The Embassy bombing of August 1998 and the twinned attack on a Kikambala tourist hotel and Israeli charter flight in 2002 led to the designation of the coast of East Africa as a primary theatre in the war on terror. Lamu featured prominently in the events that followed the emergence of homegrown terrorists. The new state of affairs was as unexpected as it was counterintuitive. For those who know the archipelago and its people, a remote and peaceful society like Lamu became associated with radical Islam defies the imagination. How this came about is a long story.
Religion and revivalism in the Lamu Archipelago
For people living in a place like Lamu scanning the horizon becomes a habit. For over two millennia, the triangular sails that with clockwork regularity appear in the distance near the end of the kaskasi winds brought new influences and exotic visitors who settled and became part of the Swahili coast’s hybrid mélange. Swahili language and culture evolved out of the long-term dynamic of cosmopolitan interaction interrupted by the occasional system-modifying disruption.
Islam, a source of stability that provided the template for the numerically small Swahili communities dealing with the vagaries of the outside world, took centuries to take root and flourish. During the eighth century C.E., political conflicts associated with the Sunni-Shia schism propelled small groups of Muslim refugees to the coast of east Africa. Islam spread slowly during the following millennium, integrating along the way influences from the hinterland like the kuzungusha ng’ombe and sorio purification rituals that the scholar Gunther Schlee identifies as originating with the proto-Rendille/Somali cultural complex.
The integration of such local practices congruent with Biblical and Quranic traditions apparently synched with the Swahili coast’s legacy of orthodox Islamic scholarship. According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.
Pate went into decline after an internal war of succession broke out following the death of Fumo Omari, Pate’s Sultan in 1807. The long poem Al Inkishafi, the most powerful exemplar of classical Swahili poetry, contrasts images of the once powerful Sultanate’s former opulence with Pate’s ruinous state several decades later to illustrate the transient nature of the material world.
According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.
The nineteenth century was a period of political turbulence across the Muslim world that prompted a rethink of Islam in Cairo, Istanbul, Mecca, and other centres of Islamic scholarship. Developments opened the door for the pan-Islamic political ideologies of religious rationalists. Reformers like Mohammed Abdul and Jamal Din Al Afghani advocated for Islamic education based on open inquiry and the search for knowledge over slavish commitment to medieval interpretations of Islam. In other areas, where Sufi traditions of experienced based religious knowledge were strong, reform focused on the personal internalization of Islamic values. One scholar writing about the Hadhramaut, a strong source of Islamic influence on the coast of East Africa, described the focus of religious renewal as “a shift from doctrine to praxis – i.e. as an attempt to bring to others the ‘tools’ for proper, good life, for ‘inner’ ability to separate right from wrong.”
The Ba’Alawiyya is Sufi tariqa established by descendants of the Prophet over a thousand years ago in the Hadhramaut. It became known later for championing the expansion of religious education while retaining its emphasis on Sharifite lineage. The Hadhrami diaspora that accelerated during the 1700s spread Ba’Alawiyya influence across the Indian Ocean from Java to East Africa. Several generations of Hadhrami scholars based in the Comoros and Zanzibar had through their scholarship and personal example promoted the quest for personal purity through the study of Islam’s original Quranic sources and traditions. This saw ulama religious councils in Zanzibar and the Comoros displace the influence of those of Lamu and Mombasa as the region’s ranking centres of religious knowledge.
The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.
Salih bin Alawi, or Habib Saleh as he came to be known, was born in 1853 on the island of Grande Comoro. At the age of 18, the young Sharif followed his uncle Abdalla bin Alawi to Lamu to study with its Islamic scholars. After a sojourn in the Comoros he returned to Lamu, declaring that Lamu was the only place where he felt spiritually at home.
The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.
During the last decade of the nineteenth century Habib Saleh acted on his belief that religious education should be available to everyone. The town’s stratified social order was already being challenged by the growing number of Hadhrami immigrants, Bajuni settlers from the archipelago’s outer islands, and freed slaves who settled in the area now known as Langoni. Habib Saleh built the original Ryadha mosque on a sandy hill above the expanding area of new settlement and went on to establish a mosque college modeled on the ribats established in the Hadhramaut by the previous generation of Alawi scholars. Ryadha offered religious instruction to all at a time when religious knowledge was still central to the power relations in Swahili settlements.
The Ba’Alawiyya taught that a religious leader should seek out obscurity in place of popular recognition, avoid material manifestations of wealth and power, and that they should keep a low public profile while continuing to offer advice to the community in religious matters. Habib Saleh personified these qualities. He also established a new Maulidi, the religious ceremony celebrating the birth of the Prophet, that featured litanies composed by one of his mentors, Al Habshi, recited to the accompaniment of the twari, a percussion instrument similar to the tambourine.
Habib Saleh’s educational pluralism put him into conflict with Lamu’s power establishment based in the old stone town, who tried to curb his activities. When this failed agents of the old order attempted to sabotage his growing influence by starting a fire in the Ryadha area of Langoni. According to the folklore, Habib appealed to his mentor in the Hadhramaut, Al Habshi, who intervened by using his mystical powers to miraculously extinguish the fire from afar.
These events coincided with the turbulent events accompanying the establishment of British imperialism in East Africa. As the archipelago’s pivotal role on the Swahili coast began to ebb, Kiwa Ndeo, the ‘Proud Isle’ as Lamu was known in Swahili verse, emerged as the center of a new Islamic movement that was to gradually spread beyond its coastal base. The town’s two religious streams coalesced after the success of Habib Saleh’s religious education revolution. His sons and grandsons proceeded to extend Lamu’s religious influence across the coast and into the interior of East Africa after the Saint’s death in 1938.
When I took up residence in Lamu in 1974, the Ryadha Mosque College buzzed with activity and housed students from as far away as Zaire, Tanzania, and the Comoro Islands. Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.
The festival had at some point expanded to include traditional Swahili dances that were performed in the large open area in front of the mosque. Elders from Pate and Ndau performed the slow moving Goma parade in immaculate white kanzu while the youth fought mock battles in the kirumbizi stick-fighting dance to the rapid cadence of the high-pitched zumari. After the conclusion of the Ishaa evening prayers, Miji Kenda gyrated to the rhythm of their ndurenge and mwanzele, the Pokomo did their mwaribe, and the wagema, the specialists in climbing the tall coconut palms to harvest the nuts and tap its sweet sap, performed their distinctive uta dance.
Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.
Not everyone accepted this exemplar of the Swahili coast’s tolerant and cosmopolitan Islamic culture. A small minority of Wahhabi influenced reformers objected to the use of the twari during the recitation of the Maulidi in Lamu mosques and the non-Islamic performances during the festival. Lamu religious leaders dismissed the complaints by stating that the Maulidi celebrated Habib Saleh’s tradition of inclusion, and that it attract new converts while maintaining positive relations with their non-Muslim neighbors.
Like the annual arrival of the dhows, the Maulidi’s importance for Lamu’s economic cycle had grown as the latter declined, in part due to the arbitrary imposition of customs duty and harassment by government officials. The rest of the year, Lamu’s economy largely depended on the traditional maritime activities and farming. The once vibrant mainland agriculture, however, was suffering due to poor security. Mainland Bajuni, displaced by Shifta bandit attacks in the 1960s, tried to resettle in mainland areas like Magogoni but found the going rough. A friend of mine gave up his farm there after being raised in the air by an elephant and dashed to the ground in front of his terrified children.
The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed. The hospitality industry became an essential growth sector that compensated for the decline of other livelihoods while revitalizing the production of artisanal crafts and the town’s famous woodcarving tradition. The building boom in Arabia led to a spike in demand for mangrove poles, reviving the international dhow trade. Remittances and returnees from the Gulf and Saudia Arabia provided a boost. After eight decades of economic stagnation, the archipelago’s economy began to sparkle again.
The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed.
These were simpler times, although much was changing underneath the surface. The tensions fueled by religious dogma and historical divisions elsewhere in the Islamic world were a non-factor except for the running debate over the distinctive Maulidi celebration spearheaded by Kenya’s chief Kadhi, Abdalla Farsi, and other Mombasa-based reformers. This debate was of little import in Lamu. The only dispute of significance was the internal rift between the Ryadha Sharifs that came into the open during the early 1970s when two of Habib Saleh’s grandsons started an alternative madrassa at Sofaa, a new mosque modeled on Ryadha and financed by a patron from the old Mkomani elite.
The contest between the traditionalists and modernisers remained couched in battles over local issues like the debate over the introduction of the Al Habshi version of the Maulidi celebration in place of the more generic Barzanji recitation, and its validation of the sharifs’ elevated spiritual station. It was difficult to see divisions like the longstanding Sunni-Shia conflict arising among the local believers in these settings. But events conspired to make this happen after a small freighter dropped anchor in the Lamu roadstead on an otherwise unremarkable June day in 1985.
Shi’a versus Bidha’a on the Coast of Kenya
The 1979 Iranian revolution upset the Islamic world’s political and religious status quo. The unanticipated strength of the events set in motion by Ayatollah Khomeini overturned both conventional and leftist concepts of the ‘grand march of modernization in the West, reviving religion as a driver of socio-political change for the first time since the Western Enlightenment.
One of the West’s most prominent academic authorities on Islam, Maxime Rodinson, had built a reputation by stressing that historically it was extremely difficult to find religious sources for Muslim responses to their situation: explanations should be sought in the “the social, cultural and ideological context of the age in which they operated than by their Muslim origin”. The country’s relative prosperity made developments in Iran all the more surprising for upending such theories. Analysts and policy makers were unprepared to assess the implications of what the Lebanese–born scholar, Fuad Ajami, termed “The Impossible Revolution”.
Internal Iranian participants in the upheaval also confused the broad spectrum of anti-government support that united under Khomeini, with the revolution’s Shia religious agenda. The centre did not hold. The Marxist Khalq Party was decimated. The interim Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzagan, didn’t last long. Khomeini banished any hope of accommodation by backing the students who took control of the US Embassy.
The broad spectrum of leftist groups and moderate middle class supporters who joined up with the religious opposition during the uprising could only rue their mistake. Like the many experts caught out by the events, they were left to contemplate Khomeini’s observation that “the Islamic revolution is not about the price of Persian limes.”
It was one of the seminal events of the Twentieth Century. Ayatollah Khomeini ended up on the cover of Time in 1979. The Saudi’s and their Western allies responded by backing Saddam Hussein’s doomed invasion of the contested Iraq-Iran border zone. The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.
Egypt was the first modern Islamic voice to influence Muslims south of the Sahara, and religion did not figure prominently in the message. Gamal Abdel Nassir used the Voice of Egypt to break the European control of the airwaves and focused on anti-imperialist themes reinforcing African aspirations for independence. Egyptian radio broadcasts of the 1960s eschewed the sectional interests of the region’s diverse Muslims and instead cultivated support for the non-aligned movement. But after Nassir’s death, economic power replaced ideology, and patronage links with Saudi Arabia took over as the primary conduit of external influence on the Islamic periphery.
The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.
Most of their funds were transacted on the state level with a view towards cementing ties of economic cooperation while curbing Israeli influence. The rest went to support madrassa education and to train teachers. In Kenya, a new generation of scholars and Imams, many of whom were sponsored by the Saudis, were opposing superstitions like belief in the power of amulets, quasi-religious divination and magic, and other practices tolerated by the Sharifite establishment. But despite its decidedly non-Wahhabi orientation, Lamu’s Ryadha establishment also received Saudi support.
Although Saudi aid at that juncture highlighted secular principles, it was part of a longer-term strategy twinning cultivation of Wahhabi ideology with support for the Kingdom. The Iranian Revolution shook up this patrimonial status quo, and in Kenya, Iran’s new popularity complemented coastal Muslims’ antipathy for the ‘Arabs’.
During my early days on the coast I was frequently confused by the contradictions conveyed by the word “Arab.” As far as I could see, although only religious scholars and relatively recent Hadhrami immigrants actually spoke Arabic, many coastal Muslims aspired to a degree of Arab-ness through dress and language, while real and imputed connections to Arab lineages conferred prestige. Bajuni oral tradition, for example, states that these indigenous African Swahili originated in Mecca. I was naturally perplexed when a Bajuni friend remarked, “Arabs are the worst people in the world.
Other coastals who came from high status ‘Arab’ families expressed a similar attitude, claiming that the Arabs of Arabia are primitive and vain. Jokes about the Saudis in particular were common, especially among coastals returning from the Kingdom who found life in Arabia difficult and suffocating. The large number of coastals who migrated there in search of work found themselves treated as low status migrant workers. Merchants with important business connections sometimes echoed the negative attitudes prevalent among the Swahili and near universal among the Somali. “The Saudis are very nice when you meet them here,” one Mombasa tycoon told me, “but if you deal with them in Arabia they are the worst of savages.”
A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.
This began to change after the 1979 revolution. Iran became a symbol of the fight back against Westernisation. Their efforts to promote Islamic moral renewal highlighted local grievances over historical injustices and other issues that were never championed by the Arabs and their political clients. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, coastal Muslims could look to a role model in Ayatollah Khomeini who combined religious integrity with political liberation. Pictures of the Ayatollah joined the pantheon of cultural heroes on the coast, sometimes sharing a wall with Bob Marley and Bollywood film stars.
A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.
During the early 1980s the Iranians initiated efforts to exploit their religious capital by cultivating influence on the coast. They established an Islamic newspaper in Mombasa that discussed social problems and offered religious commentary. The Iranian Embassy sponsored delegations of local notables and sheikhs to visit Iran. Most returned speaking of Iran in glowing terms; the Saudis responded by flying many of the same individuals to Mecca and Medina. The narrative emerging out of these junkets confirm the reports of seamen who reported how they were welcomed as Muslim brothers in Iranian ports like Bandar Abbas but were treated poorly on the other side of the Persian Gulf—where Christian expatriates were received with open arms.
The Iranians’ efforts gradually brought some religious leaders under their influence, including Abdullahi Nassir, former leader of the pro-secession Coast Peoples Party, who was commissioned to deliver a series of lectures across the coast. In Lamu, the internal conflict between the Ryadha and Sofaa sharifs provided another entry point.
In 1983 Sofaa had recruited the assistance of the long-serving Mombasa politician, Sharif Nassir. The two factions typically supported different candidates in local elections, and this presented Nassir with an opportunity to leverage his support among the large Lamu community in Mombasa. The coast’s pre-eminent politician held a harambee at the Sofaa Mosque to raise funds to build a new madrassa and dormitory. Shortly afterwards the Iranians offered their assistance for the same project.
When I visited the mosque in May of 1984 I found a new over-sized version of the original Sofaa and a new educational complex erected on the plot behind it. A block of classes funded by Nassir’s harambee remained incomplete, like a testament to the old order. I was told that Mzee Mwenye, the head of the mosque and its Imam, Mwenye Omari, had embraced the Ithna Asheri school of Shi’ism. When I spoke to them, they said they were grateful to their new Iranian friends for improving the facilities but otherwise nothing significant had changed.
The mosques beautiful new calligraphy with its references to the Shia martyrs Hussein, Hassan, and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, indicated otherwise. The conduct of prayers and most everything else was the same, although my father-in-law confirmed that the pro-Shia management had began using the Shia version of the call to prayers before the complaints of the neighborhood’s residents saw it discontinued.
East African Muslims are a multicultural community where until recently sectarian differences rarely served as a source of friction. Bohra, Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, and other Asian Shia Muslims lived among the Sunni majority in coastal towns and cities and even married Sunni wives occasionally. This explains why Sofaa’s Shia affiliation was, for most people in Lamu, more about the ongoing Ryadha-Sofaa feud than a break with Lamu’s Islamic tradition. My father-in-law and many other former regulars continued to pray at Sofaa despite the changes.
The conflict nevertheless began to ramp up over the following months as the two factions engaged in various battles for influence, beginning with the recruitment of children to attend their respective madrassa. My wife was perplexed when competing representatives of Sofaa and Ryadha had come to the house advising her to enroll our children in their respective Quran schools. They warned of the negatives that would result if they remained in their present chuo, which was not affiliated to either faction.
The Sofaa faction won a legal victory when they went to court to prevent the eviction of a popular female maalim based in a vacated Shi’a mosque that had not been used for decades. This was followed by a battle over selection of a new mosque for hosting Friday prayers. The traditional Mskiti wa Jumaa in Mkomani could no longer host the town’s growing numbers, forcing late arrivals to pray on the sidewalks and alleyways outside the mosque. When Sofaa lost their bid to be selected as the second Jumaa mosque, partisans chained the doors of the eight hundred year-old Pwani Mosque – identified with Lamu’s pre-Ba’Alawiyya ulama – that had been chosen instead. The District Commissioner, however, intervened on behalf of the anti-Sofaa clerics.
Lamu people discussed these developments in their usual jocular fashion, referring to the parties as Watu wa Shi’a and Watu wa Bidha’a, the latter being a reference to the criticism of the Maulidi who claimed it was the kind of religious innovation forbidden in the Quran. Most everyone I knew viewed the events as a family affair that had burst into the open with comic effect. No one took down their pictures of the Ayatollah, even though their take on the revolution had soured during the interim.
Prior to these developments, in 1982, a fire consumed a large area of Langoni. It started after a quarrel between a brother and sister ended with the brother setting the house on fire before dawn. The prevailing kuzi winds spread the flames across Langoni’s canopy of palm-thatched roofs, incinerating hundreds of the densely packed mud and wood houses and spreading to the coral rag stone structures lining the Msitu wa Mui, Lamu’s main street which the government had ineffectually renamed Kenyatta Avenue. When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.
International and Kenyan donors committed funds for rebuilding a new mabati (corrugated iron)-roofed Langoni, but the promised reconstruction of the homes dragged out. A year later many households were still camping in makeshift structures built on the ruined plots; after two years some victims on the list were still waiting for compensation. Most of the damage occurred on the Sofaa side of town, which ostensibly led to the mission of the mysterious freighter that arrived almost three years later.
When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.
The ship carried clothing for the victims of the Lamu fire donated by the Shi’a community in Kuwait. It spent a long time anchored off Manda Island while the Sofaa sharifs negotiated the cargo’s release. Several months later the goods were cleared, but because they were officially listed as charitable donations for the community at large, the Provincial Administration claimed that other religious actors should be allocated equal shares. As it turned out, the shipment contained many items of high quality, and distribution proceeded on a prejudicial basis. Some recipients reported that they found dollars and riyals in the pockets of donated kanzu; a fisherman showed me a Seiko watch he found in the ‘Kuwaiti’ gown he received.
For a while “umepata Kuwaiti gani?” became the first question people asked after the usual greeting. Many of the genuine victims received nothing. My brother-in-law, who lost more than most when his shop and home burned, missed out. The generosity of the foreign benefactors ended up generating more controversy than relief.
The issue was settled when, during Friday prayers a group of youth broke into the storeroom where the Kuwaiti cargo was kept. They made off with the remaining chests and footlockers. They broke them open on the waterfront, dumped out the contents, and ran off after taking the pick of the loot—which was mainly shoes. The public scrambled for what was left, all evidence of the heist vanishing before the faithful in the mosque uttered the final “Assalamu alaykum wa barakatuh” ending the prayers. The news spread fast.
“These guys committed a major sin!” one my neighbors declared.
“What’s so wrong about liberating what was supposed to be gifts for the poor?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, clarifying that “it was bad because most of the best things went to the slackers who don’t attend Juma’a prayers.”
That was not the end of it. In the scramble for the footwear most of the pairs were separated. Several times a day someone would call hodi hodi from downstairs, walk up the stairs, and after the usual salutations produce a bag filled with unmatched shoes.
“Uko na ndugu ya hiki?” invariable followed, as they placed a single Italian loafer or a fashionable woman’s stiletto on the mat.
The exercise continued for several weeks. Although I surmised many of the shoes were never united with their ‘brothers’, it helped restore a degree of normality to community after the antagonistic Shi’a versus Bidha’a interlude. Twice, women who were not on good terms with my spouse clunk-clunked up the stairs and politely made their enquiries, and I observed how the process resulted in the resumption of normal relations.
Things did not end well for the warring sheikhs. The infighting continued, and the resulting decline in status coincided with the rise of a new generation of more activist reformers with comparatively shallow educational and spiritual qualifications than their predecessors.
Assessing The Aftermath: The Kingdom Strikes Back
At the time I viewed this incident as a victory for local religious sensibilities over the forces of patronage and imported religious models. But the influence of the Ayatollahs’ revolution had opened the way for political Islam to take root in local conditions. No one anticipated the directionality of events over the next two decades.
The Iranian gambit ended up producing the opposite effect in respect to their political interests, with correspondingly negative implications for the Muslims of this region. Infatuation with the Islamic revolution declined as the Iranian government began to show its authoritarian nature, and the Saudis went on the offensive. Iran’s pan-Islamic activism in turn prompted Saudi Arabia to adopt a more aggressive role across the Islamic world. Over the course of the 1980s the Kingdom spent over $4 billion per year to spread the Wahhabi creed abroad. Private sources in the kingdom interpreted the Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan as divine approval for their version of jihad, and extended their funding for radical Wahhabi movements across to virtually the Islamic world.
The gradual spread of Wahhabi influence provided cover for the proponents of the more extreme Salafi movement before the Embassy bombings of 1998 accelerated the convergence of the global Islamist narratives across the Horn of Africa region. This coincided with the spread of social media and internet-based transmission of Islamist ideologies, which gained ground at the expense of the transmission of formal Islamic knowledge through recognized schools of jurisprudence and the human exemplars of Sufi teachings.
We all know what came next.
The irony is that Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has suffered disproportionately from the international cast of Al Qaida sleeper cells and Al Shabaab insurgents based across the Somalia border.
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The Evolving Language of Corruption in Kenya
A cabal of politicos has appropriated the everyday language of hardworking Kenyans to camouflage their intentions to perpetuate corruption and state capture.
Andrew Ngumba had a curious way of explaining away institutionalized corruption every time he was accused of engaging in it. “In the days gone by, before the village elders arbitrated any pressing or thorny issue, they would be offered libation just before the deliberations and then thanked with a goat thereafter, as an appreciation for a job well done.”
Those who are old enough will remember Ngumba, who died in 1997, as the mayor of Nairobi from 1977–1980. He later became the MP for Mathare constituency, renamed Kasarani, from 1983–1986. Ngumba estate, off Thika highway, next to East African Breweries, is named after the canny entrepreneur-politician, who founded Rural Urban Credit Finance Limited, dubbed the “ghetto bank”. The finance house collapsed in 1984 and Ngumba sought political refuge in Sweden.
Just like your archetypal politician, the wily Ngumba would with characteristic panache then ask, “Was the libation and the goat a form of saying ‘thank you for your time’ to the elders, or was it just plain corruption?” His cheekiness aside, which Kenyan society was Ngumba describing? Pre-colonial, before the advent of British settlers and missionaries? Or was he referring to a pre-urban, rural-setting Kenya, before it was contaminated by colonialism, modern capitalism and corruption?
We can imagine what his answer to his own rhetorical question was. Of greater interest, is the way he chose to re-tell the socio-cultural anecdote, with the obvious intention of exonerating himself and like-minded politicians, when caught engaging in bribery and institutional corruption: he implicitly gave a nod to the nefarious activity by normalizing bribery, a vice previously unknown and unexperienced in the very society he was describing.
“Political elites [also] appropriate moral language and social norms to ‘conventionalise’ corruption, fashioning a vocabulary that takes the moral sting from opprobrium, corruption and its various forms,” says Wachira Maina in his report, State Capture – Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption. “Corruption is ‘traditionalised’ and reframed as gift-giving or as a form of socially recognizable reciprocity. Corrupt practices are then expressed in the language of moral obligation. No moral wrong is involved when an official or politician from one’s village violates conflict of interest rules or other laws to provide some ‘token benefit’.”
But when is a gift a bribe and a bribe a gift? Let us take the example of the chief – village or otherwise. Until very recently, up to the late 1990s, the chief was a powerful creature bestowed with the powers of “life and death” over his subjects. Until just before the December 1997 general elections, the statutory powers of the chief were many times greater than those of any elected official that you can think of. With the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms, some of their powers were supposedly clipped.
Picture this: Two parties are squabbling over a land boundary. They must go to the chief for arbitration. On the eve of the arbitration, one of the parties, most probably the one who has encroached on his neighbour’s land, gets a brainwave and pays the chief a visit in advance, ostensibly to remind him of their big day. Because of the unwritten law that it is “culturally rude” to visit a chief “empty-handed”, the visiting party decides to “gift” the chief with whatever, as has happened from time immemorial. One can, without too much effort, imagine the possible outcome of the land tussle the following day.
Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned. Should we wonder why chiefs as public officials, for example, own some of the biggest chunks of land in their area of jurisdiction? At the grassroots level, a socio-cultural norm was deliberately subverted to allow open bribery and the establishment of institutionalized corruption.
As currently constituted in the country, chiefs are an invention of British colonial rule. They are part of the indirect rule that the colonial government imposed on Kenyans. When Kenya gained independence from the British in 1963, the post-independent government inherited the colonial indirect system of government — the whole kit and caboodle. With their “illegitimacy” and corruption networks carried over and sanctioned by the new African government, chiefs entrenched themselves even further by extending their corrupt patronage networks within the government bureaucratic structures.
During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”; any person with matters arising at the chief’s court knew that a “gift” had to be carried along. So, even though this form of corruption was covert and not dangerous to the existence of the state, it impoverished and terrorized the poor peasants.
Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned.
Corruption, as an evolving concept, was introduced into Kenya society by the British colonial government and, the civil service has been known to be the home of institutionalized state corruption since pre-independence Kenya. Think about it, the word corruption does not exist in the lexicons of Kenya’s ethnic communities. In the Kikuyu community, for instance, there is a specific lexicon that describes a thief and theft, but there is no word for corruption per se, because in African societies, corruption, a Western concept (and as defined today), was unknown in many African traditional societies.
Indeed, as Wachira observes in his report released in 2019, “corruption has been a persistent problem in Kenya since before independence, but it has flourished and put down robust roots since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992.”
What is corruption? For the longest time, corruption has been defined in the binary fashion of either petty or grand corruption. Political scientists have variously described corruption as an act in which the power of public office is used for personal gain. In other words, the misuse of public resources by state officials for private gain. Corruption has also been described as behaviour that deviates from the formal rules of conduct governing the actions of someone in a position of public authority or trust.
The benefits of corruption are either economic — when an exchange of cash occurs — or social, in the case of favouritism or nepotism. Hence, grand corruption, sometimes referred to as political corruption, involves top government officials and political decision makers who engage in exchanges of large sums of illegally acquired money. Petty corruption involves mid- or low-level state officials, who are often underpaid and who interact with the public on a daily basis.
In his concise report, Wachira notes that “a generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.” Why? “Part of the problem is conceptual: How we name corruption and how we understand its character,” points out the constitutional lawyer.
These simple but loaded terms of “petty” and “grand” corruption present a false dichotomy, says Wachira. “Petty” suggests that the corruption is merely an irritant, something people do to speed up things or evade a long queue — a way of “lubricating the system. “The term suggests an expedient with trivial effect, considered case by case. In fact, that characterization is deeply mistaken. . . . Most important, it becomes a fee, because it guarantees that what was initially a free service is no longer so. From a macro-economic perspective, its distortionary effect could be as at least as impactful as grand corruption,” writes Wachira.
That is why petty corruption in Kenya has long been baptized chai, meaning tea, or kitu kidogo, which means something small. It is daily language that is used to camouflage an illegal act by likening it to one of Kenya’s best-known pastimes — drinking tea. Civil servants demand chai from the public in order, they argue, to grease the bureaucratic wheel, which oftentimes revolves very, very slowly and needs to be lubricated for it to move. Chai and Kitu Kidogo have become interchangeable, because “something small” also connotes a kind of “lubricant” that “hastens” service delivery.
The police, especially traffic cops, who are synonymous with petty corruption, have perfected the language of chai-taking more than any other state official such that when Kenyans conjure bribe giving, the first person who immediately comes to mind is the policeman.
The State Capture report says, “Indeed language is in a parlous condition when the bribe a judge takes to free a dangerous criminal is named chai, like a nice ‘cuppa’ tea between intimates.”
During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”.
The report further states that, “the term ‘grand’ on the other hand can also be misleading if grand suggests debilitating to the state. Implicit in the term is the notion of a corrupt deal of significant size, involving senior officials and high-ranking politicians. Such corruption involves large-scale stealing of state resources and, the theory goes, it erodes confidence in government, undermines the rule of law and spawns economic instability.”
In Kenya, grand corruption has involved such mindboggling money schemes as the Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing scandals and more recently, the Eurobond scandal. These mega-scams are a result of collusion between state officials and politicians, who over time have formed powerful corruption cartels that have proved inextinguishable.
Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public? Why is it not obvious to all? “There are cases in which the term ‘grand’ corruption fails to communicate the moral shock and magnitude that seems implicit. ‘Grand’ then becomes merely an audit term that simply describes financial scale,” says Wachira. “If that conclusion is right, it would then explain the frequent lack of moral outrage about widespread theft in government, with the result that there will be cases in which characterising corruption as petty or grand implies nothing about its impact or the social and political levers one can push to eliminate it.”
“Grand corruption” in Kenya today has evidently surpassed the current nomenclature; the staggering sums of money stolen have numbed the people’s sensibilities to shock and have refused to register in their psyche. How, for example, can the president have the audacity of treating Kenyans to shock therapy by telling them that KSh2 billion is stolen from the state coffers every 24 hours? That kind of pillage can no longer be termed as corruption, let alone grand corruption. A more appropriate language has to be found; and there can be no other word for it other than theft.
The State Capture report problematizes the matter of the naming of state plunder and discusses at length what could be the problem with language that seeks to explain the massive haemorrhage of state resources orchestrated by unscrupulous individuals. The report notes that corruption in Kenya has been described as a malignant tumour that hampers the government from governing properly “The problem of naming [corruption] is then compounded by medical or sociological language that pathologises corruption. . . . Therein lies the problem: Anti-corruption programmes ‘pathologise’ the relationship between corruption and the state, deploying medical terms like ‘cancer on the body politic,’ ‘a disease that we must cure’ or ‘a pervasive ill’ potentially responsive to curative interventions.
Even when the language used is sociological rather medical, the pathological dimension stays. Corruption is ‘a perverse culture’ or ‘negative norm’. Both the medical and the sociological language mobilise a deep-seated ‘conviction that there is something pathological – an illness – within [Kenya] politics and culture’. This suggests that what the reformers must do is ‘to identify this pathology’ and formulate a diagnosis that examines the Kenyan society and brings to the surface the ‘fissures and contradictions’ that explain the graft.
In his report, Wachira goes on to say, “The medical perspective that implies that the state has gone awry and can be put to rights with an appropriate intervention is pervasive. Implicit in the diagnosis and the proposed cure is the thought that the state is constructed for some legitimate — or benign — purpose that has been perverted by corruption.”
Joseph G. Kibe, a Permanent Secretary in six different ministries in the 1970s, was once interviewed about his experience working as a top government bureaucrat, many years after his retirement in 1979. Said Kibe, “In those days, I could see some kind of low-level corruption starting to creep in, especially involving clerks. For instance, in the Lands Office, they would remove one file and hide it away from where the index shows it is and wait until the owners of the land wanted to conduct a transaction at which point they would ask for a bribe.”
The same low-level corruption has been rampant in the corridors of justice. The low-paid court clerk in the magistrate’s court “disappears” a case file so that he can solicit a bribe to enable the miraculous re-appearance of the “lost” file.
“A generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.”
The former PS, who went on to work for Transparency International (TI) Kenya Chapter, said in 2004, “Corruption had crept into ministries, departments and government corporations and was likely to entrench itself unless it was stopped. With corruption you give up development because all resources you have, only a little will do good. A lot will be taken away for personal use.”
Because the patronage networks created by the civil service and the political class have ensured that corruption is profitable and has high returns, it has become extremely difficult to fight the vice. “The difficulties of fighting corruption lie in the union of corruption and politics; a union in which, at least since Goldenberg scandal, a power elite has captured the state, especially the Presidency and the Treasury and repurposed the machinery of the government into a ‘temporary zone for personalised appropriation’” says Wachira.
State capture is a term that was popularized in South Africa, a country that since its independence 27 years ago, has witnessed some of the biggest state scandals since the end of Apartheid. “What is at play in Kenya [today] is ‘state capture’ defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit”, explains the State Capture report.
The success of the state capture rests on the ability of a small group of powerful and rich operatives to take over and pervert the institutions of democracy, while keeping the façade of a functioning democracy. Thus, oversight institutions are weakened; law enforcement is partisan and in the pockets of the politicians; civic space is asphyxiated; free elections are frustrated and are typically won by the most violent or the most corrupt, or those who are both violent and corrupt. Arrest and indictments are often the precursor of inaction, not proof of official will to fight corruption.
“Corruption eats at the moral fabric of the nation,” once said Harris Mule, one of the finest PSs to have served at Kenya’s Ministry of Finance. “Positive norms and traditions, once appropriated by the corrupt, instantly transform themselves into curses. Take the uniquely Kenyan institution of Harambee, as an example. It has been changed from what was once a positive manifestation of the culture of philanthropy and community service, into a political tool that fails to deliver what it promises.”
Mule further said, “Corruption causes poverty by promoting unfair distribution of [the] national income and inefficient use of resources. Poverty and inequality in turn breed discontent and can cause national instability. The political implications of sharp economic inequalities are potent.” The former PS was clear in his mind that corruption was the art of “transferring state assets into private hands at the expense of the public interest and purse.”
Harambee, which means, “pulling together”, was a noble idea that tapped into the egalitarian and altruistic nature of African society, that of pooling their meagre resources together for the public good. It was very popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s and to a lesser extent in the 1990s. When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2003, his government instituted a probe into the now much-maligned popular group effort. Wachira explains that,
As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees showed clearly, politicians are the largest donors to ‘charitable’ causes — churches, schools, higher education and funerals are firm favourites — to which they give fortunes that are many times more that their own legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait and switch ploy: once moral institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to dip deeper into the public coffers.
Both the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes misused the Harambee spirit for self-aggrandizement. Mzee Kenyatta, who hardly gave any money towards any Harambee effort and if he did, it was a symbolic sum, expected Kenyans to contribute to his Harambee causes, which were baptized all manner of noteworthy names. The monies were not accounted for and nobody would dare ask how the funds raised were spent, whether they were spent on the causes for which they had been contributed. In many instances, the money collected went to line the pockets of Mzee’s friends.
During Moi’s time, Harambee was used by civil servants, especially chiefs, to solicit bribes and favours from people calling into government offices for services that are meant to be free. A citizen visiting a chief’s office to obtain a personal identification document would be presented with a card for a Harambee by the chief and his subordinates. If you wanted to be served at the Ministry of Lands for example, you would be presented with a Harambee card by a junior officer acting on behalf of his boss. Yours was not to question the authenticity of the card, why a public office was presenting a Harambee card to and all sundry, or why it was “mandatory” to contribute before being served in a public office. If you did, you would be called an “enemy of development” and labelled anti-Nyayo.
Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public?
Just after the Narc party was swept into power in 2003, the country witnessed a “citizen’s jury” at work: it exposed and sometimes went as far as making citizens’ arrests of errant police officers caught engaging in bribery. But what happened to citizens’ arrests? It was just a matter of time before the citizens themselves caved in and returned to offering the same bribes to the very same police officers. Why? Because they realized belatedly that to fight institutionalized corruption in Kenya, there must be goodwill and concerted effort from the government: the fish rots from the head and the fight against corruption must begin at the top.
Since 2013, corruption seems to have acquired a new word to camouflage it – hustler. Under the Jubilee government, “hustler” has come to describe tenderpreneurs masquerading as the toiling masses. It is the new lexicon that has been adopted by a cabal of people intent on raiding government coffers, a cabal that has appropriated the everyday language of Kenyans who eke out a living the hard way. It is the latest socio-cultural jargon that has been unleashed on the political landscape by a network of politicos intent on acquiring state power so that, in their turn, they can perpetuate state capture.
Pan-Africanism in a Time of Pandemic
Solidarity conferences have been replaced by aid conferences called by “donors”. What we need is a Pan-African conference organised by movements and individuals committed to human development.
There was a time, in the last century, when the under-privileged of the world shared a common understanding of the causes of their condition. Today the causes manifest in vaccine Apartheid. That the COVID-19 pandemic should find most African countries with less than one doctor and less than ten beds per a thousand of their population shows the failure of the development efforts of the past 60 or so years. The same countries all struggle with unsustainable debt, which is still being paid during the pandemic and has been increased by the COVID debt. When the global emergency was declared in January 2021, development partners began to hoard personal protective equipment. When vaccines became available a year later, there was insufficient production capacity to meet world needs. The same development partners rejected the option of allowing African countries to manufacture the vaccines on the continent. They hoarded their supplies until they were nearly expired before donating them to African countries.
In the 1950s, there would have been a different reaction. By then, African and Asian countries were moving inexorably towards independence. Organised by Indonesia, Myanmar (now Burma), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Pakistan, African countries attended the Bandung Conference of 1955 with economic and social development in mind. Then as now, China and the United States were on opposite sides of the Cold War and each sought to influence Africa while Africa sought non-alignment in order to freely pursue her development goals.
For one week in Bandung, Indonesia, twenty-nine African and Asian heads of state and other leaders discussed the formation of an alliance based on five principles: political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, and equality. The ten-points in the communiqué released after the conference became the governing principles of the non-aligned movement and they included self-determination, protection of human rights, the promotion of economic and cultural cooperation, and a call for an end to racial discrimination wherever it occurred. The alliance began to disintegrate when India and Yugoslavia shunned the radical stand against Western imperialism, leading to the organisation of a rival non-aligned conference in 1965. The 1965 conference was postponed.
While there was no follow-up to Bandung, the ideals it stood for were being espoused by other formations. On the African continent, the Casablanca Group—the precursor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)—had a membership of five African states: Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Libya, and Morocco. The All-African Peoples’ Conference (AAPC) took place in Cairo in 1958 after the founder, Uganda’s John Kale, was inspired by his attendance at the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference the previous year. It was a meeting representing peoples and movements and not just states. The conference demanded the immediate and unconditional independence of all the African peoples, and the total evacuation of the foreign forces of aggression and oppression stationed in Africa.
The All-African People’s Conference recommended African co-operation in the interest of all the Africans, denounced racial discrimination in South, East and Central Africa, and demanded the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the suppression of the Federation of Nyasaland (Malawi) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and independence for the two countries.
The Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO) organised a conference in Cuba in 1957. The 500 delegates to the AAPSO conference represented national liberation movements as well as states and after a number of such gatherings, AAPSO resolved to include Cuba and Latin America in its membership. Thus was the organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) born.
The activities of OSPAAAL included financial support for the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine and for South Africa’s Africa National Congress (ANC). American aggression towards Cuba and its blockade of Vietnam were denounced and global solidarity was shown to political activists under threat of arrest. The movement solidified in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, Cuba. The Solidarity movement established a think tank, the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research which produced educational materials in the form of newsletters, articles and the now iconic revolutionary art. This work continues to this day.
For the next decade, Cuba provided support to the armed struggle for independence in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea, and to South Africa’s ANC. Fidel Castro was a familiar face on the diplomatic circuit and received Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and other leaders, in Havana.
The United States government was caught between the expectations of its allies, the former colonial powers and those of the soon-to-be independent countries whose alliance it sought. The civil rights movement in the United States was a thorn in its side as it appealed to Africans in the Independence movement. America chose her traditional allies and neo-colonialism put down roots.
Regardless of that, leaders of African and American movements interacted, learning from each other; Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, and a number of other leaders of the day met Kwame Nkrumah at Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957. Martin Luther King was also there. Reflecting on the cost of freedom and mentioning Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia and Kenya, King later wrote, “Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter. It’s never easy. . . . Ghana reminds us of that. You better get ready to go to prison.” Following a visit to Nigeria in 1960, King reported,
I just returned from Africa a little more than a month ago and I had the opportunity to talk to most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa and also leaders of countries that are moving toward independence [. . .] they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go for they see the two are as based on the same principle, a sort of contempt for life, and a contempt for human personality.
Today Dr King would probably have added predatory debt to that list.
Malcolm X visited Egypt and Ghana in 1959 and met Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah. In 1964, he spoke at the OAU conference in Egypt. He went to Tanzania and to Kenya where he met Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta. Back in New York Malcolm X related his experience: “As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out.” Prophetic words. Just this month the President of the United States warned against a “Jim Crow assault” on the voting rights of people of colour and the under-privileged that were won in 1965 after a long and hard civil rights struggle.
By the time the Bandung Conference was taking place, Frantz Fanon had already published Black Skin, White Masks and was to follow it up with A Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth. Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa would appear in 1972. There was an explosion of global awareness of Africa. Musicians like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, and Caiphus Semenya and others became known in Europe and America as they raised awareness about apartheid. African fashion became the signature of the civil rights movement. On the African continent, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac77) was held in Lagos, attracting 59 countries. Exhibits ranged from David Aradeon’s African architectural technology to work by the Chicago Africobra arts collective. The welcome given to the American diaspora contingent at the venue is testament to the sense of oneness that prevailed at the time.
Yet here we are in the new millennium facing identical existential crises. Palestine has lost over half the territory it had in 1966. The televised ethnic cleansing taking place in the country is openly supported by American aid. The Republic of South Africa has found that the end of apartheid may only have been the beginning of the struggle for human development. The country is just emerging from three days of looting and burning by impoverished citizens. Cuba is still under a US embargo and there was even an attempt to blockade medical supplies being shipped to Cuba for the fight against COVID.
Cold War tensions between China and the West have been revived with the United State’s growing opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China has remained faithful to the non-interference principle, to the extent of transacting business with African leaders without regard to that other principle, the observance of human rights.
While most African countries are nominally independent, this has not brought development as they had envisaged it. Now, as in 1966, the main economic activity is the export of raw commodities. Africa’s Asian partners in the Bandung Communiqué have long since moved out of the realm of what used to be called “The Third World”. Malaysia, at number 62 out of 189 countries listed on the Human Development Index, is ranked as a Very High Human Development Country. Indonesia, the host of the Bandung Conference, is in the High Human Development category, with a ranking of 107. India, which abandoned the spirit of Bandung, is a medium human development country (ranked 131) while Yugoslavia ceased to exist. Only eight African countries are highly developed, while 30 fall in the Low Human Development category. Within that category, Uganda slipped down one place in 1997 and is ranked 159.
Solidarity conferences have been replaced by aid conferences called by “donors”. They are no longer organised by activists like the Moroccan Mehdi Ben Barka who, together with Chu Tzu-chi of the People’s Republic of China, organized the Tricontinental Conference (Ben Barka was abducted and “disappeared” in 1965 before the conference took place.) or John Kale. Recent conferences have been organised by European heads of state or United Nations bodies. India and China organise their own conferences for Africa, having transitioned to the ranks of developed countries. Attending delegates are the residual wretched.
The India–Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) inaugurated in 2008 is scheduled to be held once every three years. The France-Africa Finance Summit is an initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron whose various remarks about Africa on his tour of the continent were perceived as racist and disparaging.
At the Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg in 2015, China offered US$60 billion in development assistance, US$5 billion in the form of grants and the rest in loans. Attendance by African heads of state was higher than for the most recent African Union Conference; only six did not turn up (but were represented).
Attending delegates are the residual wretched.
The following year FOCAC was held in Beijing. On the first day, members of the American Congress issued a statement condemning China’s predatory lending to African and Asian countries. They argued that the recipient countries eventually wound up needing to be bailed out by the IMF, mostly with American money, thereby transferring American capital to China. For his part, the beleaguered president of economically battered Zimbabwe received the offer of another US$60 billion with fulsome gratitude, saying President Xi Jinping was doing what “we expected those who colonised us yesterday to do.”
The International Development Association for Africa: Heads of State Summit held on 15 July 2021 was a World Bank exercise. The agenda, according to their website, was “to highlight the importance of an ambitious and robust 20th replenishment of the International Development Association.” In other words, it was about increasing members’ debt. These days “cooperation” means aid – with strings attached – not solidarity. This year there will also be a virtual African Economic Conference (AEC) to discuss “Financing Africa’s post COVID-19 Development”. It is organised by the United Nations Development Programme, the African Development Bank and the Economic Commission for Africa.
Of the original anti-colonial activist countries of the 1960s, most Asian countries are in a position to offer solutions to economic questions; they compete in the global arena manufacturing pharmaceuticals and agricultural technology. China has mastered all of the foregoing as well as dominating foreign infrastructural development investment. The African bloc stands alone in not being organised enough to participate in the global discourse except as receivers of aid.
It is true that together with Latin American countries, resource-wealthy African countries have endured Western-engineered coups d’état and other debilitating interference but the dynamism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral is missing. In its place is the renewed use of the once hated colonial public order laws to quell dissent against corruption and repression.
These days “cooperation” means aid – with strings attached – not solidarity.
Two decades after Lumumba’s assassination, the less wealthy Burkina Faso lit the path to self-sufficiency before the country’s radical president, Captain Thomas Sankara, was assassinated with French connivance. Three months earlier, Sankara had called for the repudiation of debt at an Organisation of African Unity Conference. The delegates were stunned as can be seen from the expression on the late Kenneth Kaunda’s face.
The last African-Asian Conference organised by Africa may or may not be more of a memorial than the birth (re-birth?) of the solidarity movement. On the 50th anniversary of the original Bandung Conference, in 2005, Asian and African leaders met in Jakarta and Bandung to launch the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP). They pledged to promote political, economic, and cultural cooperation between the two continents. An interesting outcome was their communiqué to the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council concerning the development of Palestine. On the cultural front, there is talk of a third Festac.
Then there is Cuba, host of the 1966 Tricontinental Conference. Cuba ranks as a high human development country and has the highest doctor-patient ratio in the world—more than double the concentration in the US—and the most hospital beds per 10,000, nearly double what is available in the US. Cuba also has the highest pupil-teacher ratio in the world. Out of necessity due to the economic embargo imposed on it, and being unable to import fertilisers, Cuba pioneered vermiculture, a technique now in use globally. The country manufactures 80 per cent of its vaccines and has five COVID-19 vaccine candidates (two are being used under emergency licence like AstraZeneca, J&J and the other Western products). While Western pharmaceutical manufacturers took an early decision to bar Africa from manufacturing its vaccines on intellectual property grounds, Cuba is willing to transfer its technology to countries that need it. Funds should have been no object as the African continent is awash with COVID Emergency Response funds borrowed from the World Bank and the IMF. This is the kind of development that has been sought for the last sixty-plus years.
The dynamism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral is missing.
But Africa is not talking to Cuba about developing vaccine capacity. African leaders are waiting for UNICEF, appointed by the World Bank, to procure Western-made vaccines for them with funds they shall have to repay. In Uganda, delivery is expected in six months. Meanwhile, Norway and others are donating small amounts of vaccine, hardly enough to cover the twenty-nine million Ugandans that will give us immunity. The Indian-manufactured brand, AstraZeneca, is not recognised in Europe and will prevent recipients travelling there.
The Conscious Era began to wind down with the accession of leaders of independent African states more interested in the instant gratification of cash inflows than in the principles of the past. Yoweri Museveni had the opportunity to learn from the Cuban model when he met Castro in the early months of his rule. As it turned out, he was only wasting El Comandante’s time. Despite condemning his predecessors’ SDR177,500,000 debt to the IMF during the Bush War, Museveni’s SDR49,800,000 structural adjustment facility was signed on 15 Jun 1987—he had been in power for just eighteen months. Since then he has extended his credit to SDR1,606,275 (US$2,285,199.26) from the IMF alone. New debt to the World Bank (contracted since 2020) amounts to US$468,360,000.00. A separate COVID Debt owed to the World Bank amounts to US$300 million so far while over US$31 million is owed to the African Development Bank. These funds have not been used to purchase vaccines.
The Black Lives Matter movement has echoes of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. The movement is strong on showing solidarity with persecuted activists and victims of racism through online campaigns. BLM chapters are in solidarity with Ghanaian activists. Like the Tricontinental Institute, BLM has made attempts to educate, for example via the Pan-African Activist Sunday School. What is needed is another Pan-African conference organised by movements and individuals committed to human development.
Protests, Chaos and Uprisings: Lessons from South Africa’s Past
The recent riots are an attempt to force change after years of neglect by a state that has remained aloof and uninterested in the economic and social dispossession of the African majority.
The current upheavals across South Africa are ostensibly in response to former President Jacob Zuma’s arrest (or surrender) on 8 July 2021. But contrary to the misinformation in circulation, Zuma was not arrested on charges of corruption, racketeering and for diverting state assets and resources to a circle of cronies including the Gupta family. His reluctance to appear before the Zondo Commission led Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the Chair, to issue a warrant for Zuma’s arrest for contempt of court.
Protest politics in South Africa have a long history and protests have been deployed differently at different historical moments. Whereas protests were an important vehicle during the fight against apartheid, their resurgence and propulsion to the centre of the struggles in post-apartheid South Africa has come as a surprise to many. These so-called “service delivery protests” are said to be caused by community dissatisfaction with municipal service delivery and to lack of communication between councils and councillors on the one hand, and citizens on the other.
The African National Congress-led (ANC) government has been facing growing protests associated with economic contraction, and the dual pressures of a recessionary environment and rising unemployment. But while their grievances may be valid, citizens’ protests have been perceived as having a negative impact on government programmes, businesses, investor confidence and jobs. Indeed, the ongoing service delivery protests could be regarded as a self-defeating strategy in those areas that are more susceptible to them, mostly the municipalities located in the peri-urban areas.
Historians and experts argue that these types of riots are not merely random acts of violence or people taking advantage of dire circumstances to steal and destroy property. They are, instead, a serious attempt to force change after years of neglect by politicians, media, and the general public.
This article takes a historical view of South Africa’s current upheaval and suggests that this moment has been a long time coming.
Service delivery in historical context
The pre-1994 era was prone to mass protests and defiance campaigns, some sporadic but most coordinated by social movements. They include the two defiance campaigns of 1952 and 1989, in Gauteng, the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) defiance campaigns that led to the Sharpeville and Langa massacres in 1960 and, of course, the 1976 Soweto student uprisings. These coordinated mass protests had a clear aim — the abolition of the apartheid laws which were central to racial segregation, white supremacy and the oppression of the majority black population.
The violent service delivery protests, which are mostly prevalent at the local government level, have been associated with the results of apartheid: marginalisation of the majority black population with regard to basic needs, including housing, clean drinking water, proper sanitation, electricity, and access to healthcare and to infrastructure. After the end of apartheid, the new democratic government led by the ANC inherited an unequal society and was confronted with protests against lack of basic services and systemic corruption at local government level. Some scholars and analysts have suggested that such unrest epitomises the dispossession of African people, precluding them from complete liberation in their own land and subjecting them to continued subjugation by their white counterparts.
The ongoing service delivery protests could be regarded as a self-defeating strategy in those areas that are more susceptible to them.
Various communities throughout the country have resorted to violent riots, destroying schools, libraries and the houses of underperforming local government councillors. One opinion is that service delivery protests are exacerbated in the informal settlements where poverty and unemployment are high, and where there is a lack of technical and managerial skills within municipalities beset by corruption, poor financial management, and a lack of accountability on the part of local councillors and municipal officials.
Public protests did not feature as prominently during the initial part of the Mandela administration (1994–1999). The relative lull in public protests following the inauguration of the Mandela presidency in 1994 might have been a result of three key factors. One aspect is the negotiated settlement that gave rise to what is often characterised as a democratic dispensation, popularly and quite falsely described as a new era for South African people but which rapidly descended into mass frustration. In the neo-liberal euphoria of the “new democratic South Africa”, the strategic power of mass protest action that had helped to remove the apartheid regime struggled to find a new footing. Protests were suddenly viewed as acts against the state and were vigorously discouraged by an ANC government that was increasingly detached from the broader population. The ANC-led administration preferred to mobilise mass movements as cheerleaders of government programmes and as a result, when protests did take place, they were often state-managed to be peaceful, media-friendly events.
Another factor is that militant apartheid-era civic society formations were demobilised, which effectively weakened opposition to unpopular government policies and even brought newer NGOS into sharp disagreement with the government. Finally, the adoption of the pro-poor Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which was aimed at redistributing wealth, was well received as a pacifying measure. However, in 1996, less than 24 months after the introduction of the RDP, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economic policy was adopted, signalling a shift to neoliberalism that prioritised the interests of big business over those of poor citizens. The adoption of GEAR led to the immediate loss of the few economic benefits citizens had received under the apartheid system.
Various social formations including the labour movement and civil society organisations accused the government of “selling out the people’s mandate”. Cost recovery was an essential part of GEAR, and this soon pitted indigent citizens against the government. While the shift to GEAR marked a radical change in how the government approached delivery of services and generated criticism from various quarters, it did not immediately trigger mass protest action mainly because the organisations championing workers’ and ordinary citizens’ rights were in alliance with the ANC. But the grounds were laid for future public protests.
In the neo-liberal euphoria of the “new democratic South Africa”, the strategic power of mass protest action that had helped to remove the apartheid regime struggled to find a new footing.
Some point to the FIFA World Cup (June–July 2010) as a tipping point. The country’s working poor came out in protest, angered by the commercialisation of municipal services and escalating poverty. Other factors that have been the cause of the so-called service delivery protests include the rising costs of basic services (clean drinking water, sanitation and electricity) as a result of the implementation of orthodox market policies, forced demolitions of informal settlements, disparities between luxury stadia and impoverished neighbourhoods and the gentrification brought on by the World Cup which has made inner-cities inaccessible to low-income informal traders.
This contradictory socio-economic policy framework has produced a highly fragmented regulatory structure, which has further compounded the socio-spatial unevenness of contemporary South Africa. The protracted low growth after the 2014 crash of commodity prices and various political scandals undermined the credibility of the ANC leadership. The national difficulties reverberated at the local level; after ruling Johannesburg for over two decades, the ANC lost the city to a coalition of opposition parties in 2016. The new mayor, Herman Mashaba, a self-styled libertarian entrepreneur, announced his commitment to “pro-poor” investments and to ending the arm’s length approach of municipal service providers.
Analysing the rationale behind the provision of basic services may help to clarify the uneasy categorisation of South African social policies and political discourse with respect to the neoliberal paradigm.
The current situation
In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision not to increase the country’s extensive social grant payments — that now reach 18 million impoverished citizens — above inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a bigger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt — which has now breached the 80 per cent of debt-to-GDP ratio threshold — and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30 per cent.
And, as is often the case — whether they have been peaceful, organised, or not — protesters have been largely viewed as looters, rioters and thugs. Feelings of righteous anger following a year of lockdown, precarious livelihoods, escalating state aggression, and hostile and often deadly policing are bound to have been co-opted by thuggish elements. But the dangerous shades of ethno-nationalism that originally seemed to fuel the riots cannot be left unexamined as they have an impact on how we think about the protests, just as terms like “uprising” and “upheaval” offer ways to think about the unrest as indications of a far deeper social, economic and political rupture.
The adoption of GEAR led to the immediate loss of the few economic benefits citizens had received under the apartheid system.
Reducing the unrest to a “looting spree” also averts attention from a state that has for 27 years been aloof and not interested in recalibrating the economic and social dispossession of the African majority. While President Ramaphosa seems lethargic and tone-deaf, he is no different from his predecessors in insisting on market-led policies, foreign-investor largesse and failed non-distributive economic policies. Add to this the small matter of the “missing” R500 billion. In April 2020, a stimulus package of 500 billion rand was announced. The money was meant to augment the existing social safety net that provides 11.3 million South Africans with monthly assistance for food and other social services. The Auditor-General has described the expenditure as irregular, noting the wrongful diversion of some of the funds to state employees through contracts. To date, the hectoring tone adopted by most public officials regarding this matter shows no sense of irony or self-awareness that their own hands are dirty.
Many analysts and observers inside and outside South Africa have predicted this moment for over fifteen years, evoking the Arab Spring as a cautionary tale. South Africa is not the only country going through a seismic shift. Haiti, Cuba, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Mozambique and Hong Kong are all facing profound upheavals. But while South Africa elicits deep sentiments across the world, it is not immune to the complexities of state formation, fractured class interests and a leadership vested in maintaining the status quo.
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