State interpreted as illegal. This week she had to report to the police over the matter, but she was informed that the officers were ready to have her charged in court, where she was delivered in an ambulance. She was carted into the courtroom on a wheelchair for the charges to be read out to her before the magistrate granted her bail. She sobbed all the way and afterwards wrote on Facebook that while in court she was “crying for my country”.

Francis Zaake, the other MP who was also was beaten, had to be taken to the US for treatment. He is now being treated again and is set to be fly out of the country due to injuries he sustained during the violence in Arua in which Bobi Wine was also attacked by soldiers of the Special Forces Command that guards the president.

Bobi Wine and 32 others have since been charged with treason but Zaake hasn’t yet – though Museveni has said in one of his statements posted on social media that Zaake escaped from police custody. When he is supposed to have escaped, Zaake was unconscious and could not move or talk. He was reportedly just dropped and dumped at the hospital by unidentified people. The head of the hospital has said that Zaake is at risk of permanent disability because of the damage he suffered to his spinal cord. The authorities say they are waiting for Zaake to recuperate so that he can face charges related to the violence in Arua.

By these callous actions, Museveni has demonstrated how ruthless he can get when his power is challenged. He has referred to the injured MPs as “indisciplined” and has not extended any sympathy towards them.

Those who have dared to challenge Museveni, especially Besigye, have been here before. The new opposition politicians currently in the line of fire, including Bobi Wine, have been served with a dose of what to expect if they push Museveni hard. The decision on how far they are willing to go is now in their court.

It seems that Museveni plans to apply to Bobi Wine the script he has used on Besigye over the past two decades. Apart from being targeted for physical assaults, Bobi Wine will be – and it is already happening – isolated from members of his inner circle, especially those who provide him with physical cover. They will be arrested, intimidated, or offered money to start businesses, a ploy to get them to abandon him. Some, like his driver Yasin Kawuma, who was buried a few weeks ago, will die.

It seems that Museveni plans to apply to Bobi Wine the script he has used on Besigye over the past two decades. Apart from being targeted for physical assaults, Bobi Wine will be – and it is already happening – isolated from members of his inner circle, especially those who provide him with physical cover.

Another thing the Museveni machine will do, and which it has done in the past, is plant fifth columnists around him – men and women who will show immense eagerness to work with Bobi Wine to remove Museveni from power but whose real assignment will be to get him to make mistakes and to spy on him.

It is also to be expected that Museveni will reach out to Bobi Wine with some kind of deal – he seems to offer all his credible opponents proposals for an amicable settlement so that they can drop their political ambitions. It is hard to say whether Museveni has already approached Bobi Wine or not, but there are rumours to that effect.

Ultimately, it will be up to Bobi Wine to decide what he wants to do going forward, but with him fighting for his life in hospital, we dare not predict the future.

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