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:
- The military defeat of the apartheid army at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988
- The release of Nelson Mandela, unbanning of the liberation movements and the independence of Namibia.
- The holding of the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001 and the declaration that slavery constituted a crime against humanity.
- 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.
Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia: 10 Years On
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, who on 17 December 2010 set himself alight at Sidi Bouzid in an act of self-immolation that made him the iconic martyr of the Tunisian revolution.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s name is familiar to all; less so is his background, although the facts of his story are well known and documented. This article will explore the links between the different sequences of ‘protest’ processes in Tunisia, from the 2008 strikes in the minefields, to the most recent (2017-20) El Kamour protests in the country’s south-east. It will also consider the concept of socio-spatial class solidarity, both in turning an individual suicide into the spark for a major uprising, and in facilitating collective resistance and its role in long revolutionary processes.
Two key questions arise: what in Bouazizi’s profile, life and circumstances was of such significance that his suicide sparked a huge popular uprising whose impact, direct and indirect, was felt worldwide. And what can he teach us about the origin, scale and longevity of the Tunisian revolution?
We must therefore examine the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi within its familial and personal context, but also within the more general context of the political protests against the Ben Ali dictatorship, and especially against the processes of dispossession, impoverishment and exclusion. Sidi Bouzid was clearly a focus of the protests and resistance then spreading throughout Tunisia’s marginalised regions. The prolonged mining strikes of 2008 were a key stage in the actions.
Born into poverty, Mohamed Bouazizi was raised by his mother after he lost his father at the age of three. As the eldest son he grew up with a moral ‘obligation’ to support his mother, to the detriment of his education, and he left school without qualifications. Some time before his dramatic act, he acquired a barrow and scales and started selling vegetables but his informal business attracted endless administrative hassles and police harassment. Finally, on 17 December 2010, the police seized his meagre equipment to put a stop to his trading. Angry, frustrated and desperate, he turned to the only act of resistance that still appeared open to him and thereby unwittingly triggered the countdown to Ben Ali’s fall, scarcely one month later, on 14 January 2011.
‘Individual’ suicide and class solidarity
Between the prolonged mining strike of 2008 and the shows of solidarity unleashed by Bouazizi’s self-immolation, many social movements were active across Tunisia. Among them were the protests made in Sidi Bouzid in June and July 2010 by peasant farmers whose demands focused on a number of issues: access to natural resources such as agricultural land, and water for drinking and irrigation purposes, state aid, and the complex problem of indebtedness.
According to several witnesses interviewed in Sidi Bouzid, as well as two family members, Mohamed Bouazizi took an active part in these demonstrations. Whether or not this is so, I would identify a clear link between the peasant ‘protests’ of summer 2010 and those that followed Bouazizi’s desperate act – a link that explains why this particular case, in contrast to other suicides, sparked a popular uprising across the country. First to take to the streets after Bouazizi’s self-immolation were other peasant farmers’ children identifying with his fatal act of resistance and despair.
Here was a clear example of ‘class solidarity’ among local populations directly affected by the region’s multiple social and economic problems. Over the next few days that same class solidarity also found expression nationwide, moving from the ‘rural’ zones (including ‘rural towns’), to the popular quarters of larger towns, and finally to the big urban centres, including Tunis. The progress of the protests suggests the existence of a distinct class-consciousness embracing all the ‘popular’ classes, rural and urban.
Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital. Over the past four decades Sidi Bouzid has been transformed: from a semi-arid desert fringe with an extensive agriculture based on olives, almonds, pasture and winter cereals, it has become Tunisia’s leading agricultural region, producing over a quarter of the nation’s total output of fruit and vegetables.
But behind this undoubted technical success lies a real social and ecological failure. Socially Sidi Bouzid remains one of Tunisia’s four poorest regions (of 26 in total), while ecologically the level of the water table is plummeting, water for irrigation is increasingly saline, and soil damage is visible, even to non-specialist eyes.
Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital
Here investors – who are mostly outsiders, often called ‘settlers’ by the local population – accrue capital and profits; meanwhile peasant farmers accumulate losses, tragedies and suicides. Without this huge socio-spatial fault, which divides Tunisia between a dominant centre and dependant periphery, Mohamed Bouazizi’s death would scarcely have merited a mention. And that same divide also lies at the heart of several other shocks which will be discussed below.
After the Sidi Bouzid uprising ended with the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship, several more protest movements arose, all forming part of the same resistance processes in the social and spatial periphery.
The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’: two different struggles each of which constitutes a key moment/sequence in the same process of dissent.
At Jemna and El Kamour, as in other cases, the key to mass mobilisation lies in the processes and dynamics of socio-spatial class solidarity: ‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere; what you can read in the media reports of declarations made by local populations. And underlying it all, ‘driving’ resistance and ‘cementing’ solidarity, lie profound feelings of injustice and demands for dignity.
Jemna: rights versus law; a disruptive legitimacy
Following the Sidi Bouzid episode and the fall of the dictator, in 2011 an oasis was ‘discovered’ that was probably new to the majority of Tunisians. Situated in the desert, midway between Kebili and Douz, the Jemna oasis owed its sudden appearance on the map to a significant new collective action, stemming directly from specific elements of colonial history that resurfaced after the wall of silence placed around them had been breached.
While most French colonists chose to settle in north or north-west Tunisia and created big cereal farms and/or stock-raising enterprises, and even vineyards and orchards, others preferred to head south and specialise in date farming – in particular the Degla variety, whose export market in France and Europe was virtually guaranteed. Among this latter group was one Maus De Rolley, who in 1937 created a new date-palm plantation around the core of the ancient Jemna oasis. The plantation today covers some 306 hectares, including 185 hectares planted with approximately 10,000 date palms.
Although local populations had held these lands as common and indivisible (tribal) property, they were dispossessed without compensation on the pretext that nomadic herding (pastoralism) was not a genuine productive activity, and that the land therefore was uncultivated. At independence, these populations – who had battled against the occupiers – held great expectations that the new authorities would return their stolen lands.
The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’
When the colonial lands were nationalised in 1964, however, the government decided to place them under state control, confiding their management to the body that administered the state’s agricultural land, the Office des Terres Domaniales (OTD), which thereby became Tunisia’s biggest agricultural landowner. Bolstering this strategy was the collectivisation policy of the 1960s, which aimed to reorganise agricultural land and create state ‘socialist’ cooperatives.
Yet the real argument against the redistribution of the nationalised lands lay elsewhere: small peasant farmers were judged too ignorant and archaic, too lacking in the necessary financial and technical means, to develop a modern intensive agricultural sector – a stigmatisation that still recurs today whenever discussion returns to this subject and/or to questions of agricultural models and political choices related to farming and food.
Over the following decades, the heirs made some efforts to reclaim these lands, but it was not until early 2011 that the first organised occupations of OTD lands were launched by local populations describing themselves as the legitimate successors. Among them was Jemna’s local population, who occupied the former De Rolley plantation, claiming rights of property and of exploitation. The authorities demanded an end to the occupation, and the resulting impasse lasted for several years. The government argued that the occupation was illegal, while the occupiers countered that they held a legitimate right to resources and especially to community assets, including the indivisible and inalienable commons.
After a long period of tension a compromise was reached. By mutual agreement, the state ceded full management of the palm plantation to the local population while retaining ownership of the land. Might the latter have believed this negotiated settlement to be the only viable compromise?
Underlying the government position was the fear that any solution implying the grant of freehold to the legitimate heirs might create a legal precedent and set an example that would unleash a torrent of other land claims, all drawing on the same colonial and post-colonial past. But the occupation alone had set that example already, inciting other local populations to reclaim – with some attempts at occupation – the lands snatched from their grandparents during colonisation. Furthermore, I would argue that the Jemna case also served to fuel claims of a legitimate right to other local ‘natural’ resources such as water, minerals (for example, phosphates) and oil that mobilised populations in the Tatouine region.
El Kamour: the ‘will of the people’
Resistance entered another phase, not without success, at El Kamour – a locality situated in the barren steppes of south-eastern Tunisia, south of the town of Tatouine, on the tarmac road leading to the oil-fields in the extreme south of the country. The ‘dispossession pipeline’ carrying crude oil to the port of Skhira, 50 kilometres north of Gabes, runs through here, and this geographical position close to the pipeline is the immediate reason for El Kamour’s sudden appearance on political maps of Tunisia, as well as in the media.
Behind El Kamour, however, lies the governorate and town of Tataouine (Tataouine is the capital of the governorate of the same name), with over 180,000 inhabitants. Arid and barren, this region contains most of Tunisia’s oil reserves, producing 40 per cent of its petrol and 20 per cent of its gas. Yet Tataouine also records some of the nation’s highest levels of poverty: in 2017, for example, 28.7 per cent of its active population were unemployed (compared with a national average of 15.3 per cent), while for graduates the rate rose as high as 58 per cent.
Events in El-Kamour, 2017-2020: a brief chronology
The El Kamour movement began on 25 March 2017, with protests in various localities in the governorate, all converging on the town centre of Tataouine. The protesters were demanding a share of local resources, particularly oil, as well as greater employment opportunities and infrastructure development. Met by silence from the government, on 23 April they organised a sit-in at El Kamour. Tensions mounted on both sides, and an escalation became inevitable after the prime minister visited Tataouine and met the protesters. His plans to calm the situation with a few token promises came to naught and the discussions ended in deadlock. On 20 May the pumping station was occupied for two days before being cleared by the army, and tensions remained high.
Eventually, on 16 June 2017, an agreement was signed with the government through the mediation of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), which acted to guarantee its implementation. The terms of the agreement promised the creation of 3,000 new jobs in the environmental sector by 2019, and 1,500 jobs in the oil industry by the end of 2017. A budget of 80 million dinars was also earmarked for regional development. But, to the frustration of the local population, the agreement was never implemented. The government simply bided its time, gambling that the militants would tire and the movement run out of steam.
‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere.
On 20 May 2020, however, the El Kamour activists resumed their protests and sit-ins in several places, piling on the pressure and blockading several routes to bar them to oil-industry vehicles. On 3 July they organised a new general strike throughout the public services and the oilfields, and on 16 July they closed the pumping station, blocking the pipelines carrying petroleum products north. But the El Kamour militants had to wait until 7 November 2020 before they could reach an agreement with the government’s representatives, in return for which petrol producers and other oil-sector enterprises were to resume operations immediately.
Signed by the head of government on 8 November 2020, the agreement contains a number of key points, including several that had previously featured in the 2017 accord but had not been implemented. These included, dedicated 80-million-dinar development and investment fund for the governorate of Tataouine; credit finance for 1,000 projects before the end of 2020; 215 jobs created in the oil industry in 2020, plus a further 70 in 2021; 2.6 million dinars for local municipalities and 1.2 million dinars for the Union Sportive de Tataouine.
The big social movements discussed above all have several points in common. Firstly, they are very largely located in southern, central, western and north-western Tunisia, the same marginalised and impoverished regions that between 17 December 2010 and early January 2011 saw huge protests in support of Bouazizi and against current social and economic policies. Secondly, while differing in detail, the principal demands of these movements all relate essentially to the right to resources, services and a decent income. None, or virtually none, are linked to ‘political’ demands (political rights, individual freedom). Thirdly, in their choice of language, and of several ‘spectacular’ actions, these social movements display a radicalism that marks a clear break with the political games played in and around the centres of power. Finally, almost all these movements are denounced and accused of regionalism and tribalism, sometimes even of separatism and treachery. Protesters are suspected of being manipulated, of being puppets in the hands of a political party or foreign power.
Yet these movements have enjoyed some, albeit relative, success – a success impossible without the class solidarity shown in the three examples discussed above, and the ties of domination and dependency that for decades have characterised the relationship between Tunisia’s centre of power (the east coast) and its deprived and impoverished periphery. Finay, these same examples, and other more recent cases, demonstrate that the ‘revolutionary’ processes launched in early 2008 are still active in Tunisia and will probably remain so for many years to come.
This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal
We Need New Names
Africans are saddled with the burdens of colonial structures that the post-colonial elites simply refuse to supplant. If language is a unifier of cultural, economic and social values, then we must decolonise our languages and dismantle colonial borders based on imagined ethnicities.
In late 2019, the Luanda Boda Boda Riders’ Association purchased a bus for public service. The association is located along the Maseno-Luanda border and its membership is largely drawn from the Luanda and Maseno catchment area.
The name of the association has a lot to do with the state of our union as a country or even as a region. It is a microcosm of ethno-nationalist tensions existing in Kenya and many other regions of Africa, and the changing times that bring new and multiple ways to negotiate these invented differences. The boda boda association is a chance to look at how we negotiate citizenship daily, and how we can overcome some essentialist ideals that are so deeply entrenched in eastern Africa.
The boda boda association draws membership from Luanda and Maseno, two small towns that are barely three kilometers apart. Maseno was established as a mission town and gets its name from oseno, which is a Luo word for the indigenous tree that used to be dominant in the area before ecological colonialism. The Kinyore (the Luhya sub-group inhabiting the Maseno and Luanda corridor) calls the same tree luseno. Oseno has since been colonised by the blue gum commonly called bao, which is indigenous to Australia. Young people would be at pains to identify oseno in Maseno today. Shortly before colonialism, Luanda had been established by a Luo chief from Gem Yala. Currently Luanda is dominantly a Luhya town, and it is located in Vihiga County. I have grown to like the sound of Maseno. For me, the word conjures pleasant images of green hilly spaces.
Kenya, like the majority of other African countries, has never been a nation-state. Kenya’s territorial boundary, as we now recognise it on maps, was drawn exactly a hundred years ago, in 1920. It is a border that split, for example, the Luos into three different countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania). As part of these colonial processes, the Somali people were also split into three countries, with a section of them occupying Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and Somaliland. It is instructive to recall that coastal East Africa presented similar challenges. The current Zanzibari semi-autonomy in Tanzania and the conspicuous Pwani Si Kenya slogan are witness to the inherent pressures in the formation of nation-states in this part of the world. The boda boda riders in Maseno-Luanda zone show us only too well how we have an incomplete sense of ourselves and our politics when we are inclined to always think and conceive of ourselves and our communities as complete.
In 1929, the colonial administrator, Charles W. Hobley, said, “The Kikuyu and its blood relations on the slopes of Mount Kenya are, next to the Kavirondo, the most numerous native society in Kenya colony. They have no internal homogeneity, so were brought under control section by section.”
Therefore, the Kikuyu as we popularly know them today, are a creation of the colonial empire and each section was amalgamated onto another until they were made to imagine themselves as one whole part. This imagination has seeped into the dominant Kikuyu popular imagination, yet tensions still exist on who should claim the authentic Kikuyu title and name. A popular myth names Murang’a as the place where Mumbi first set foot, and thus the Kiambu Kikuyu are actually considered proper Kikuyu as opposed to the Murang’a Kikuyu who have interacted with the Embu and Meru communities. It is weird how we still stick to these categories as authentic, without the slightest examination of the histories and names behind them.
Electoral voting patterns and the legendary Kiambu-Muranga division still remind the Kikuyu of their incompleteness as a nation. This also applies to what we have think of as the Luos, the Luhyas, etc. The “tribes” (I will use the terms community or nations) as we see them today were invented in the colonial era. The introduction of a centralised and domineering government was a creation of the British empire. It was created along the Westphalian Christian state system to enhance resource extraction and organise labour along pliant and easily micromanage-able paradigms in Kenya.
Before colonialism, local communities had several centres of power, not necessarily along political lines, but sometimes along religious leaders and familial loyalties. This is still evident in the way religion plays a major role in our conception of ourselves and their celebrity status in national governance dialogues. As an illustration, Mgahanya, the rainmaker of the Banyore community in colonial Kenya, drew his power not from politics but from his hereditary technology of controlling rains. Indeed, Mgahanya’s power would be sought by the Luo neighbours as well whenever the need arose to have a rainmaker present. For his prowess and popularity, Hobley gave Mgahanya the title of a principal chief, thereby instilling new ways of looking at a rainmaker, not as a helper in the society but as someone who had the power to lord and rule over his relatives, friends and foes with an iron fist. Mgahanya’s rainmaking power was finally, and dramatically, curtailed by Hobley himself. In divesting Mgahanya of his political power gained through rainmaking, Hobley instituted new ways of gaining power in the society. Power would never be the same again in eastern Africa.
Evidently, government in pre-imperial Kenya was largely by consensus. But this was not always the case. The Mazrui family’s control of the slave trade in Mombasa reminds us that consensus was not always the default governance case in colonial and pre-colonial Kenya and that power was not always benign. In other words, the long history of governance in Kenya has experienced ruptures and transformations. Perhaps this history, culture and knowledge of power might be useful when we finally decide to finally form a government that is focused on ourselves. This would be a better alternative to the exhausting gerrymandering the political elites in Kenya frequent.
Moreover, Hobley, in Kenya: From a Chartered Company to a Crown Colony, further notes that he played an important part in reviving the importance of the Kiama among the Kikuyu, but of course to enhance colonial government. The idea of a Kikuyu elders was revitalised and invented as an essentialised entity by the colonial government. While reconstituting the tribe for the colonial agenda, Hobley instructed the heads of the Kiama (for whom he invented the title “chiefs”) to be detached from their compatriots in order to give proper judgments. In one instruction, the Kiama authority was not only centralised but also given sweeping powers and stripped of communal ethos and emotions. The colonial reconstruction of African societies was an unmitigated cultural disaster whose legacies we still contend with in present-day Kenya, such as the nationalist insinuations in differentiating Luos from the Banyore people in the Maseno-Luanda corridor.
From Hobley’s new ways of creating and accumulation of power, political leaders in Kenya have since stuck to the idea of leadership as a manifestation of paramount chiefs. The impersonal detachment and the attempts by public officials to centralise power can also be seen in how Kenyan doctors perceive their patients, how head teachers treat poor parents, how immigration and customs officials mistreat Kenyans in their own country, how bus conductors mishandle passengers, and how factories pollute Lake Victoria and its environs with impunity. The colonial system is replicated in every public sphere. Scarcely does one transcend this system.
The Westphalian state
After the end of colonialism, we did not take stock of our various systems of power and ways of naming in the community. Rather, we adopted and imported the Westphalian state model that was used to institute various hegemons, with each community waiting for a turn to lord over other communities. The communities that have been at the helm have ensured that the patronage system instituted by Carey Francis, Charles Hobley, and Lord Delamere, among others, has been perfected for a post-independence Kenya. Community nationalism as a basis for mobilising power is a narrative that has been employed in Kenya. This happened right from the first Kenyan president to the present president, since they could not pursue an alternative Africanist ideology with which to administer the country. They failed to either take notes from or apply the history of the country as far as governance was exercised. They lost a grand chance to decolonise governance and bring back the government to “we the people” of Kenya. And now Luanda boda boda riders have shown us how one can undermine such dominant narratives.
To appreciate this, one needs to understand that Maseno-Luanda is divided along “Luo” and “Luhya” communities. During each election period, this division is amplified by politicians. They incite tribal animosity among people who ordinarily intermarry, language differences notwithstanding. Indeed, the dhoLuo language has evolved to use Semeji or Omejo in reference to Luhya in-laws. That is how frequent intermarriage occurs here and how transcultural conversations have been conducted here despite the politicians and Kenyan comedians who frequently prop up negative ethnicity in their speeches and performances, respectively.
Maseno was the place the Church Mission Society (CMS) missionaries established the first Anglican church in western Kenya, circa 1906. The two communities grew around this church. Along with the growth of the church, the established ethnic differences also grew. Thus, Maseno Mixed Primary School would later be created, not as a mixed school for boys and girls, but as a mixed school for Luos and Luhyas! The idea of “mixed” in this case was founded on ways of negotiating cultural differences and not to denote gender.
For a while, in its long history, this primary school had its own Luhya and Luo staff coming to teach at different times of the day. Independence-era Kenya would see the split of this Maseno Anglican church into North and South. Maseno South diocese became the Luo church while Maseno North diocese became the Luhya church. The growth of Maseno as a mission town was doomed due to its cultural topography. The Maseno South diocese relocated its headquarters deep in Luo land, to Kisumu. Maseno North pushed its diocese deep in Luhya land to Kakamega. In other words, a single Christian religion could not keep its adherents from the two cultures together. This was the design of the colonial government. Each community would be coalesced together within itself, especially as a way of breaking down each community’s governance structures. But inter-community solidarity would be robustly discouraged. Mgahanya would eventually be appointed a principal chief within the Banyore community, after all his power was no longer needed among the neighbouring Luo, for Hobley had effectively taken charge of administering the Luo nation.
The independence-era Kenyan state also drew a border between the two communities, locating Maseno in Luo Nyanza and Luanda in Western Province. This imagined boundary was based on the colonial separation of the Luo from the Luhya. What if the boundary was to be re-drawn along matters that boda boda operators find useful, such as geographical features, and not along ethnic territories? For boda boda operators, features such as hills, muddy terrains, valleys and flat lands denote how much fuel a motorbike consumes.
We need new solidarities
Can we have associations not based on the colonial structures, like this boda boda group does? Africans are saddled with the burdens of colonial structures that the post-colonial elites simply refuse to supplant. Post-independence Kenya has cost lives, in the name of the community. The Kenyatta presidency quickly consolidated ethnic capital to misrule the state. Ethnic patronage quickly grew deep roots and it has irretrievably thrived, until now. Nearly all the chiefs under Moi rule were imperial personalities in their own right and might, just like they were in colonial Kenya.
We need new solidarities like the Luanda Boda Boda Association, but devoid of unchecked rugged capitalist ambitions. Kenya’s model of its solidarity is based on capital accumulation. In the fullness of its agenda, organisations founded on purely commercial interests morph into monopolies and create the same trap that the founders initially ran away from: poverty, disempowerment and powerlessness for others. The Luanda Boda Boda Association might not be cognisant of the fact that the public transport business is usually the function of an operational government. Even if they are, they have chosen to ignore that, under the illusion that they are working hard and sustaining themselves. The self-employment agenda of this association rips apart ethnic loyalties because it co-opts Luo and Luhya communities.
I am not into economics, here, I am on the use and ab-use of names – how innocent names like Luanda Boda Boda Association circumvent a nationalist current. The afterlives of this name embrace the inclusion of other communities not associated with the cultural geography of the Maseno-Luanda route. The association teaches us how to bring back two communities that have been divided by colonial and post-colonial Kenyan rulers. Resiliently, the people still head back to certain elements of solidarity that existed way before the arrival of Hobley and his imperial British associates.
At the same time, we might have to remember that Luanda was founded by a Luo chief, as we are reminded by Bethwel Ogot who convincingly presents this event in his autobiography My Footprints in the Sands of Time. Contrary to its founding, Luanda is currently located in a Luhya-administered ethnopolis. The street-level motorcycle association undermines the political narrative in the control of Maseno-Luanda borderlands. The politics of Maseno-Luanda is pegged on community divisions. These boda boda motorcyclists, however, teach us lessons on cosmopolitanisms.
It is also instructive to recall that the Maseno-Luanda topic is a divisive factor and always comes up during election periods. However, the boda boda riders frequently move in and out of Luo and Luhya “tribal” zones conveniently and daily, with or without electoral cycles. If only the road network could catch up with the socialised motorcycle networks! These riders transcend the names and political divisions that were issued by the colonialists and their successors in post-colonial Kenya.
Boda boda riders transport passengers with little reference to ethnic origins. They move within and around the Luo and Banyore nations. Indeed, the motorbikes work across the tribal difference in a way that seems to shorten the already -narrow cultural distance between the two communities. In the process, they circulate cultural contacts between the two, and defy the political elite who thrive on the divisions. And now their bus will move passengers beyond Luo and Luhya nations. Linguists will observe the historical and structural complexities that separate Luloogoli, Libukusu and Kinyore from the Luo language, the obvious one being that dhoLuo is a Nilotic language and the other dialects belong to the Bantu language family.
The thing with language is that one owns the power to name things, to make a world with yourself at the center, to rewrite (hi)stories of far-flung peripheries. Take the ethnonym Luhya, as an example. Before this coinage, the Luhya were part of the Kavirondo people. The Kavirondo was initially the Eastern Province of Uganda before it was switched to Kisumu Province of the East Africa Protectorate, and finally moved to western Kenya. The umbrella term Kavirondo included both Nilotes and Bantus around Lake Victoria, all the way to Mumias and Mount Elgon. The freedom of colonialists’ naming of African communities was an enaction of the powerlessness of these communities vis-à-vis the colonial imagination and grammar. Within the Luhya nation there are a total of about 17 linguistic groups. The term Luhya is an artificially constructed ethnolinguistic reference to many closely related (some of which are not mutually intelligible) Bantu-speaking peoples. They include the Bukusu, Tachoni, Wanga, Marama, Tsotso, Tiriki, Nyala, Kabras, Hayo, Marachi, Holo, Maragoli, Idakho, Isukha, Kisa, Nyore, and Samia in Western Kenya. Their cultural divergences are many and multilayered, with the Tachoni tracing their ancestry to the Nilotic group of Nandi in the around the 14th century.
To fit yourself in a name that classified and considered you part of exotica needs careful self-extraction out of such languages. This need is even more immediate when one remembers how this classification was done without the agency and input of the local people and their collective consciousness and knowledge systems. Thus, the iLoikop people are made into Maasai, the iSampuru became Samburu. The various communities known as Nandi, Kipsikis, Pokoot, and Tugen are collapsed into an easily classifiable and ruled “tribe” called Kalenjin. This is in spite of the cultural and linguistic differences between them. In these cultural acrobatic movements mediated by colonialist linguistics, Kakamega (spelled as Kakumega in colonial orthography) was not the name of a town but an ethnonym in reference to the Idakho and Isukha communities.
If language is a unifier of cultural, economic and social values, then we need a new generation of names. We need Names 2.0. These names could consider political and cultural differences and histories. We need a new name for a governance that will neither be called kleptocratic nor a kakistocracy. We need new names for Luos, who pride themselves in Nyikwa Ramogi (based on a point of origin, not a colonial classification). Don’t we need a new name for the daughters and sons of Mumbi? We need new names that denote plurality, but account for differentiated identities, like the Mijikenda. (My translation of “Mijikenda” would not be a tribe but “nine homes”.) We need decolonised names in order to open or transcend some of the worlds which were closed by colonial naming processes.
Renaming ourselves might not be an easy way to redesign our nominal worlds, which were forced into cruel unions in Berlin in December 1884. It might even prove to be a messy but it is still a necessary activity. We need to open these worlds that were closed by colonial naming processes, like the Luanda Boda Boda Association has done. Every time we use these new colonial names, we acknowledge the problematic grammar that inherently operates within them. We also reiterate that the names did not aim to usefully matter to Africans. We repeat the insufficiency of English to capture the nuances that exist in our cultural worldviews and political lives.
I must reiterate here that these names were not arbitrarily drawn; they were created to enhance control. Perhaps post-colonial eastern Africa should ask what control mechanism the various ethno-nationalities initiate. For example, the Luhya group is one of the reminders that ethno-nationalism is an invention that is a mirage. It was created for divide et imperium purposes. As Bethwel Ogot reminds us, there was no Luhya empire prior to colonialism. Yet the colonial history implies the presence of a Luhya empire. The Nabongo Mumia was no threat to the neighbouring Kager clan. However, as a paramount chief, Nabongo Mumia, was a creation of the British to pacify western Kenya, especially to control the northeastern Kager clan of the so-called Luos.
We need new names, donge?
Fifty Years Later, The Caged Bird Still Sings
The ultimate point of westernising our curriculum was not for us to forget our cultures. It was for power to keep exploiting us by killing our ability to imagine a different reality.
A few years ago, I attended a public lecture by Micere Mugo at the University of Nairobi. The event was electrifying, and three memories have stayed with me.
First was to hear Prof. Mugo’s journey as an African woman in an anti-African world. Recounting her journey was not a story about herself, but a story about all of us. From the toxic space that was (and still is) Kenya, to Zimbabwe where she initially landed, and finally the United States, Prof Mugo was profoundly African and connected with brothers and sisters wherever she landed. She would later speak at a lecture at Riara University words which I tweeted and which may therefore not be verbatim: “If you have chosen the path of struggle, you must have the courage to build a new home wherever your path leads. Don’t romanticise home; you must have the courage to make new homes and new roots.”
The second memory was a brilliant orature-performance by Mshai Mwangola in her introduction of Micere Mugo. The performance included the rehashing of a heated conversation on African studies that had been launched in 1995 by Phillip Curtin, the eminent African history scholar in the United States. Curtin expressed concern that African history scholarship was being reduced to a “ghetto” because American universities were reserving African history positions for African faculty rather than considering competence. Prof. Mugo’s response then was captivating, and Mshai’s performance seared it in my memory so deeply that a few years later, I was inspired by Prof Mugo’s courage to take a similar stand.
The third memory was a sadder one. In the afterglow of electrifying performances by scholars and students, a University of Nairobi student asked Prof. Mugo during the question and answer session: “How can you help us the youth [it’s always “the youth”] get the opportunities you got?”
Clearly, the student didn’t hear Prof. Mugo recount being arrested, fleeing the country with two young daughters and having her Kenyan citizenship nullified. In an act of amazing mental acrobatics, the student’s mind cut out Prof. Mugo’s journey and fixated the whole time on the optics. All that the student saw was an elder (that’s what the term “youth” is for — to disconnect young people from the stories of their elders) who was based in the US (where we all aspire to go) and who was now launching a book. Kenyan youth need to be successful like that (never mind the tears) and this student wanted to know, not how to do what Prof. Mugo had done, but how Prof. Mugo could help her achieve the same feat of working in the US and standing at a podium in Kenya.
That disconnect, between the stories of the elders and the fixation of the youth with optics, is something with which we teachers of literature constantly struggle. Students these days are spectacularly unable to enjoy stories and to explore their imagination. The school system teaches children to turn off their hearts and minds when they listen to stories. Kenyans have told me on social media that when they encountered our folk tales in class, the primary thing they were asked was to identify “the moral of the story”.
My own difficult experience teaching literature bears this out. Students’ response to every African story is that “the white man stole our culture, we are ashamed of our identity and need to return to our cultures”. But even as they limit colonialism to an exclusively cultural enterprise, they are not able to connect with stories of the past to which they say we should return to.
For instance, when I teach one of my favorite Kenyan plays, Omtatah’s rendition of the Luo legend Lwanda Magere, the students cannot see a story from the past. They see politics, not humanity or esthetics. Some see the story as ethnic and exclusively Luo, so they cannot discuss the legend as an artistic and human expression. Other students who’ve heard something about feminism say that the legend demonstrates how African women are relegated to the role of “housewives”. Who can blame the students for thinking that way when the theater performance Brazen missed the tragic aspect of the legend and sensualised the Lang’o princess? Another student said that Lwanda Magere was an ogre and read the story as a motivational speech with teachings which “help one to live to its optimal success”.
And just before Kenyan adults distance themselves from these responses and blame the 8.4.4 system, they need to see that the youth are just responding with the language we have taught them. Remember the excitement about the movie Black Panther which electrified the world? For Kenyans, the primary concern was the authenticity of the accents and the depiction of Africa. Some went so far as to say – no chills – that they are glad not to have the same identity crises as African Americans. At least we Kenyans know who we are, they said, something that I highly doubt when I look at how profoundly Eurocentric the Kenyan government is.
Educated Kenyans are spectacularly unable to suspend reality and enjoy a story for what it is, because esthetics and imagination have been alienated from the arts in Kenya. Even our drama festivals are about competition and “talent”, not a celebration of the richness of our cultures. These days, the festival even requires plays to be written to the chosen political theme of the year, and now students are not writing plays because the schools are hiring professional playwrights to improve the schools’ chances of winning.
But that is not as annoying as the clichéd lament about talent that is repeated in almost every sphere of Kenyan life. The lament goes something like this: “Our drama festivals show how much talent we have, but that talent goes to waste because nobody gives the youth the chance to use it”. I detest that line because what Kenyans call “talent” is a concept which refuses to see the arts as work, skill and knowledge, and instead seeks comfort in the quasi-Senghorian idea of arts being in our DNA as Africans because our skin is black. The concept of “talent” demeans African work, knowledge and skill, and demeans Africans as thinking beings. But as the public narrative goes, knowledge in Kenya is “useless theory”. We Kenyans don’t waste time on thinking, imagining and creating; we benchmark solutions which work.
In any case, talent is not wasted after school. What happens is that Kenyan artists who outgrow the narrow drama festival box will meet another headmaster called Ezekiel Mutua who will crush their work in the name of morality, and he will get support from a significant proportion of the Kenyan church. Ironically, Mutua will praise drama festivals as producing people who “make money and find a life”, establish industries comparable to manufacturing, and promote the programmes of government ministries. In other words, humanity is not at the heart of the arts.
And that logic seeps into the universities and education policy. It is now a Kenyan truism that arts education is a waste of the country’s resources and that arts programmes should be shut down. And the impact of this onslaught may not be immediately visible to people in public universities, because it is reserved for private universities where the arts are largely absent.
A more insidious development is being ushered in by private universities, which the current the Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha said he is committed to supporting. Universities increasingly train students in the applied arts without training them in the arts. So universities train economists or peace and conflict experts with no knowledge of history, sociology or anthropology. They train journalists who are not skilled writers, and flood the arts spaces with public relations graduates. They have film students who confidently discuss film festivals, camera angles and lenses but cannot say much about the stories which the films tell. They train graphic artists who never paint or sculpt. A few years back, celebrated writer Yvonne Owuor wondered at this absurdity: “I hear that high schools are sending students to university engineering, design and architecture faculties, who cannot draw, who cannot even describe a painting. How? Really, how? Is it ignorance or is there a secret plan to bankrupt the Kenyan imagination?”
The problem is not so much that we have no students in arts programmes, but that we are producing a generation of graduates with no esthetic or emotional sensibilities, and as Owuor says, with no imagination. We have left these areas to be weaponised by corporations and the imperialist state. So Cambridge Analytica was able to have a field day in Kenya during the 2017 elections by manipulating our emotions, and now Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe is taking us through the pandemic with imperial orders about how we must express our grief for Dr Stephen Mogusu’s death. When the state has the gall to tell us how to mourn the victims of its own corruption, there’s a problem.
In the political arena, politicians sponsor music for campaigns and for turning ethnic groups against each other. Performances of traditional arts are most celebrated at political rallies or at contrived “elders’ councils” which anoint politicians for office. Oaths, spears and arrows are at their most useful not for teaching our children the history of African military warfare, but for gerrymandering, the American term for what we in Kenya call “election violence”, a tool for fixing election results. Wazungu are pleased when we’re fighting over ballots with oaths and spears, because it shows they still have something to teach us savages about liberal democracy. And now the BBI proposes to further control not just the arts, but also memory, by writing an “official history of Kenya” dating 1000 years, appointing an Official Historian and putting the National Archives under the Office of the President.
When the arts are not suffering from government suffocation, they are being corporatised. Safaricom, the country’s largest corporate, was the sponsor of its own arts forums while Kwani? and Story Moja festivals limped and eventually fell silent.
In the end, the only space left for the arts to publicly thrive uninhibited is the university. But as the Department of Literature’s installment of the University of Nairobi’s 50th anniversary celebration shows, even that is fraught with the same contradictions.
After the official welcome remarks from the Head of Department and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Prof. Indangasi conducted a reprise of his questioning the hallowed status of Ngugi wa Thiong’o in African literature. Indangasi had most recently done this with an analysis of the Spanish separatist politics underlying the award of the Catalonia International Literary Prize, which Ngugi accepted with a speech in Kikuyu. During this commemoration, Prof. Indangasi presented archival records to cast doubts on Ngugi’s claims to credit for renaming the Department of English to the Department of Literature. The argument he has always made is that Kenyan literary studies have shut off the universal, denied students the pleasure of studying non-African literature and have put political ideology above academic pursuits. The iconic status of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, he suggests, remains an obstacle to addressing these issues.
Prof Indangasi’s presentation was followed by more mellowed considerations of Ngugi’s legacy from Prof. Evan Mwangi, who is based at Northwestern University in the US. Prof. Mwangi acknowledged the blind spots of Ngugi’s work, but ended with a call to envision literary studies within the inclusivity politics of the American academy, where expansion of literary studies is measured by how many more identity groups are included.
Prof. Peter Amuka followed with a historical contextualisation of the targets of Prof. Indangasi’s criticism, especially Owuor Anyumba and Ngugi. He credited these two men for Africanising the curriculum by breaking the disciplinary boundary limits beyond the snobbish classics and encouraging the study of the literature of the people. An interesting but troubling anecdote he gave was of being a student in the US in the 70s, and being told by an American political science professor that the Literature department of the University of Nairobi had now been “tamed” and relieved of its firebrands.
As is expected of we women academics who do not separate our biographies from academic and national discussions, the women speakers reflected on their personal journeys as threads of national and academic histories. Prof. Wangui wa Goro spoke of how her growth as a translator of literature intersected with the department’s scholars and literary activities. Prof. Ciarunji Chesaina began her presentation with a song for Micere Mugo, in the spirit of Prof. Mugo’s poetry, to pay homage to Prof. Mugo for her legacy in the study of oral literature.
Before Micere Mugo gave her keynote speech, Kithaka wa Mberia went through the contributions of self-publishing to the Kenyan literary space.
Micere Mugo’s celebration of the department, in her classic and moving orature style, gave the audience the backdrop of what her generation was confronting in the 1960s and 1970s. The education system was still controlled by British civil servants even after independence, and the urgency was to Africanise the system. Micere Mugo was the first African chief examiner for ‘A’ level literature and was part of the team that pushed for an African literature curriculum in schools. In her day, she said, it was a compliment to be told that one behaved like a mzungu or looked like a mzungu. She also called for affirming the integrity of African knowledge and African systems of knowing.
What is the link between the reflections of our elders and the current situation facing the arts that I have described?
Initially, I felt that there was no link and that these elders were stuck in the past. But upon further reflection, I remembered that one of the lessons I have learned from oral literature is that there is value in the elders repeating the past over and over again, because each time, new lessons are learned.
That is when I saw what my discomfort was about. It was about the failure of our generation of scholars to take the baton from the elders and continue the race. Because various political and historical events which some of us are still trying to understand, our generation is stuck in the battles between the so-called “universal” scholarship and academic culture on one hand, and Africanising the curriculum on the other. The political class reduced the Africanisation of the curriculum o a spectacle, and then used that spectacle to crush our children’s imagination.
In fact, when you think of it, the side that is hostile to what Prof. Indangasi calls “literary activism” is the side that dominates arts and education. He may be a lone voice on this position within the Literature Department, but that “universal” view has now colonised Kenya’s education system. Only a few years ago, I was the sole African on a panel with a “global” face, in my own country, fighting like Micere Mugo for Kenyan scholarship to be part of the post-graduate curriculum. In addition, Prof. Indangasi’s lament that Owuor Anyumba and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are not academically qualified is now the rungu with which the Commission of University Education beats us through demands that all university educators must have PhDs. In the area of music, for example, the Commission alienates Kenyan musicians who are more skilled in the craft than many music academics. Several times, I’ve personally raised this question with CUE officials and have received no answer: where are we going to find a seasoned performer of the nyatiti, for example, with a PhD? Our fixation on papers denies students the opportunity to learn from Kenya’s rich cultural heritage.
This is what our generation has not told our elders like Micere Mugo: the colonialist is still in our education system. These days, the colonialist is not a British civil servant sitting in Jogoo house. Rather, it is a British nursery school teacher working at the British Council and sponsoring the return of the ‘A’ level system, otherwise dubbed as CBC. PR has given colonialism a new vocabulary to re-assert its power over our education system. Colonialism now calls itself “quality” and “benchmarking” as it asserts the policies of corporations and Western governments in our education system.
The elders Africanised education, but my generation did not take over that struggle and Africanise power. When the colonial logic of power remained intact, it was only a matter of time before power appropriated the tools of Africanisation to perpetuate itself. Thus, when Binyavanga was starting Kwani?, it is us academics who called the artists “literary gangsters”. We even turned African culture into a tool of condemnation by saying that those artists were not tied to their cultural roots. As writers struggled to find publishers, we berated them for the quality of their publications. Now politicians have solidly captured African culture and made it synonymous with enmity, tribal hatred and sexism.
And after the Africanisation of the ‘A’ Level curriculum, we have since discovered a truth which was smothered by the brutality of Moi: the ‘A’ level system was designed to exclude and limit the number of Africans attending university. Moreover, that exclusion disproportionately affected people from communities outside Central Province and Nyanza. But that exclusion has now returned with CBC which has increased the number of examination hoops which students have to go through (but which have been baptised “assessments“), and has restored the number of years in high school to six.
What my generation did not see is that capital capitulated to Africanisation and gave us the logic of inclusivity – which Prof. Mwangi called for more of – and which, in the American academy, goes under the banner of postcolonial theory. In this logic, culture is reified to the exclusion of everything else, especially material conditions.
A few years ago, I witnessed an expression of this dynamic at the Samosa Festival conference held at the University of Nairobi. Some presenters said that the Mau Mau took up arms to fight for the right to practice their culture. It appeared that for them, the fight was not about land or against oppression. At the conference, we who said that not everything is about ethnicity, were derided as entitled Kenyans who had never been outside Nairobi, yet the point of the festival was to discuss the alienation of people like Asians, Nubians, Somalis, the Shona and the Makonde, from Kenyan citizenship.
Which brings me back to the dilemmas of younger Kenyans and how our generation is mis-teaching them. Coloniality of power has now clothed itself in “African identity” to entrench itself in the education system, so that students who interact with African arts are spectacularly unable to imagine or to connect with humanity, and instead parrot whatever government or NGO slogan comes to their mind. Moreover, the media has occupied the space that should be occupied by culture, performance and academic research, so that, as Mwenda Kithinji recently said, the junk which the media consistently feeds us has made us academics impotent in flagging the return of racist policies to our education system.
And that was the ultimate point of westernising our curriculum in the first place. It was not for us to forget our cultures, as my students innocently but mistakenly repeat. It was for power to keep exploiting us by killing our ability to imagine a different reality.
And that discussion is happening not within the academy, but outside it. Most of the Kenyans addressing these issues are not allowed to teach in Kenyan universities. To adapt Mordecai Ogada’s observation, the people who sing the songs which Micere Mugo sang are still being exiled from the education system and from spaces where the songs can be heard by the next generation.
But the songs are still being sung. We have not been tamed by neoliberal regulations about qualifications and morality. We have not been tamed by what Ogada called an internal brain drain, where our skills and ideas are wasted on dead bureaucracy. We are still singing those songs. We are singing them outside the academy in online spaces and through self-publishing. Our young people are singing them as they battle with the hammer of censorship and the snobbery of the academy. To adopt the words of Maya Angelou, and of Paul Lawrence Dunbar before her, we may be caged by neoliberalism, deadened minds and soulless people. But the caged bird sings, not because it has a solution, but because it always has a song.
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