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LESSONS FROM WAKANDA: Pan-Africanism as the antidote to robotisation

It is this era of intelligent robots – when there is a fuller convergence between genetic engineering and nanotechnology – biopolitical questions will become central to democratic questions within the Pan-African movement. This article describes the challenges in charting the differences between the Pan-African struggles from above, as manifested in organisations such as the African Union, and Pan-Africanism from below, as manifested in the Black Lives Matter movement. The author proposes that the Pan-African movement and the unification of Africa represent the frontline forces in the struggle to preserve humanity and save planet Earth from new threats, including unethical uses of biotechnology. Such unification is also premised on the quest for reparative justice, the perseverance of human life and the repair of the planet’s endangered ecosystem.

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LESSONS FROM WAKANDA: Pan-Africanism as the antidote to robotisation
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In May 2013, the African Union launched Agenda 2063, a blueprint for an integrated, emancipated, prosperous and peaceful Africa. There was a renewed commitment to work for the full unification of Africa, with a common currency from one common bank of issue, a continental communication system, a common foreign policy and a common defence system featuring the African high command.

Five years later, Hollywood came out with a fictional story of a bountiful, independent African state called Wakanda in the film Black Panther. Wakanda was described as the most scientifically and technologically advanced civilisation in the world — not to mention the wealthiest.

It is not a coincidence that there is a straight line between the aspirations of the Global African Family, as expressed in Agenda 2063, and the depiction of a technologically advanced Africa. From the era of the writings of C. L. R James on the majesty of the Haitian Revolution to the current struggle for the dignity of black lives, the liberation and unification of Africa has always been presented as the basis for Pan-Africanism.

Examining the meaning of Pan-Africanism in the current context of massive technological change requires a new language and a new orientation – an orientation that breaks away from the stultifying concepts embraced by a class of leaders who have no loyalty to Africa and who seek to turn citizens into tribal nanobots without a spiritual core.

We are reminded that in this era of artificial intelligence (AI) the future of humanity is the struggle between humans that control machines and machines that control humans. The late Stephen Hawkins observed that artificial intelligence can be the worst event in the history of civilisation. He remarked that “unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.”

Examining the meaning of Pan-Africanism in the current context of massive technological change requires a new language and a new orientation – an orientation that breaks away from the stultifying concepts embraced by a class of leaders who have no loyalty to Africa and who seek to turn citizens into tribal nanobots without a spiritual core.

The exact meaning of life and the future of life forms are now new issues for humans in the era of synthetic life and technological singularity. In 2010, the human genome scientist J. Craig Venter reported that he had taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesising an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell. Scientists called this breakthrough a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology but the bioethical questions about who will have control over life brings back the debates on technological singularity when concerned citizens objected to those scientists who believed that they could play God. Pan-Africanist and those who want peace throughout the world have genuine reasons for paying attention to these scientific breakthroughs.

In this essay, I am reaching out to the youth of Africa to turn Wakanda from fiction to reality. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote the book Between the World and Me for his son, has gone on to be one of the writers for the comic strip The Black Panther. In this way he was seeking to inspire his son that there was a future beyond the prison-military-financial-information complex and the hacking of the human brain by the technology corporations. This is important for all youth, but especially youth in East Africa, where the psychological warfare thrust of Empire has intensified efforts to shape the thoughts, feelings and actions of people. For example, we now know from the recent hearings in the US Congress and from the global activities of Cambridge Analytica, that there are technology firms that are programming people, literally hacking into the brains of the youth. Empire and its local allies are seeking to formalise this brain hacking in Africa into a university town in Kenya called Konza Technological City. Was it an accident that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook visited Kenya and Nigeria?

Early phase of Pan-Africanism and opposition to being treated like robots

The first Pan-Africanists were opposed to the robotics of yesterday when the forms of enslavement on the plantations in the Americas treated Africans like “machines to make money”. The book by Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, has documented this phase of the dehumanisation of the African person. This book elaborated on how Africans were treated like machines to enable American society to accumulate immense amounts of wealth to become the preeminent industrial power that it is today. The availability of cheap land and the shortage of labour led to a ruthless system of exploitation called the “pushing system” that enslaved people and which Baptist aptly describes as “innovation in violence”.

It was the vibrant Pan-Africanism at the grassroots that precipitated the rebellions against that form of robotisation. Bonds had been forged on the slave ships where that conception of freedom transcended the individual. It was then that the consciousness was cemented that no black person could be free until Africa was liberated. Herein lay the origins of the modern Pan-African movement. In the throes of the independence struggles, Kwame Nkrumah understood that the liberation of individual states was not enough; Africa had to be united to escape external economic domination.

Africa had been partitioned at the 1885 Berlin Conference on the grounds that Africans could not rule themselves and that they were heathens who needed to be civilised. Walter Rodney, in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, argued that technological changes were turned to imperial purposes. Whether it was transportation technology, communications technology, military technology or the latest digital advances, human inventions changed the world and transformed life on Earth while at the same time transforming the power relations between societies. From partitioning, colonial plunder, apartheid and occupation, there were many borders instituted in Africa, including racial, ethnic, religious, territorial and sexual borders.

This partitioning and domination was executed through superior military technology (especially the Maxim gun) and by creating divisions. The small intelligentsia in the Global African Family were the main spokespersons for the ideas of African dignity and self-determination. At the popular level, the opposition to domination took cultural and religious forms, such as the rise of the Rastafari and Kimbango movements, Mourides and other social movements, such as the Garvey movement. African Scholars such as W.E. B DuBois convened international meetings that were called Pan-African Congresses that sought to bring together those with the agenda to liberate Africa from colonialism and to end lynching and segregation in the United States. There were five congresses between 1900 and 1945. The 1945 meeting brought together leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Amy Jacques Garvey, George Padmore, W.E.B. Dubois, Jomo Kenyatta and Ras Makonnen.

Walter Rodney, in his seminal book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, argued that technological changes were turned to imperial purposes. Whether it was transportation technology, communications technology, military technology or the latest digital advances, human inventions changed the world and transformed life on Earth while at the same time transforming the power relations between societies.

Pan-Africanism from below was manifest in the consciousness of the ordinary Africans on both sides of the Atlantic. This brand of Pan-Africanism inspired the largest mass movement of the century on both sides of the Atlantic in the form of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garveyism took root in the United States where the ideas of African vindication and redemption found a fertile base in a society that was struggling against the Ku Klux Klan and those extremist groups that made lynching a Saturday night outing. The UNIA had branches in all parts of the world, with its newspaper, the Negro World, acting as the voice of the Pan-African movement in the period of the Harlem Renaissance. The ambitious projects for the liberation of Africa excited ordinary workers and sufferers and branches of the UNIA were to be found in the USA, the Caribbean, South America, Europe and Africa. At its height, the UNIA had more than two million members. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was among the most prominent Pan-African activist thinkers and leaders who called on Africans to unite so that they could be free.

In the current period when white racism is growing in Europe and North America, especially with the election of Donald Trump in the USA and the emergence of racist and neo-Nazi groups all across Europe, it is worth remembering that the present currency wars, trade wars and actual interventions of the last Depression had also paved the way for the global imperialist 1939-1945 war. The rise of fascism internationally, (in particular, the coming to power of General Franco, Benito Mussolini, Antonio Salazar and Adolph Hitler) and the idea of white superiority posed a major challenge for all of humanity.

The Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was another moment when the Pan-African consciousness of Africans rose to become a force in international politics. The failure of the League of Nations to respond to the military atrocities of the Italians had led Africans to warn of the dangers of fascism and world war. In this sense, the global Pan-African movement was a major inspiration for those fighting against fascism in Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy.

The idea of Ethiopianism, a variant of Pan-Africanism, had been widely held among Christianised Africans during the 19th century. Taking the biblical references to Ethiopia to be the basis for the rallying point around the independence of Africa, Ethiopianism represented a manifestation of spiritual and cultural autonomy for Pan-Africanists. In this period of fascism and war, Pan-African scholars, such as W.E B DuBois, George Padmore, C.L. R. James and Aime Cesaire, articulated the ideas of liberation and redemption. In the French-speaking territories, the idea of Negritude was another variant of Pan-Africanism.

The goals of liberation and emancipation at that moment were associated with the capture of state power and ending colonial rule. However, at the end of apartheid, the question of emancipation was understood to mean much more that seeking the “political kingdom”. African women from the grassroots are acting as a force to assert the humanity of African peoples and to redefine the culture of emancipation and liberation. It is, therefore, not by accident that transgender women are at the forefront of the struggles for black lives while the more backward men seek to kidnap African women and return them to enslavement a la Boko Haram.

Women at the grassroots are calling on intellectuals to grasp the fact that the culture of capitalism is wrapped in the attendant class and gendered structures along with racial and sexual oppression. Long before the prominence of the #Me Too Movement, black women were at the forefront of the fight for the integrity of the body. They had demanded that they will No Longer Be Controlled, Manipulated, or Abused

More significantly, these women are transcending the individualistic, racial and masculinist conceptions of Pan-Africanism and African unity. It is for this reason that the Pan-African revolutionary Micere Mugo proclaimed that Pan-Africanism was about the lived experience of the grassroots. She observed that “though not cited in intellectual discourses that have so far come to be the literary cannon on Pan-Africanism, in their activism, as well as participation, women were and have always been the heart of Pan-Africanism’s essence, or if you like, substance. Ordinary people, or the masses, including the majority of African women, have been the key keepers or carriers of this essence.”

Ubuntu confronts individualism, ethnic manipulation and private accumulation

The current convergence of multiple crises (economic, religious, environmental, technological and political) coincides with an increasing politicisation of ethnicity and regionalism. Liberal philosophies of governance have created the neoliberal nightmare where oligarchs and dynasties maintain political and economic power while dividing the mass of producers into “tribal”, regional and religious groups.

The philosophical basis for Pan-African liberation challenges the “ideology of tribalism” and the the materialistic conception of life, along with the masculinisation of the political spaces. In South Africa, for instance, the process of enrichment of a few has been accompanied by the politicisation of ethnicity. Leaders who benefitted from Pan-African solidarity during the struggle against apartheid are now promoting ethnic identification while supporting xenophobia against other Africans.

Currently, the yardstick of profit has become the only viable measure of the good life, while the commitment to Pan-African solidarity and opposition to imperialism are viewed by many politicians and their publics as either a hindrance to the goals of a market-driven society or alibis for gross theft and corresponding conspicuous consumption. Leaders beg for aid while stealing billions and lodging the loot in foreign bank accounts. They starve schools and hospitals of laboratories while purchasing outdated military equipment. At the level of communications technology and computer security, they are completely reliant on the enemies of Africa.

The crude materialism of Western “modernity” emanated from an understanding of the world where “rational” man was entrusted with the divine mission to rule non-whites because of the “will of God”. War and conquest were justified in linear terms of progress, from savagery to civilisation. Material goods, industrialisation, technological innovation and factories were presented as manifestations of God’s blessings for Europe and North America. Hence the spectacle of the religious spaces becoming the meeting place for deals and political campaigns.

The definition of human was determined by the extent to which these humans believed that human worth was based on accumulation of material wealth, wealth that was the basis for “progress”. Humans who did not internalise this understanding of the accumulation of wealth (a form of accumulation that took perverse forms when it matured into the capitalist mode of production) were considered backward and primitive. On the eugenic scale of Western modernity, Africans are still considered backward and primitive.

Western European approaches to life were considered “scientific” and hence objective and neutral. Classical liberalism emerged in a period when new forms of property in Europe replaced feudal ideas of privilege. Enlightenment thinking about property rights, the oppression of women, domination over nature, domination over non-whites and the universal right to domination became the legitimating idea for modes of economic organisation that engendered a tremendous boost in the production of goods. This unprecedented production of goods was worshipped to the point where commodity fetishism was like a new religion. It was in the spirit of this religion that religious institutions participated in the slave trade and the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth and military power. Today, commodity fetishism is exhibited by so-called “prosperity churches” whose evangelical mission is to make people believe that becoming rich is the Christian thing to do, and that material things are a blessing from Jesus. This religion also guides the new digital companies that are involved in psychological warfare against humans.

This unprecedented production of goods was worshipped to the point where commodity fetishism was like a new religion. It was in the spirit of this religion that religious institutions participated in the slave trade and the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth and military power. Today, commodity fetishism is exhibited by so-called “prosperity churches” whose evangelical mission is to make people believe that becoming rich is the Christian thing to do, and that material things are a blessing from Jesus.

Spirituality and commodities were conflated to lay the basis for a robotic society where cloning and bioengineered creatures (cyborgs) are the promise of the future. This is the future of the bioeconomy where synthetic life will be engineered in laboratories and scientists assign themselves the right to patent life forms. AI is now being refined in Silicon Valley to ensure the dominance of white supremacists in the international political system

According to a study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) more than a decade ago, in the bioeconomy industrial production moves from the use of fossil and mineral resources (coal, petroleum and natural gas) toward living biological raw materials, primarily biomass plant matter, such as woodchips, agricultural plants and algae. The bioeconomy is associated with wider application of modern biotechnologies in areas such as agriculture, medicine and industry. It was the late Calestous Juma who argued that African progressive scientists hold the key to ensuring that Africa leapfrogs the old forms of industrialisation in this the era of the digital revolution. Juma had noted that it is not necessary to build new paths of industrialisation in the bioeconomy based on past production of primary products; as the bioeconomy matures, the convergence of nanotechnology, information technology, biotechnology, robotics and cognitive sciences will provide a new basis for the post –industrial society.

African languages hold some of the key signposts of the refinement of cognitive technologies that are part of the assemblage of converting technologies (nanotechnology, information technology, biotechnology and robotics). For a short moment, the National Science Foundation of the USA and its scientists in California had mooted a project called the Human Cognome project to harness the understanding of cognitive psychology. According to the scientists who were promoting this enterprise, the Human Cognome Project had planned to span various scientific fields, including neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence and psychology. Africa as the fountain of homo sapiens was a key area of interest as were the early African languages.

In conjunction with this project was the Human Genographic project. Sponsored by the IBM Corporation and the National Geographic Society, its stated objective was to analyse more than 100,000 DNA samples collected from indigenous peoples. Given that the African peoples of East Africa count as the most original peoples of the human species, the peoples of East Africa were of particular interest for this Human Genographic project. Bioanthropologists were deployed to tap into the African knowledge of the oldest peoples of the planet who are still alive in East Africa.

There is now an effort to reverse-engineer the human brain by studying both its structure and function in order to fully understand mental processes, also known as cognition. The Human Genographic project has many parallels to the Human Genome Project. A better understanding of the cognome can illuminate how the brain perceives and responds to the environment, thereby augmenting artificial intelligence technology. It also has many important implications for the study of disease progression by observing changes in cognition to localised damage. A map of the cognome promises to increase mechanistic understandings of the brain. To further this research, bioanthropologists have tapped into the cell lines of the Hadza, the Iraqw, the Maasai, the Samburu, Sandawe, Shilook, Nuer, Turkana Dinka and San Peoples. These peoples are being studied to learn how to maximise AI capabilities to programme robots.

Pan-African unity and the quantum leap

The integration between the cognitive skills of Africans and the new thrust for a different kind of economic organisation will form the foundation for the qualitative leap in the new mode of economic organisation that will envelop Africa in the short and medium terms.

The world has changed dramatically during the past fifty years of the Pan-African project, presenting more complex possibilities for social and economic transformation. Wakanda gave one indication of what is possible when African knowledge systems, along with the principles of social collectivism, are unleashed for the good of society. One could see that the Wakanda people’s understanding of their links to their ancestors and to their totems prevented the complete robotisation of their society.

One can also see this in the movie trilogy The Matrix, where African oracles were able to separate real humans from cyborgs. It was less than twenty years ago when these science fiction images from Hollywood promised a future where information technologies would reign supreme and shape the lives and affairs of societies, including the lives and the very existence of individuals. Neoliberal futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, who wrote the book The Singularity is Near, saw this as the era when humans would transcend biology. Kurzweil actual gave the date of 2045 when this new era of singularity would begin.

Wakanda gave one indication of what is possible when African knowledge systems, along with the principles of social collectivism, are unleashed for the good of society. One could see that the Wakanda people’s understanding of their links to their ancestors and to their totems prevented the complete robotisation of their society.

Bill Joy, in his now famous article in Wired magazine, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”, warned of the dangers of the converging technologies. He argued that the new computer technologies provide a much greater danger to humanity than any technology before has ever presented. Stephen Hawkins sounded the same warning when he noted that the era of artificial intelligence could be “the worst event in the history of civilisation.

The African spirit, cognitive skills and ideation system provide a powerful antidote to the projections of the era of singularity. Organised within a transformed educational system where fractal mathematics are taught with fractal optimism, the transformation of Africa would break the distinction between the fiction and reality of Wakanda.

Students in the struggle for the decolonisation of knowledge are at the forefront of the Pan- African project to use African languages in higher education. The Kenyan writers Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been at the forefront of the promotion of the decolonisation of the medium of education. Ngugi has been resolute in his assertion that the decolonisation of the mind is the contemporary form of Pan-Africanism and the future relies on Africans empowering themselves with African culture, language and knowledge. This author has not only endorsed the importance of African languages, but also the tremendous possibilities that await technological change when African institutions of higher learning embrace fractal geometry and seek to link this knowledge of African fractals to the curriculum.

Few political pundits took seriously the comment made by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook in 2016 that “Africa will build the future”. The efforts of Zuckerberg and Facebook to launch a special satellite for Third World countries designed to bring web connectivity to areas of the world with limited Internet access may seem altruistic, but forward planners in Silicon Valley already understand the dynamic socio-economic changes that will occur when African innovators move to new ventures beyond mobile money. Chris Msando, the computer expert and electoral official who was murdered prior to the Kenya’s elections last year, pointed to a future where computer savvy Africans would work to ensure real democratic processes. The same infrastructure of Cambridge Analytica that is now known for brain hacking collaborated in Africa with the same forces that eliminated Msando.

In this changing socio-economic environment of the digital present, where information is controlled to shape perceptions, the African people at home and abroad are faced with new powerful economic forces that are reshaping the global landscape, reconfiguring existing organisations/ institutions and creating new ones. In the midst of this change, the institutions of the US military and finance, along with the other NATO powers, promote worn-out ideas that label African people and societies as failing and failed societies. The US President exceeded this academic discourse by labelling African states as “shithole” countries at a time when the US Africa Command was extending its operations in Africa in the so-called War on Terror. In order not to be displaced by the USA, the government of France has intensified its activities in Africa, especially now that the Sahel has been involved in a duplicitous war against terrorists even while manipulating groups such as the Tuaregs after the NATO invasion and destruction of Libya.

It is in countries such as Niger and Mali where there is the explicit elaboration of US and French military operations to counter what is deemed to be Chinese influence in Africa. The removal of Mamadou Tandja from the presidency of Niger in 2010 was directly linked to his overtures to China. The emergence of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) formation has intensified the mischief of France and the European Union, complicating the old rivalries between North America and Europe in Africa. As recent as 2013, the Senate of France outlined a 500-page document to spell out France’s military strategy in the area that was determined to be “Europe’s neighbourhood”, which includes the zone “from the Sahel to Mauritania to the Horn of Africa and other regions in Africa”.

President Sarkozy had been most explicit in the need to topple the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in order to promote the military influence of France in Africa. The destruction of Libya and the psychological warfare against Africans in the form of the war against terror are new aspects of the military management of the international system. It was not by accident that NATO intervened in Libya because that country had committed itself to anchoring an African currency. But as the mythical Wakanda state alerted many, there are umbilical cords that link the youth in Africa to the youth in Brazil, the USA and Europe.

President Sarkozy had been most explicit in the need to topple the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in order to promote the military influence of France in Africa. The destruction of Libya and the psychological warfare against Africans in the form of the war against terror are new aspects of the military management of the international system. It was not by accident that NATO intervened in Libya because that country had committed itself to anchoring an African currency.

African unification, peace and investments in humans

What has been downplayed in the forecasts and projections about international realignments has been the role of militarism and warfare in the re-division of the world. Wars and rumours of war in the Persian Gulf and in the Korean peninsula now dominate the international news. War speeds up the processes of transformation and regression.

In the past, such re-divisions have been violent. From 1885 to the present the militarisation of society, there has been a negative integration of Africa into the international system. The promise of the era of using artificial intelligence for mass surveillance and US drone warfare has now become a reality. Africans will have to be vigilant to ensure that the present warfare in Yemen and Syria, along with the tussles between Saudi Arabia and Iran, does not engulf Africa and Africans.

Forward planning by Western military strategists for a confrontation with China in Africa brings to the fore the preoccupation with peace and reconstruction as one of the central pillars of African unification. For this reason, the African Union has called for the silencing of guns by 2020. It should also have added the demilitarisation of digital technologies.

It was fifty years ago when the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. admonished peace activists to rise above robotisation. In the speech “Beyond Vietnam he said, “I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered… A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Ubuntu reparative justice and the escape from spiritual death

Currently the African people are caught in a revolutionary moment, a moment when political institutions and the law are all caught in the tumult. Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt are examples of societies that exhibit manifestations of this tumult, witnessed by massive social resistance from below, seismic shifts in economic relations, political alliances and military relations and transitional power swings.

Old formulas for political legitimation no longer suborn the mass of sufferers. Instead the people are seeking to unearth a radical Pan-African vision of the future, and that is a vision of a shared humanity where all the citizens of the planet are able to live in peace. This vision is grounded in the moral ethic of sharing and social collectivism that is enshrined in the philosophy of Ubuntu.

This philosophy is one of the antidotes to spiritual death. It is the revolutionary philosophy that celebrates reparations, forgiveness, love and reconciliation. The Caribbean Pan-Africanists are reminding the youth in Africa that there can be no struggle for Pan-African freedom without reparative justice.

Currently, the policy makers at the African Union are designating those in the Global African Family (called diaspora) outside of the continent as constituting a sixth region. However, they envisage collaboration in the form of capturing billions of dollars in remittances. Yet African leaders are silent when African-American youth, such as Trayvon Martin, are shot to death, but these leaders will travel to Paris to march with French leaders when a few French citizens die in extremist attacks.

The Caribbean Reparations Commission, as a frontline Pan-African formation, is calling on African youth to understand the demands of reparations so that there is an end to the constant babble on sustainable development goals (SDGs). Imperial institutions fear the Agenda 2063, so every week there are meetings so that African policy makers are focused on 2030 instead of working to realise the long-term goals of Pan-African collaboration.

As far back as the period of the struggles for independence, the peoples of Africa called on Africa to speak with one voice. In the book Africa Must Unite, Nkrumah wrote: “A United States of Africa must strengthen our influence on the international scene, as all Africa will speak with one voice…We must stand firmly together against the imperialist forces…We need the strength of our combined numbers and resources to protect ourselves from the very positive dangers of returning colonialism in disguised forms.” Nkrumah saw that even in the moment of independence, freedom could not be guaranteed unless the African people were united.

As they remind themselves about the struggles against robotisation in the 21st century, Pan- Africanists are also conscious of the reality that the goal of decolonisation is not complete. There are still the outstanding issues of Western Sahara, Diego Garcia, sections of the Comoros, the islands of Puerto Rico, Martinique, Guadeloupe as well as the other colonial outposts in the Caribbean. The discussions on Pan-Africanism and liberation are seeking to bring back that energy and spirit in a moment of crisis so that the technological revolution and the solar revolution can be harnessed for the well-being of the majority and a changed world economy instead of for the profitability of companies such as Space X, Facebook, Google and Amazon.

The revitalisation of Africans at home and abroad

The revitalisation of Pan-African confidence has been underlined by four interconnected processes:

  1. The military defeat of the apartheid army at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988
  2. The release of Nelson Mandela, unbanning of the liberation movements and the independence of Namibia.
  3. The holding of the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001 and the declaration that slavery constituted a crime against humanity.
  4. The formation of the African Union and the elaboration of the plans for Agenda 2063.

The major limitation of this revitalisation process is the fact that those intellectuals schooled in Eurocentric ideas are still at the helm of political power. Youth rose up in Egypt and Tunisia to make a break with their repressive leaders, but imperialism supported the militarists while those who constituted the majority at the African Union refused to pay their dues and proposed Western neoliberal views of development in the so called New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

Global warming, the drying up of Lake Chad, Ebola and Western cyber control over Africa dictate that our youth must think beyond petty differences based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, race or sexual orientation. Aspiring politicians exploit the insecurities generated by structural adjustment to create the scare of millions of illegal immigrants moving across borders. Even while making declarations at the African Union and energetically supporting NEPAD, politicians in many parts of Africa (especially South Africa) whip up xenophobia and hinder the free movement of persons by creating restrictive immigration policies and immigration procedures that violate the basic human rights of those Africans who believe that Africa is for the Africans. Thus, even at the moment when the Continental Free Trade Area treaty was signed in March 2018 to create the world’s largest single market, the leadership continue to ship their money to foreign bank accounts and hinder the creation of a common currency in Africa. This is why the talk about Pan-African economic relations lags behind the reality that forty years ago there was a common currency in East Africa.

We need to clarify the differences between the project of unity as inscribed within the present political leadership and the thoroughgoing push for freedom from those who crave a new vision of citizenship. We will agree with Nkrumah that Africa needs a new kind of citizen. Our task is to draw from the positive memories while outlining the challenges in the present period.

This author has identified key areas of transformation with a focus on the democratisation of access to water resources and the re-engineering of the African landscape to unify the African people. It is a transformation where the working people “who have eyes and ears” will choose to look back in order to look forward. Looking back draws on the memories of transformative moments of African liberation and draws inspiration from these moments. The moment of Haiti’s independence as well as the rapid decolonisation period between 1956 and 1965 were two such moments when the explosive spread of the culture of independence temporarily silenced those who wanted to colonise Africa for another one hundred years. Kwame Nkrumah was the leader of Ghana at that transformative moment. We need to clarify the differences between the project of unity as inscribed within the present political leadership and the thoroughgoing push for freedom from those who crave a new vision of citizenship. We will agree with Nkrumah that Africa needs a new kind of citizen. Our task is to draw from the positive memories while outlining the challenges in the present period.

Bob Marley, the cultural leader, was a notable Pan-African spokesperson of 20th century who wanted to transcend racial divisions with a universal message of African unity, love, peace and human emancipation. His call for emancipation from mental slavery remains a message to the youth who are now exposed to the brain-hacking of the digital companies controlled by billionaire Africans and non-Africans alike.

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Horace G. Campbell is the Kwame Nkrumah Chair at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana. He has published numerous articles on Pan-Africanism over the past forty years. For those who would like to engage that body of work, there is a summation in a very long chapter titled “The Pan African Experience: From the Organisation of African Unity to the African Union” in the book The Palgrave Handbook of African Colonial and Postcolonial History.

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The Truth About the ‘Single Source of Truth About Kenyans’: The National Digital Registry System, Collateral Mysteries and the Safaricom Monopoly

That the Kenyan state has been strengthened by the rise of Safaricom is probably most evident in the doubling of the population of formal taxpayers in this same period. Yet, it is also clear that this relationship has defeated the NDRS’s goals for addressing the weaknesses of formal credit provision for ordinary Kenyans.

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The Truth About the ‘Single Source of Truth About Kenyans’: The National Digital Registry System, Collateral Mysteries and the Safaricom Monopoly
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Kenyans walking to work on Nairobi’s Haile Selassie Avenue on the 16th of June 2016 were shocked to find that a pile of well-worn identity cards and driver’s licences had been dumped during the night on the pavement outside the Jesus is Alive Ministries’ church. The identity cards were those that Kenyans mistakenly call the second and third generation IDs – one, dating from 1995, is laminated, and the other, issued after 2011, is printed directly onto plastic. Both types of cards were produced by Thales, a French parastatal, so they are administratively identical. On the front side, they present the card’s serial number, the holder’s identity number, full name, date of birth, sex, district of birth, place of issue, date of issue, signature, thumbprint; on the reverse are the functional categories of colonial indirect rule: district; division; location; sub-location.

None of the cards in the pile were the third-generation or digital IDs that Kenyans have been promised for a decade: the polycarbonate sheet, laser-printed with solid colour images and etched holograms containing, critically, a machine-readable chip and a full set of digital finger and iris biometrics.

In 2007, the main archives of the National Registration Bureau (issuer of ID cards) contained the scanned records of the inked fingerprints of 14 million Kenyans. In an attempt to bolster the identity card system and the integrity of the register that authenticated applications for cards, the KNCHR called for the fast-tracking of a biometric database – the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS). In 2009, the development of that system was awarded, apparently without controversy, to a consortium from the Ukraine called EDAPS.

The third generation card was first announced publicly in 2007 in the wake of an investigation by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) into accusations of widespread corruption and discrimination in the issuing of IDs. The commission’s concerns were split evenly between the general complaint about the cash bribes officials demanded to perform basic administrative services and the more specific accusation that Somali-Kenyans were being systematically denied identity cards and their basic rights as citizens. Behind both worries lurked fears about the fragility of the laminated card, and its susceptibility to forgery. The notorious weakness of the cards had much to do with the seven-digit identity number and the vulnerability of the registry that was being used to authenticate claims for citizenship.

In 2007, the main archives of the National Registration Bureau (issuer of ID cards) contained the scanned records of the inked fingerprints of 14 million Kenyans. In an attempt to bolster the identity card system and the integrity of the register that authenticated applications for cards, the KNCHR called for the fast-tracking of a biometric database – the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS). In 2009, the development of that system was awarded, apparently without controversy, to a consortium from the Ukraine called EDAPS.

The appointment of a contractor for the production of the third generation cards was not so simple. The 2005 Anglo Leasing scandal – where the Mwai Kibaki government was notoriously implicated in the payment of a massively inflated tender to a British shell company for printing passports – loomed in the background of the call for tender for the new identity cards. The processes were fraught and contested, especially as losing bidders could bring show-stopping appeals to the newly established Public Procurement Oversight Authority after 2007.

The call for tender for the new cards was issued in May 2009, specifying a “third generation ID Card” with the establishment of an “elaborate infrastructure supported by appropriate software modules, including installation of live data capture equipment both at the headquarters and in the field offices, personalisation centre and a centralised database production facility, complete with the necessary biometric and facial recognition features”. The government allocated $10 million to the project, and the international biometrics giants all submitted proposals. In September that same year, the whole process came to a sudden halt when NADRA, the Pakistan identification agency (who were making Kenyan passports) raised a successful protest about the decision of the tender board.

Thales continued printing the laminated cards after the tender collapsed, but in July 2011 the cabinet refused to endorse their ongoing production, and the issuing of the indispensable IDs stopped completely, prompting something of a national emergency. The Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons issued a second tender in 2011 but that succumbed in the same way when the French ID contractor, Imprimerie Nationale, protested its exclusion on the basis of the tender board’s sloppy paperwork. With the 2013 election looming, the ministry had little choice but to restore Thales’ contract to print the backlog of two million – rising quickly to four million – of the new plastic (not laminated but also not third generation) cards.

That was the situation, at least as far as the ID cards were concerned, when Mwende Gatabaki arrived to join the Office of the President from her job at the African Development Bank in Tunis in February 2014. Gatabaki was chosen as the architect of the new plan for identification and information-sharing – the National Digital Registry System (NDRS) – as she had extensive experience working on the networking requirements of the cumbersome Kenyan parastatals and the large donor organisations in East Africa.

Clean, complete, correct

The plan to register the entire Kenyan population “afresh” was first made public at the ConnectedKenya conference in Mombasa in April 2014. It was presented by Gatabaki, who was tasked with assembling a new government agency that would unify the different functions of birth and death registration, the registration of aliens and refugees, and the issuing of identity cards, which were all spread across the detached Departments of Civil Registration, Immigration, Refugee Affairs and the National Registration Bureau.

The Act establishing the new service had already been passed in 2011. It called for a new co-ordinating agency that would develop a unique identifier for every person, manage all issues related to citizenship and immigration, and maintain a comprehensive and accurate national population register. Gatabaki’s plan drew on the heightened public concern around national security in the wake of the September 2013 attacks on the Westgate shopping mall. It lay out a potentially revolutionary reorganisation of the entire Kenyan state around a “single source of truth”. The new database would link together existing and new registries of population, land holdings, companies and moveable assets. Gatabaki argued that the new database and registrations would be significantly cheaper than the cost of upgrading existing but separate projects of registration and identification underway in the separate departments. To do all of this required a break from the existing forms of paper registration and a new set of purely digital biometrics for every person in the country.

Gatabaki’s emphasis on a compulsory national round of digital registrations was controversial, to put it mildly, because many Kenyans – especially those supporting the CORD coalition that was kept from power – were still furious about the biometric debacle staged during the previous year’s national elections when the biometric voter identification kits supplied by the South African firm, Face Technologies, failed.

This initial presentation made no mention of a new digital ID card, but the following day the CEO of the state ICT Authority explained that the government was preparing to spend nearly $100 million on the new database and that the new ID cards would have a chip or magnetic strip that would allow police officers on patrol to confirm authenticity.

 

Gatabaki’s emphasis on a compulsory national round of digital registrations was controversial, to put it mildly, because many Kenyans – especially those supporting the CORD coalition that was kept from power – were still furious about the biometric debacle staged during the previous year’s national elections when the biometric voter identification kits supplied by the South African firm, Face Technologies, failed. The official enquiry into this debacle, accusations of corruption and other ongoing controversies over the enormous cost and licensing of the biometric kit dominated public debate until the end of 2015. In Kenya, biometric registration is the main arena of a bitter struggle over state power, and it was hardly surprising that the opposition leaders immediately responded to the move to register all afresh by claiming that it was a scheme to rig the next elections.

Political mistrust was not the only serious problem, however; over the previous decade, the procurement processes for the long-promised identity card had repeatedly collapsed into a mess of conflicting corruption allegations.

Indigenising capital

Gatabaki’s project aimed, chiefly, at replacing the unreliable and limited paper-based population register with a digital biometric database. The new biometric system would have established a single official identity for all adults in Kenya for the first time and it would have allowed real-time, remote biometric authentication. But it was also motivated by an effort to create a new kind of property by registering collateral in moveable assets, such as vehicles, farm animals and companies.

Meanwhile, the EDAPS consortium had been busy working to build the IPRS, linking together the main repositories of identification and citizenship status. EDAPS first built the IPRS connections between the National Registration Bureau’s ID card database and the Ministry for Immigration and Registration of Persons (MIRP) passport and aliens registries. In 2010 they began to incorporate new data from the birth and death registries managed by the Department of Civil Registration. The following year, 2011, they built automated two-way links between the IPRS and the databases maintained by the two newly established credit reference bureaus (CRBs).

This relationship allowed the CRBs to do real time confirmation of the identity of the new applicants for credit (using automated queries against the linked civil registration and ID card records). Much more importantly for the broader political economy in Kenya, and the fate of the NDRS, it also pushed blacklisting data into the IPRS itself. The listing of defaults inside the state’s IPRS – what the Credit Information Sharing Association of Kenya (CISKenya) described as negative information – provided a simple, effective and real time sorting and coercive tool for the new mobile credit providers looking for instant decision-making systems. This simple link had the effect of separating Safaricom, with its troves of data on millions of users’ spending behaviour, from the broader alliance of formal lenders who were looking to build database profiles that would differentiate customers based on sharing positive (payments) and negative (defaults) information.

Safaricom – the monopolistic telecommunications firm that has created the globally distinctive system of mobile money known as M-Pesa – was able to develop simple forms of virtual reputational collateral using its own automated assessment systems and its own identification and authentication processes. The state’s existing population register was sufficient for its needs, where the banks’ credit information sharing (CIS) processes – with their demanding templates of data and very high errors of identification – faced continuous failures and material resistance.

The failure of the new digital identification scheme was the result of a conflict between the formal banks and Safaricom. It was also a struggle between different types of credit markets. On the one hand, the banks wanted to build credit reporting systems and new government registration arrangements that would allow individuals and firms to formalise non-fixed assets, such as vehicles and livestock, which would then act as new forms of collateral for further borrowing. The advocates of these assets registers and of the banks’ universal credit reporting systems were opposed by Safaricom (in practice more than in public) and eventually by the leaders of the Kenyan state, who championed a simple and effective system for delivering unsecured, high-interest micro-loans that did not require collateral registers.

As Safaricom’s monopoly status became painfully obvious after 2010, the banks’ advocates increasingly argued – and with good reason – that the most serious weakness in the Kenyan economy lay in the difficulties that small businesses faced in securing credit.

The advocates of the biometric plan justified it by appealing to the need for certain and secure identification, for stronger national security (and policing) and better tax coverage and recovery, but what distinguished it from the already existing plans for population registration was the effort to build a new kind of asset register – a database describing real, not informational, collateral assets. The National Digital Registry System plan proposed a joined-up architecture of state databases that brought the management of private collateral into the core of the state’s business. Aimed at the interests that the established banks had in the development of reliable, accurate and complete credit histories, it was also a radical effort to address the informational void that surrounds property on the African continent.

As Safaricom’s monopoly status became painfully obvious after 2010, the banks’ advocates increasingly argued – and with good reason – that the most serious weakness in the Kenyan economy lay in the difficulties that small businesses faced in securing credit. Policy makers argued that thousands of these small firms possessed moveable assets – buildings, vehicles, equipment, products, animals – that could provide secure collateral for formal credit when provided with the right administrative and information processing tools. This was the idea behind the NDRS – a centralised data exchange that would make information from the discrete registries (for example, of companies and vehicles) available to lenders. At the same time, this kind of centralised data hub would offer non-bank lenders a quid pro quo for sharing information about their customers’ servicing of existing loans. This idea – that the NDRS would, finally, make it easy for financial institutions to appraise borrowers – was at the heart of the Gatabaki proposal. “A central repository of personal and corporate information will facilitate banks in their credit appraisal,” as the Central Bank governor explained in endorsing the project in October 2014, “This should not only ease access to credit but also reduce costs of credit, given the lower search costs.”

In fact, of course, that integration never happened. Instead, the Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA), in alliance with Safaricom, developed its own separate scoring mechanism that drew on data from Safaricom’s transaction database specifically to identify borrowers who did not meet the initial basic criteria that were derived from Safaricom airtime purchases. The resulting scorecard worked only too well and – combined with the basic identification and simple blacklisting supported by the IPRS – it meant that CBA and Safaricom could issue M-Shwari loans without any need to look up or report data to the credit bureaus; the credit information templates of credit sharing were too cumbersome and too slow and would have ruined the rapid decision-making that is one of the attractions of Safaricom’s mobile lending.

From the outset, the CBA, like many of the other non-bank credit providers in Kenya, used credit information sharing only as a last resort in the effort to recover outstanding loans. After 120 days of non-payment, the bank reported delinquent M-Shwari debtors to the credit bureaus. These records, almost all of them negative reports, rapidly inflated the population covered by the CRBs from 1 million people in 2014 to 4 million the following year. This expansion was the exact opposite of the reputational collateral that the bankers had long used to justify credit sharing; it measured, instead, the dramatically augmented pool of those denied formal credit at any cost.

By the time that Gatabaki announced the NDRS project in April 2014, the effort to create a technological platform to foster reputational collateral for ordinary Kenyans had effectively failed. Over the following year, the balance of informational power shifted decisively towards Safaricom and CBA. Few people made the argument publicly, but the telecom giant had clearly come to exercise monopoly control over the heights of the Kenyan economy. Their interest in micro-loans – while profitable and useful to borrowers – did little to make formal credit available to individuals or companies. The CIS system was working only as a blacklist available to Safaricom on the IPRS platform and, far from working as a solution to the problem of asymmetrical information for other lenders, it simply encouraged local banks to deny ordinary Kenyans credit.

The Safaricom monopoly

Gatabaki’s scheme faced resistance from within the state, not least because the World Bank’s Kenya Transparency Communications Infrastructure Project (KTCIP) had been pouring money into the renewal of the old IPRS. As the NDRS was being debated, the Bank was busy upgrading the IPRS, supporting digitisation of the existing land and company registries, strengthening the administration of the fifty newly devolved county centres of government, and connecting all of the divisions of the state to an accounting database. The KTCIP overhaul reduced some of the pressure for repair of the existing state information systems, but it does not account for the collapse of Gatabaki’s scheme, which would in fact have been bolstered by the same processes. The real reason lay in the ascendancy of the highly simplified information systems controlled by Safaricom, the explosive growth of M-Shwari mobile loans offered by the CBA and the decline of the political influence of the other established banks.

During the year that the NDRS was being debated, Safaricom converted its M-Pesa monopoly over pre-paid customers and financial transactions into the wildly successful M-Shwari microcredit product. In the process, it transformed the Commercial Bank of Africa – substantially owned by the Kenyatta family – from a bespoke bank providing services to the elite to one of the most profitable banks in the world…

Two financial relationships were key to this influence. The first was the joint ownership of Safaricom between the British telecorp Vodafone and the Kenyan state, which gave the state a double-dipping interest in the company’s enormous profits: first as shareholder and second as tax collector. By 2017 the state was earning Sh60 billion in tax and licence fees, and an additional Sh12 billion in dividends – a total that meant a tenth of the revenues raised by the state came from a single firm.

During the year that the NDRS was being debated, Safaricom converted its M-Pesa monopoly over pre-paid customers and financial transactions into the wildly successful M-Shwari microcredit product. In the process, it transformed the Commercial Bank of Africa – substantially owned by the Kenyatta family – from a bespoke bank providing services to the elite to one of the most profitable banks in the world, offering credit and banking facilities to the majority of adult Kenyans – most of whom were very poor. During 2016, 35 million Kenyans used mobile banking to conduct 1.5 billion transactions for a combined value of Sh3.5 trillion. The number of wretchedly but newly employed field agents servicing this finance industry rose by 10 per cent to 165,000 individuals in the same year. And Safaricom exercises a textbook monopoly over the field, controlling 65 per cent of the SIM card subscriptions and 84 per cent of the mobile banking transactions.

By the end of 2016, M-Shwari was an even purer monopoly of the mobile credit market than its M-Pesa parent. It was being used by 16 million customers to take out 64 million small loans with a total value of $1.4 billion. One in five Kenyans were borrowing from M-Swari in a normal month. A highly simplified, stripped-down informational architecture that exploited the very limited capabilities of the Simcard Toolkit and the IPRS (the opposite of the integrated, interoperable and real-time biometric system proposed for the NDRS) was key to the explosive successs of the Safaricom-CBA product.

In contrast with the NDRS, the M-Shwari loans imposed no new identification process on borrowers. For loans of less than sh2500, M-Shwari relied only on the original M-Pesa paperwork – sight of the national ID and a completed application form – that each customer is supposed to have submitted to load the M-Pesa menu and the IPRS blacklist. This frictionless simplicity – turning ignorance and convenience into effective instruments of profit – is now internationally called the “tier-based Know-Your-Customer” procedure. It is intrinsically the opposite of the “clean, complete, correct and secure” registration process that Gatabaki envisaged for the NDRS. It is important to note that it is an instrument of monopoly power because Safaricom can control its risk exposure by relying on the data it owns about users’ purchases of airtime and their relationships with other users. That information – and possible histories of impersonation and PIN-swopping – is not available to the firms’ competitors. It is only in the final decision of blacklisting borrowers that Safaricom reports unpaid M-Shwari debts to the CRBs, effectively blocking those borrowers from future credit and their competitors’ access to future customers. In the short, in the three-year life of M-Shwari, the number of Kenyans – most without any prior connection with the formal banking system – added to the blacklist shared between the CIS and the IPRS has reached three million people (a tenth of the adult population). And nearly 400,000 of those blacklisted have been denied access to future credit for failing to settle debts of less than sh200.

In the years since the demise of the NDRS, Safaricom’s relationship with the Kenyan state has only grown more intimate. The company was an immediate beneficiary of the 4 per cent cap on interest which the Kenyan Central Bank imposed on formal lenders in September 2016 – not least because CBA successfully defended the argument that the 7.5 per cent monthly fee on M-Shwari was an administrative charge and not interest. (The effective interest rate offered on M-Shwari loans approaches 140 per cent over a year of borrowing, but this rate – ten times the legal limit imposed on the formal banks – was still much lower than the returns demanded by informal money lenders.) Safaricom has taken on many of the trophy projects pursued by the Kenyan state since, including a national CCTV surveillance network in 2016, and an e-citizenship project that takes up many of the goals of online convenience that motivated the NDRS.

That the Kenyan state has been strengthened by the rise of Safaricom is probably most evident in the doubling of the population of formal taxpayers in this same period. Yet, it is also clear that this relationship has defeated the NDRS’s goals for addressing the weaknesses of formal credit provision for ordinary Kenyans, especially for firms and for individuals looking to invest relatively large amounts in productive investments. In place of the revolutionary, panoptic over-reach of Gatabaki’s National Digital Registry System, Kenyans have the simplicity and efficiency of M-Shwari. In comparison with the goals of full credit reporting and asset registries, this looks very much like the old pattern of skeletal registration and brutal administration that Africans have long had to endure.

 

Keith Breckenridge was also published in The Journal of African Studies on the same: “Breckenridge. K. (2019), The failure of the ‘single source of truth about Kenyans’: The NDRS, collateral mysteries and the Safaricom monopoly: Journal of African Studies, Vol. 78 Issue 1,  pp 91-111”. It can be accessed here

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The Chink in Raila’s Armour: Why ODM Is Losing Ground in Its Strongholds

Beyond the biblical analogies, evangelical Christian rhetoric, and the denials of ODM party barons, what does Ochieng’s victory mean? What does it tell us about Luo politics? What hopes does it hold, especially for those from the counties of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu, who are disgruntled with ODM, especially the party nominations, and increasingly see Raila Odinga’s dominance in Luo politics as a stranglehold on regional democracy? What about those who yearn either for a change or a revolution in the ODM strongholds?

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The Chink in Raila’s Armour: Why ODM Is Losing Ground in Its Strongholds
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To some observers, it was a victory that recalls the Biblical David versus Goliath encounter, which will be told long after the “stone” that fell the giant Orange Democratic Party’s political machinery and its candidate in the 5 April Ugenya by-election has been buried deep in the fecund soils of Ugenya. For others, it was the epic duel, which Senator James Orengo – a living legend in Kenya and in Ugenya’s opposition politics – like Hamlet without the Prince, lost spectacularly to David Ochieng, a political neophyte.

In the 5 April Ugenya constituency by-election, a parliamentary candidate called David Ochieng’ of the little-known Movement for Democracy and Growth (MDG) took on a giant, the Orange Democratic Party (ODM), and floored its candidate, Chris Karan. This was not a first in the colorful history of Ugenya, a constituency whose politics has partly been defined by the political rivalries between in-laws James Orengo and his brother-in-law, Stephen Ondiek, who between them, represented Ugenya constituency for 33 years between 1980 to 2013.

Although there is no love lost between Orengo and Ochieng, Ochieng’s victory recalls James Orengo’s Nyatieng’s’ (the grinding-stone) victory in the 1980 Ugenya constituency by-election against Mathews Ogutu, a pro-establishment and a Jomo Kenyatta era minister for local government. Just like Orengo’s victory in 1980 as a Jaramogi Odinga colyte was a slap in the face of pro-establishment politics of acquiescence in the face of betrayals of independence ideals and KANU’s suffocating post-independence one-party state, Ochieng’s, too, is a rejection of Raila Odinga’s pro-status quo politics, which in the face of suffocating party politics demands acquiescence with politics of incompetence or ineptitude at the local level.

The victory was too sweet to be savoured only by Ochieng’ and his constituents. By saying that the by-election was a Raila versus Ruto contest and casting it as a proxy battle for Kenya’s soul…the ODM party barons had invited the dissident United Republican Party (URP) wing of the ruling Jubilee Party to the Ugenya party. Or so, it seems.

Ochieng’s was a sweet victory, a crowning of a successful and drawn out election petition against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)’s declaration of Chris Karan as the victor of the 2017 Ugenya parliamentary election, in which he handed ODM, especially his Ugenya nemesis, Senator James Orengo, a humiliating defeat.

The victory was too sweet to be savoured only by Ochieng’ and his constituents. By saying that the by-election was a Raila versus Ruto contest and casting it as a proxy battle for Kenya’s soul – where a vote cast for Chris Karan is a vote for Raila Odinga, and a vote cast for David is a vote for William Ruto – the ODM party barons had invited the dissident United Republican Party (URP) wing of the ruling Jubilee Party to the Ugenya party. Or so, it seems.

As if on cue, the “hustler’s” nation, for whom everything ni kujipanga without compunction, showed up for the party, honouring ODM’s ill-thought, and perhaps proxy invitation, to a propaganda-fest. William Ruto, Kenya’s Deputy President, who craves an earthly kingdom, took a celestial leap for it, and tweeted, “Jameni wacheni MUNGU aitwe MUNGU. The hustler nation has spoken, the people have decided”, thereby quickly claiming David’s victory for the “hustler” Christian nation and milking it for its propaganda value: Odinga’s loss is a Ruto’s or self-declared hustler-in-chief’s gain.

Ostensibly, Ochieng’s victory now symbolised the miraculous ways of God, foretelling the coming victory of the kingdom of the hustler-in-chief over his nemesis Raila Odinga, the longed-for Godless earthly kingdom of Kenyans who seldom give a damn about justice or ethics in pursuit of power or wealth.

Ochieng’s MGD victory was a godsend. Irresistible. And they grabbed it, perhaps with the ease with which billions of shillings in dollar denominations is nowadays spirited out of Kenya’s public coffers to a few individual’s secret accounts abroad or safe boxes in local banks under the Jubilee government’s watch.

Senator Susan Kihika, a Ruto disciple, took a less optimistic but a more earthly view of Ochieng’s victory. She tweeted, “Is ODM’s loss in Ugenya & Embakasi South an indication of changing times? Ugenya being ODM stronghold begs the question, is the electorate finally ready to defy dictatorship vote & independently? Perhaps. Interesting times ahead. Kitaeleweka sooner than later!”

For some of the diehard ODM supporters, the twin parliamentary electoral loss is symptomatic of ODM’s diseased body politic. “It’s suffering a T.B. Not the dreadful respiratory disease, tuberculosis, but the equally devastating “Tugni gi Bagni,” or “conflict and confusion”…

“Not a big deal,” Raila Odinga said repeatedly, and rather strenuously, for the “just a drop in the ocean” loss of two parliamentary seats in a week when the twin ODM loss, especially the Ugenya by-election, was trending in the major call-ins in Dholuo breakfast and late night radio broadcasts.

For some of the diehard ODM supporters, the twin parliamentary electoral loss is symptomatic of ODM’s diseased body politic. “It’s suffering a T.B. Not the dreadful respiratory disease, tuberculosis, but the equally devastating “Tugni gi Bagni,” or “conflict and confusion,” for a party that has had a relative clear political vision,” said a disillusioned ODM supporter in a call-in breakfast radio show.

Still, others opined, the victory of these candidates raises several questions that the party ought to answer: why do sitting ODM MPs, who ably discharge their parliamentary responsibilities or good candidates seeking an ODM ticket lose to those said to be the party-anointed but lacklustre performers? Is it the region’s six-piece voting pattern or how the six-pieces of the ODM leaders is put together? Is it because, as some callers opined, “party ni gi wegi” (the party has its owners)? And therefore, have the party nominations, not just the ODM’s, but also other Raila Odinga-led parties’ nominations, been a charade? Does the party respect the wishes and interests of the majority? “Certificate e omo malo.” (Has the party been imposing candidates on the voters?) Is it because we’ve been electing charlatans who claim “wadhi konyo Jakom goyo lweny?” (Is it those who claim they are going to help Raila Odinga fight a war?)

Beyond the biblical analogies, evangelical Christian rhetoric, and the denials of ODM party barons, what does Ochieng’s victory mean? What does it tell us about Luo politics? What hopes does it hold, especially for those from the counties of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu, who are disgruntled with ODM, especially the party nominations, and increasingly see Raila Odinga’s dominance in Luo politics as a stranglehold on regional democracy? What about those who yearn either for a change or a revolution in the ODM strongholds?

Unlike ODM power barons’ denials, the candid and passionate debates on Ochieng’s victory and ODM’s poor performance in the two by-elections throws up more than Ochieng’s winning formula or ODM’s ways of losing an election, which, for some rank and file members of the party, shouldn’t be waved aside.

Many ODM supporters who called various Dholuo radio stations last week blamed Senator James Orengo for the loss of the Ugenya seat to the MDG party. They put it down to the rivalry between Orengo and Opiyo Wandayi, said to be driven by competing ambitions for the Siaya County’s 2022 gubernatorial election. ODM had wrongly pitched the contest as a national issue, with little local touch, and favoured big roadshow events – which entertain the youth, but which scarcely educate the electorate – and counterproductive threats by Siaya governor, Amoth Rasanga, to punish his Ugenya constituents if they voted for Ochieng’. Yet Ochieng’ has a better development record in Ugenya than the Siaya County government, and carried out a more effective door-to-door campaign attuned to the hopes of Ugenya voters, especially women.

Ochieng is a young and ambitious politician who first came to parliament as an ODM Member of Parliament. His victory points to a deeper crisis gnawing at the heart of the Orange Democratic Movement. ODM not only failed to live up to its name and to its political ideals, but is suffered from a crisis of vision, as some callers pointed out. It also stalled intra-party, inter-generational succession, which is now simmering and might come to the boil before or by 2022.

Ochieng’s victory, like that of the other “independents”, suggests that ODM or Raila Odinga are not invincible. However, winning an election is still an uphill task. You’ve got to factor Raila Odinga into your winning formula or circumvent it in your campaigns.

However, listening to ODM supporters who are still smarting from the party’s loss of Ugenya constituency does suggest that Ochieng’s victory is significant but that it is no more significant than the past victories of “independents” in the current Luo politics. Ochieng joins the league of politicians, such as Olago Aluoch, the MP for Kisumu West on a Ford Kenya ticket, Shakeel Shabbir of Kisumu Town East, who ran as independent in the 2017 general election, and even of the disgraced Okoth Obado, now an ODM governor, who was elected on a PDP ticket in 2013.

Ochieng’s victory, like that of the other “independents”, suggests that ODM or Raila Odinga are not invincible. However, winning an election is still an uphill task. You’ve got to factor Raila Odinga into your winning formula or circumvent it in your campaigns. Strategically, you must be an ally or be seen to be an ally of Raila Odinga’s cause. And as some callers said, those who have successfully run against the ODM wave, such as Olago Aluoch of Kisumu Town West or Shakeel Shabbir, have simultaneously avoided casting their quest for elective office as contests between them and Raila Odinga. They ran on a Raila-zone friendly party or no political party, and thoroughly localised the parliamentary contest while pledging loyalty to Raila’s cause or claiming him as their undisputed leader or leader of the Luo community.

Shakeel Shabbir, popularly known as “Onyango woun Mogo” (Onyango, the owner of maize flour), like Ochieng, bolted out of the ODM in 2017, but ran successfully as an independent. Upon winning, he said, “I still share ODM ideals and want to assure my people that I will stand with the party and leader Raila Odinga.”

Similarly, speaking to the Star after winning, Ochieng’ said, “I avoided the media like the plague since they were going to hype it as a war between me and Raila,” and added, “I have no issue with Raila. In fact, we kept talking when I was in court. There is no bad blood between him and myself. I respect him. I support the handshake, which is the best thing ever to happen to this country.”

Salim Odeny, a suave and eloquent ODM ideologue with a priestly mastery of the Bible, an ecumenical mastery of many Christian denominational hymns, liturgy, and rituals, and a mastery of dead-pan Dholuo put-downs or sexist insults, said that the ODM bigwigs in charge of the Chris Karan campaigns didn’t set the Raila trap well. He says that ODM lost the Ugenya seat, not only because the infighting within the Senator James Orengo-led campaign team, but also because they didn’t frame the contest in terms that resonates with the Ugenya electorate. “They should have asked, who does Uhuru Kenyatta deal with when he wants to deal with a Luo leader, a party leader called Raila Odinga of ODM or a party leader called David Ochieng’ of MDG?” said Odeny. The contest should have been framed as the battle between Raila and Ochieng’ for the leadership of the Luos – who of the two embodies the community’s fears and hopes? – not as a Raila versus Ruto contest.

Ochieng’ saw the trap and lifted the safety hatch. He simply asked his constituents, “Ka udhi ma ok uneno Raila e debe, gone David Ochieng’,” (If you go to the polling booth, and you don’t find Raila’s name on the ballot, then vote for David Ochieng), some callers pointed out. Raila’s absences, literary and figuratively, also worked in Ochieng’s favour.

Citing African Union engagements, Raila made only a single appearance at a funeral in Ugenya during the campaign period. Since the handshake, what he embodies or stands for, the larger-than-life cause cryptically referred to as “lweny” (the war), and the political cause that he has embodied in Luo politics (which gives him a free hand to choose who’s a loyal lieutenant and who’s not) has become foggy at best.

What’s more, “the handshake” has blunted the sharp edge of the “mole” label, the traitor charge, which can cut down one’s political career short, especially for Luo politicians who work with the establishment, either in times of opposition or outside the Raila Odinga umbrella, in times of co-optation.

Tactically, by framing the by-election as a local contest and conducting a door-to-door campaign, Ochieng’ outflanked the ODM bigwigs who mounted colourful roadshows and pitched the battle as a national contest between Raila Odinga and William Ruto.

In 2017, David Ochieng’, who had been dubbed a mole, bore this burden. In 2019, after the handshake, the sharp opposition-establishment distinction is blurred, and the burden has lifted off a little bit. Moreover, unlike James Orengo, who was once a cabinet minister (a minister for lands), Ochieng’ seems to have leveraged his first term pro-establishment connections and delivered collective material goods to his Ugenya constituents better than both James Orengo and the County of Government of Siaya: a medical training centre, a teachers’ training college, a technical institute, subsidised fertilizer to farmers, and a forestry school in the making.

Tactically, by framing the by-election as a local contest and conducting a door-to-door campaign, Ochieng’ outflanked the ODM bigwigs who mounted colourful roadshows and pitched the battle as a national contest between Raila Odinga and William Ruto. Backed by Ugenya professionals, he turned his first term development record as an ODM MP into an asset and bait: “I have built a TTC, and a MTC here, but the MTC College could collapse, because it offers only one course. Give me a chance to complete this project,” Ochieng, reportedly pitched.

But David Ochieng’, the ambitious rebel politician who says he eschews “politics of lies, personality cult, where you identify a figure of hate”, derides and is disdainful of Orengo’s brand of politics – what he dismissively calls “university type of politics, which no longer works for the masses” – as the kind of politics that has long reached its sell-by date and is a product the fallout that followed the ODM’s post-2013 generational succession politics in Luo politics.

Ochieng told the Star that he left ODM because “the party machinery was not taking my views. There is a lot of suspicion about me and how I work. At some point, I felt I didn’t want to go to parliament.” Moreover, “My party did not like people who can innovate or those giving views. I thought I did not want to go through that, hence, the birth of MDG,” Ochieng’ added, without mentioning the source of this suspicion.

That suspicion was borne out a the Sega Declaration in 2014. David Ochieng’, together with some youthful and freshly elected first-term members of parliament, such as Jared K’Opiyo, Silvanus Osele, Agostino Neto, Junet Mohamed, Millie Odhiambo, Ken Obura, and John Mbadi, sought to reform and re-energise the party after the loss of the 2013 presidential election and to change its leadership. But the doyens of opposition politics, such as Raila Odinga, Anyang’ Nyong’o, and Otieno Ka’jwang,’ read mischief in this move. The ODM MPs, who were party to the Sega Declaration, were viewed with suspicion as fifth columnists.

ODM power barons scattered this group, but didn’t adequately address the discontent, the injustice of the party nomination process, and the feeling of being left out of both the national party power structures and in the ODM county governments, which many youthful members of the party, including the rank and file, feel to date. Dubbed “moles,” the unrepentant signatories to the Sega Declaration faced a stiff challenge for the ODM ticket or opted for alternative political parties. Some, like John Mbadi and Junet Mohamed, beat a retreat and were rewarded with high party positions. Others, like Ken Obura and Silvanus Osele, fell by the wayside. A few, like David Ochieng, and Millie Odhiambo, retreated to their constituencies and worked hard to fortify their hold on them.

Labeled a Jubilee mole, David Ochieng’ felt it doubly, in 2017 and 2019. “There were days we could spend up to shillings 1 million in a day,” Ochieng’ told the Star, without disclosing either what he spent the money on or the total amount of money he spent to secure the seat. Clearly, one million shillings a day, even for a few days of campaigning in a rural constituency, is a little over the top, particularly, for a candidate who says his popularity rests solidly on his unmatched development record.

Ochieng’s victory reminds the ODM party, and Raila Odinga, in particular, that that until ODM embraces internal party democracy, addresses the generational succession question, and Raila unequivocally states what the party stands for, the independents…will always eat Baba’s lunch in a free and fair election.

Ochieng’s triumph over the ODM was sweet, hard-won, and crowning, but still an expensive victory. It reeks of a BUY-election. Although Ochieng says that his solid development record as an ODM member of parliament put him in good stead, he spent heavily to secure the seat, even when he avoided a “big entourage” and occasionally rode a bicycle while looking for votes.

Ochieng’s victory reminds the ODM party, and Raila Odinga, in particular, that that until ODM embraces internal party democracy, addresses the generational succession question, and Raila unequivocally states what the party stands for, the independents (who voters say are good leaders, but often fall out of favour with the ODM party barons) will always eat Baba’s lunch in a free and fair election – especially when the voters can’t tell what Raila Odinga stands for or what the political vision of ODM is since he signed a truce with the Jubilee government.

Questions arise: Is Raila still hunting, holding the leopard by the tail or has he domesticated the beast? Or is he stroking its fur, cleaning its bloodstained paws and its incisors while his core constituency, clawed or killed by the beast in the last electoral encounters, cries for justice? Does ODM fight for democracy and good government only at the national level? What about the ODM-led constituencies and the counties?

Ochieng’s victory too, is just an exception that proves the rule: the common sense that binds Raila Odinga and his die-hard political base still holds a contested sway, However, the yawning democratic deficits of the ODM party, which the ODM rank and file complain about on radio, and the ineptitudes of Raila’s lieutenants in local politics and in organising a smooth ODM generational succession, coupled with the incompetence, corruption, and nepotism of county governments, especially in Siaya, Homa Bay, and Migori counties, will ultimately claim ODM’s dominance in Luo politics.

Ochieng’s victory is good news, especially to those who find Raila’s two-decade long dominance in Luo politics too suffocating and too stifling for democratic aspirations. It reveals a chink in Raila’s amour. However, those yearning for a change or revolution in ODM have a tough task ahead. Electoral defeats, like Ugenya’s, though highly embarrassing, hardly chip at the Odingas’ dominance in Luo politics.

The twin electoral defeats, a recoil from a third, and the Wajir senatorial election reminds ODM that a coalition of widely different political dynasties, united only by a common fear of the prospects of a Ruto presidency, is unlikely to energise the ODM support base. ODM could suffer humiliating defeats in the hands of a wily, tenacious, and daredevil opponent bound by no compunction.

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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Political Baptism by Fire in Crazy Town

The Somalia-born Ilhan Omar arrived in Washington DC with the kind of backstory that synergised the attention focused on the quintet of new minority Congresswomen. Omar walked into the national spotlight and took a seat in the high profile Congressional Committee for Foreign Relations. A successful proposal to adjust the ban on head covering saw Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.

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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Political Baptism by Fire in Crazy Town
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Donald Trump’s election victory dismissed many conventional assumptions about the conduct and content of American political discourse. Once in office, the new president began hollowing out the nation’s foreign policy institutions. He threw allies under the bus, embraced dictators, and took every opportunity to undermine the multilateral institutions sustaining the post-World War II order. By jettisoning the framework containing nuclear weapon proliferation and withdrawing from the Paris consensus on global warming, he ratcheted up the risk factors facing the planet. On the domestic front, he bulldozed his party and staff into lining up behind him. The generals tried to limit the damage his maverick foreign policy was wreaking abroad. They failed.

Unlike the tweeting, dissembling, and mocking the norms governing national politics for generations, most of the president’s agenda represented policy positions that can be contested or debated. But when Trump came to the defence of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis, it confirmed many critics’ worse-case scenarios. The number of hate groups in the United States increased by 7 per cent last year and hate crime reports increased by 17 per cent, according to the FBI.

In a polity where elected leaders usually gravitate towards the middle to implement their agenda, Donald Trump continues to weaponise the polarising subterranean logic that turned Washington into what General Kelley, the former Chief of Staff, described as “Crazy Town”.

Enter Ilhan Omar

The Democratic Party captured the US House of Representatives in the 2018 by-elections. Eighty-one of the record number of 102 women elected to the House are Democrats. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, expressed the hope of many: “When our new members take the oath, our Congress will be refreshed and our democracy will be strengthened by the optimism, idealism and patriotism of this transformative freshman class.”

Progressives celebrated Ilhan Omar as a victory for inclusion, the Somali nation claimed ownership of their daughter, and The Intercept announced that she was “Trump’s Worst Nightmare.”

The Somalia-born Ilhan Omar arrived in Washington DC with the kind of backstory that synergised the attention focused on the quintet of new minority Congresswomen that included the Palestinian American, Rashida Mtlaib, and the 23-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Omar walked into the national spotlight with panache and charisma, and took a seat in the high profile Congressional Committee for Foreign Relations. A successful proposal to adjust the ban on head covering saw Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.

Progressives celebrated Ilhan Omar as a victory for inclusion, the Somali nation claimed ownership of their daughter, and The Intercept announced that she was “Trump’s Worst Nightmare.”

Omar has constructed her political career on domestic social issues: affordable housing and healthcare, support for a living wagestudent loan debt forgiveness, universal access to higher education, proactive climate change policies, and the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). She strongly opposes the immigration policies of the Trump administration and the Muslim travel ban.

The pivot to Foreign Relations encouraged expectations in this part of the world that she would focus fresh attention on African issues and insight into the shifts accompanying renewed interest across the greater Horn of Africa region.

Beto O’Rourke, the presidential hopeful exemplar of the new blood political wave, was recently revealed as a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker collective. An ex-hacker running for national office would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. A reporter covering the story declared, “There has been no better time to be an American politician rebelling against business as usual.”

Omar proceeded to put the hypothesis to the test by igniting a firestorm that quickly escalated into the resurgent Democratic Party’s first internal crisis. It began when she tweeted lyrics from a rap song, “Its all about the Benjamins.” The reference to the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC)’s financial tentacles was far less derogatory than calling Mogadishu Somalis ‘”skinnies”, or Iraqis “towelheads”. But Omar was vilified for promoting ethnic stereotypes, and then accused of being anti-Semitic after she defended her position.

In a Democratic primary campaign devoid of any religious or ethnic animosity, the Congresswoman defeated the Jewish incumbent of over forty years. But now she was in Trump’s Crazy Town. Instead of mollifying the critics, her attempt to place her opposition to AIPAC in context provoked even more intense condemnation. Some of the strongest reactions to her statement came from within her own party. It did not help that she broke ranks with the Party’s opposition to Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro, the one foreign policy issue enjoying bipartisan consensus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used AIPAC’s annual conference to attack her, unleashing the formidable clout of the US pro-Israeli media industry.

The impunity that AIPAC has enjoyed within the Washington establishment over the years is a basic fact documented in analyses by many Jewish critics of Israel’s policies. When CNN’s Jake Tapper invoked the “words count” meme, the context implied that the person who utters them counts even more. A Somali news website observed that Ilhan Omar was singled out for three intersecting reasons: she is black; she is Muslim; and she is a woman.

The tweet detonated a firestorm of vindictive rage and self-righteous condemnation. The range of supporters who came to Ms. Omar’s defence, including a delegation of Jewish rabbis, received considerably less coverage. Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hassan speculated that “she, perhaps naively, thought she was highlighting a powerful and reactionary lobby group, no different to the NRA.”

The impunity that AIPAC has enjoyed within the Washington establishment over the years is a basic fact documented in analyses by many Jewish critics of Israel’s policies. When CNN’s Jake Tapper invoked the “words count” meme, the context implied that the person who utters them counts even more. A Somali news website observed that Ilhan Omar was singled out for three intersecting reasons: she is black; she is Muslim; and she is a woman.

At the time when Ilhan Omar was being placed on the rack, Trump avoided being sucked into the anti-Semitism maelstrom. He was given a pass despite his flagrant stereotyping of ethnic minorities, including a history of insulting Jews. Private citizen Trump is on record for saying only “short guys that wear yarmulkes” should count his money—itself a dig at the black accountants working for his organisation. He used to keep a book of Adolf Hitler’s speeches on his bedside table. After he became president, as the author of an article differentiating anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism reported, Trump invited Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress (who is on record for saying Jews are going to hell for not accepting Jesus) to lead a prayer at the ceremony inaugurating the US embassy in Jerusalem. The “good people” marching with Charlottesville Neo-Nazis he defended were chanting, among other things, anti-Jewish slogans.

In 2016 Trump tweeted a “Crooked Hilary” campaign ad showing Clinton next to a Star of David superimposed against a background of 100 dollar “Benjamins”. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grandmaster of the recent Spike Lee BlacKKKlansman fame, completed the circle by congratulating her: “Ilhan Omar is now the most important member of the House of Representatives”.

Instead of interrogating the long tradition of hate resurfacing in the recent series of anti-Semitic violence across the US and Europe, the Ilhan Omar news cycle provided a timely gift for the Trump White House that diverted attention from Jared Kushner’s controversial security clearance, reports of the ballooning 51-billion-dollar trade deficit, and the farcical Kim Jong Un summit in Hanoi.

The House Democrats’ motion to condemn crimes of hate in its diverse forms passed with only four dissenting Republican votes. The March 15 attack by a Trump-inspired white extremist on the mosque in Christchurch in New Zealand provided the counterpoint that placed the debate in its proper perspective.

The dual loyalty contradiction

Ilhan Omar was already a marked woman who has had to fend off attacks from conservative media outlets since she ran for a seat in the Minnesota Legislature. The controversy provided a fresh entry point for recycling the kind of vicious allegations the fake news industry has raised to a commercialised art form. She vented on the hypocrisy of her critics in a robust response delivered at an informal gathering in Washington. This an abridged excerpt of what she said:

“We know what hate looks like. We experience it every single day. We have to deal with death threats. I have colleagues who talk about death threats. I have people driving around my district looking for my home, for my office, causing me harm. I have people every single day on Fox News and everywhere, posting that I am a threat to this country. So I know what fear looks like. The masjid I pray in in Minnesota got bombed by domestic white terrorists. So I know what it feels to be someone who is of faith that is vilified. I know what it means to be someone whose ethnicity is vilified. I know what it feels to be of a race—like I am an immigrant, so I don’t have the historical drama that some of my black sisters and brothers have in this country, but I know what it means for people to just see me as a black person, and to treat me as less than a human. And so, when people say, ‘you are bringing hate’, I know what their intention is. Their intention is to make sure that our lights are dimmed…What people are afraid of is that there are two Muslims in Congress that have their eyes wide open, that have their feet to the ground, that know what they’re talking about, that are fearless, and that understand that they have the same election certificate as everyone else in Congress.” 

Instead of setting the record straight, a semantic stumble re-energised the backlash:

“So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil-fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy.”

The politics of dual loyalty has a long history in the United States, dating back to the role of British royalists during the Revolutionary War. It evolved into an unwritten rule that capped the political mobility of minorities like Jews and Catholics. Joseph Kennedy came to understand that it was a glass ceiling that he would never be able to rise above. He curbed his presidential ambitions and instead devoted his resources and political influence to position his sons to break the myth of American Catholics’ loyalty to the Vatican. John F. Kennedy cleared the way for Catholics and Irish Americans to vie for the highest political office.

The politics of dual loyalty has a long history in the United States, dating back to the role of British royalists during the Revolutionary War. It evolved into an unwritten rule that capped the political mobility of minorities like Jews and Catholics. Joseph Kennedy came to understand that it was a glass ceiling that he would never be able to rise above.

Despite the inroads made by African, Muslim, and other ethnic candidates vying for elected offices—including Bernie Sanders’s challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination—the dual loyalty question never went away as a convenient prism for challenging the patriotism of minority communities. For American Muslims, the problem of Western Muslim radicalisation has recast the dual loyalty issue in stark terms. During the Republican primaries, Ben Carson openly stated that a Muslim should never become president of the United States.

According to American intelligence sources, as many as 20,000 foreign fighters joined ISIS’s ranks, about 3,400 of them from Western nations. FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee placed the statistic in perspective. He reported that “upwards of 200 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to participate in the conflict”. The Nazi’s Bund operated openly in the US during the run-up to World War II without generating a significant backlash against German Americans, even while the U-boats were sinking hundreds of American vessels. Japanese-Americans, in contrast, were interred in camps after Pearl Harbor.

The integration process in the United States has evolved since these events, as Ilhan Omar’s and the election of less prominent ethnic candidates to local offices indicate. But her “foreign allegiance” reference triggered an avalanche of alt-right and pro-Israel reactions focusing on her own political connections to Somalia and Islam.

PJ Media challenged Omar’s automatic security clearance by citing her activism within the Somali community. It focused on a meeting with Somalia’s then presidential candidate, Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmajo”, referring to his subsequent victory as “one of the most fraudulent political events in Somalia’s history”. It alleged that the meeting led to Ilhan Omar’s brother-in-law, Mohamed Keynan, being appointed to a high-level position in the Somali government.

Another website stated that her allegiance to the Qu’ran outweighs any allegiance she may have claimed to make to the US constitution.  A petition launched to remove her from office claimed that the “Qur’an appears to legalise hatred of specific people groups.” Anti-Israeli views gathered from ethnic Somalis serving in Minnesota jails backed up their claims while reinforcing the accusations of Omar’s Islamist affiliations repeated in Saudi and Israeli press attacks during her campaign.

In an insightful analysis of citizenship, Stephen Njuguna pointed out that most Africans are dual nationals by birth. He used Kenya’s post-multiparty political violence to illustrate how allegiance to community can undermine a citizen’s obligations to the nation.

For Somalia – now a nation no longer tethered to a contiguous territory or physical boundaries – its diaspora citizenship combines sanctuary from the event horizon of clan politics, while supporting many unique opportunities. For example, a Somali friend of mine is an Australian-Bimaal dual citizen. He ran a business from Kenya, was appointed to serve as liaison to the diaspora by the first transitional federal government in Somalia, and assisted the Australian navy with critical intelligence on the western Indian Ocean piracy epidemic.

The Red Sea region is now an important arena for a new Great Game drawing in a complicated array of great and second-tier powers. The Somali government facilitates American military operations in one of the Forever War’s most turbulent theatres. Djibouti is the base for AFRICOM (US Africa Command) operations across the continent. Both Farmajo and Keynan are American citizens; many other diaspora elites have held high political offices in the succession of post-collapse Somalia governments.

My guess is that Western intelligence mandarins for the most part view such dual nationals as insider assets – a long-term soft power advantage not available to the likes of Xi JinPing and Vladimir Putin – not a dual loyalty threat.

American Jews became the most successful exemplar of minority success in the US by turning the Israel dual loyalty issue into a proxy for national security. On the other hand, Omar’s relationship with Somali leaders reinforces her anti-Islamist credentials.

But at this juncture, there is nothing to be gained and much to lose from her pre-congressional links to the Somalia homeland. As one contributor on a Somali blog stated, “If I was her I would stay out of Somali politics. You don’t want to alienate US Somali voters and people back in Somalia don’t care about her or her endorsement.”

The 2020 reckoning

 The upside-down methods and polarising narratives that date back to the culture wars of the Ronald Reagan era now fuel the alt-right’s dumbed-down clash of civilisations algorithm. Their media warriors manipulate the dual loyalty issue to promote America’s own tribal rebellion.

PJ Media is the country’s ninth most conservative website, and the Omar-Farmajo story spawned comments associating Democratic voters in Minnesota with the “enemy”: “The simple-minded Left-wing voters are just as much an enemy as any Jihadi, but they are too stupid to figure out how much damage they are doing to this country.” Another commenter said the problem would persist until the coming civil war sorts things out.

These words function as a thinly-veiled call for action, like the August 2017 bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Minneapolis by three members the White Rabbits militia. Donald Trump’s threatening reference to his own simple-minded supporters endorsed these sentiments: “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

It remains to be seen how the AIPAC furore will influence Omar’s long-term contribution to the “optimism, idealism and patriotism” Nancy Pelosi referred to. The incident underscored some cautionary observations regarding timing and strategy.

Around the same time, the few hundred MAGA-hatted protestors gathered at the March 23 event in Los Angeles where Omar was giving a speech signaled the passing of this particular storm. These kind of warnings nevertheless raise the stakes for the potentially “transformative freshman class” in the much more challenging battles now taking form. Nate Silver and his data-driven 548 crowd estimated that Donald Trump would stand a 50-50 chance of being re-elected if the national elections were to be held now.

It remains to be seen how the AIPAC furore will influence Omar’s long-term contribution to the “optimism, idealism and patriotism” Nancy Pelosi referred to. The incident underscored some cautionary observations regarding timing and strategy.

Omar’s freshman colleague from Brooklyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, reset the climate change debate by tabling her comprehensive Green Plan that featured policy positions that demanded a sober response. Although a number of Democrats dismissed the document as unfeasible, the Plan moved the discussion forward and expanded the space it occupies.

Ilhan Omar would do well to use a similar comprehensive policy agenda to connect the dots between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s failed war in Yemen and Trump’s callous abandonment of the Kurds (the real warriors who defeated ISIS). She should cultivate bipartisan support for causes, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s condemnation of the Chinese re-education camps in Xinxiang and made-to-order issues like the horrors visited on Africans trafficked through Libya. Above all, she needs to retake control of her narrative.

Israel was not the ideal subject for a maiden foray into foreign policy, however inadvertent. In any case, the country that now ranked fourth among the world’s most unpopular governments has its own long-term security dilemmas, as highlighted by the in-house critique authored by the University of Jerusalem professor, Martin von Creveld.

On the other side of the divide, the emergent Muslim female leadership personified by Omar and Tlaib and many other less recognised advocates elsewhere may over time invert Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations focus on the disruptive impact of the young Muslim male demographic.

There are, however, more immediate concerns at this moment. The two outspoken female representatives are popular in their constituencies but not so much elsewhere. Positive poll ratings at the national level for the articulate Alexandria’s Ocasio-Cortez hover around 25 per cent, disapproval slightly higher, and her Democratic socialist colleagues are probably lower after the recent cat fight.  Their rock star status and the aggressive positioning accompanying the new representatives’ high profile entrance has created frictions among the Democratic Party’s rank and file politicians who grind out the results. Their fascinating but too large field of presidential candidates is a potential damper on voter turnout, and Donald Trump is riding the crest of a vibrant economy that has seen real worker income rise for the first time in a decade.

I expect Ilhan Omar will prove to be resilient in the face of challenges like the representation trap, which arises when controversy involving prominent minority individuals encourages more self-policing from within their community.

The shit storm over the Benjamins was a timely warning puncturing the euphoria over the new Democrats. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is already using their agenda as a campaign wedge. Instead of worst nightmare, Ilhan Omar is exactly the kind of prop Trump exploits to mobilise support.

I expect Ilhan Omar will prove to be resilient in the face of challenges like the representation gap, which arises when controversy involving prominent minority individuals encourages more self-policing from within their community. When Rashida Mtlaib uttered her “We’re going to impeach the motherfucker” statement, one blogger backed the American Muslims who criticised her because “when you are a minority, people judge you not as an individual but as the group you belong to”.

She responded to this scenario by declaring: “There is an interest in putting us in the box of constantly defending our identities and I am not interested in being in that box. I am interested in defending my ideas and not my identity.” Ayaan Hersi created a political niche for Muslim women by blowing up the box. Ilhan Omar faces a more difficult escape route. But focusing on what she does well, supporting working class social issues, and turning out the vote, she increased voter participation by 37 per cent in her district – a good place to start.

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