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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya

Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has become a battleground in the longstanding global Sunni-Shia conflict. By PAUL GOLDSMITH

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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya
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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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Mr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

The Making and Unmaking of a Revolution: From the Fall of al-Bashir to the Return of Janjaweed

Thirty years of suffering under the weight of al-Bashir’s regime have not been enough to drain the Sudanese people of their desire to be free. The protest drew people from all ages, social classes, religions, and colour. They overcame social and economic barriers, and joined forces under the same banner.

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The Making and Unmaking of a Revolution: From the Fall of al-Bashir to the Return of Janjaweed
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After more than 30 years of ruling Sudan, in April 2019 the dictator Omar al-Bashir was finally deposed by the military following an irrepressible explosion of civil unrest. In less than five months of protest following the intolerable austerity politics imposed by al-Bashir’s administration, the Sudanese population found unexpected energy and cohesion in fighting peacefully to obtain a democratic government. As crowds of demonstrators from all across the country converged on the capital to join the civil movement, art flourished, and a renewed sense of freedom gave voice once again to those who found the strength to break their chains. Women, such as the “Nubian Queen” Alaa Salah (dubbed “the woman in white”), have been at the forefront of the demonstrations, and people from all walks of life who have been denied their basic human rights rose to finally end their silence.

However, things went south in June when the army refused to hold its promise to guarantee a three-year transition period before a new civilian rule could be established. Although the protest organisers rebuked the military’s decision to scrap the agreement, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) acted with unexpected brutality, killing more than one hundred Sudanese activists during the Khartoum massacre. Today, the situation is extremely tense, with claims that the United Arab Emirates is arming the violent counter-revolution. Furthermore, back-and-forth negotiations after a general strike have brought the whole country to a halt. While it’s still hard to tell when (and if) normality will return to the country, let’s have a look at what has happened so far and what the future may hold for Sudan in the post-al-Bashir era.

11 April 2019 – The despot is overthrown

After succeeding former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989, Omar al-Bashir didn’t lose much time to show the world his true face as a violent and brutal leader. Al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has been accused of being the man behind the mass murders, forcible transfers, tortures, and rapes committed in Darfur since 2003.

When in January 2018 the country started facing imminent economic collapse, al-Bashir decided to impose a series of extreme austerity measures that included cuts to wheat and electricity subsidies, and the devaluation of the country’s currency. Inflation spiked to 70 per cent, and the Sudanese people had to struggle even to access basic goods, such as fuel, bread, and cash from ATMs. When the first demonstrations over the unacceptable living standards began in the eastern regions (the price of bread tripled in less than one year), the situation quickly became uncontrollable.

In December 2018 the unrest spread to the capital Khartoum and took the form of a series of riots that were brutally repressed by the regime. Nearly a thousand protesters were arrested, and dozens more got killed or wounded by the security forces who used live ammunition against the population. Coordinated by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), demonstrators from all social classes of the country eventually joined forces under the umbrella of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) – also known as the Alliance for Freedom and Change – to fight for the ouster of the regime and the transition to a democratic government. Despite many attempts to block media coverage of the protests and to impose strict Internet censorship on social media, al-Bashir’s administration failed to contain the civil movements.

When in January 2018 the country started facing imminent economic collapse, al-Bashir decided to impose a series of extreme austerity measures that included cuts to wheat and electricity subsidies, and the devaluation of the country’s currency. Inflation spiked to 70 per cent, and the Sudanese people had to struggle even to access basic goods, such as fuel, bread, and cash from ATMs.

The tension peaked in February 2019 when the president went so far as to declare a state of national emergency – an attempt to try and break the will of the protesters with more violence, beatings, and arrests perpetrated by army officers who were put in charge of provincial governments. But the Sudanese protesters did not relent, and on April 6 hundreds of thousands of them marched to the square in front of the military’s headquarters, seeking the help of the army. A conflict between the military who took the demonstrators’ side and the security forces ensued, and shots were fired. On April 11, 2019, the military finally announced that al-Bashir had been overthrown.

The many shapes and colours of the civil protest

Thirty years of suffering under the weight of al-Bashir’s regime have not been enough to drain the Sudanese people of their desire to be free. The protest drew people from all ages, social classes, religions, and colour. They overcame social and economic barriers, and joined forces under the same banner.

During the hardest times of the civil battleground, the revolt harboured some heroic moments, such as when a doctor was killed while he was bravely trying to resuscitate other protesters who were wounded by the security forces. The marches were led by courageous women who took a stand against the oppressive colonial laws that condemn to flogging all female activists who participate in anti-government manifestations. The image of Kandake Alaa Salah chanting to encourage the protestors went viral and came to symbolise women’s strength in leading this battle to live in a country where everyone’s human rights are protected.

The civil unrest channeled incredible and unexpected energy from the Sudanese population – an unbreakable will to peacefully fight against oppression that provided the entire continent with a fundamental lesson on civil disobedience. Neither the scorching heat, hunger, nor thirst stopped the Muslims protesters from enduring their sit-ins in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum during Ramadan. The same social media that the government tried to muzzle became the instrument used by the volunteers who assisted these determined dissidents by providing them food and water at night. And as the revolution never stopped or faltered under the blows of the regime’s forces, all this energy became palpable and took the form of colourful murals, amazing canvases, manifestos on women’s rights, and other incredibly beautiful works of art that left the word astonished. And very few things are more exquisitely humane and liberating than art itself.

The betrayal by the TMC and the Khartoum massacre

Following the deposition of al-Bashir, power was assumed by the Transitional Military Council (TMC), a council of seven generals led by Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. Once it seized power, the TMC held its position firmly, claiming it must stay in charge to ensure order and security. A long and difficult negotiation with the FCC ensued before an agreement could be reached on May 15. The agreement provided for a 3-year transition period to a civilian-led government constituted by a sovereign council, a cabinet, and a legislative body. The long transition period was needed to dismantle the deeply entrenched political network previously established by former President al-Bashir and ensure fair, democratic elections.

The civil unrest channeled incredible and unexpected energy from the Sudanese population – an unbreakable will to peacefully fight against oppression that provided the entire continent with a fundamental lesson on civil disobedience.

However, a few days later, something terrible happened. A new (or we should say, old) force made its appearance among the Sudanese soldiers. Groups of masked militiamen started beating activists and dragging them away to secret detention centers where they are held without charge and sometimes even raped and tortured. Hit squads move around the city in Toyota pickups with their plates removed to chase down protesters.

Who are these people? They’re the same elite squads of security forces employed by the now ousted al-Bashir regime to clear out protesters from the streets. Named the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), they’re highly-trained, exceptionally brutal agents able to exact swift punishment on anyone who endangers their control on the Sudanese people and the country. They are the feared Janjaweed, a group of specialised forces famous for the atrocities inflicted on the civilian population during the Darfur crisis 14 years ago.

The TMC went so far as to arrest and forcibly deport three rebel leaders – Yasir Arman, Ismail Jalab and Mubarak Ardol – to South Sudan after they met Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for talks about the negotiation. Their goal is clear – the do not intend to hand over power to the people. The military elites simply ousted al-Bashir as they saw a unique opportunity to seize power for themselves, and they came clean on this on June 3 when several armed bands opened fire on the protesters with the excuse of “dispersing the sit-in”.

However, a few days later, something terrible happened. A new (or we should say, old) force made its appearance among the Sudanese soldiers. Groups of masked militiamen started beating activists and dragging them away to secret detention centers where they are held without charge and sometimes even raped and tortured.

They didn’t stop there. Over 200 military vehicles and 10,000 soldiers ravaged and ransacked the city for several days while the Internet was shut down. Countless unjustified arrests were carried out, and unarmed people were dragged out of their houses, detained, beaten, and raped. The aftermath was a bloodbath – aptly named the Khartoum massacre, with more than 100 Sudanese activists killed, nearly 700 wounded, and at least 70 women and men raped by the RSF and Janjaweed forces. (Many corpses have been thrown in drainage channels so the body count is probably even higher.) Shortly after the violent crackdown, the military council thrashed any agreement made with the FCC and SPA and announced that fresh elections would be held within nine months.

The general strike and total civil disobedience

In the wake of the killings, civilian activists haven’t given up with their quest to establish a democratic government in Sudan. The “people’s movement” may lack the cohesion and discipline of the reorganised military party, but it definitely doesn’t lack the will and determination to make the change. While the international community’s response has been the usual generic condemnation, the rebels swiftly understood that big powers, such as the United States, China and Europe, could do nothing more than ask their regional allies to exert (negligible) pressure on the Sudanese army. Even the hands of the United Nations are somewhat tied after China and Russia blocked the sanctions that were initially foreseen. The FCC thus defiantly cut all contacts with the TMC and called for a general strike – “total civil disobedience” – to kick the military junta out.

Observance of the strike was nearly absolute, reaching almost 100 per cent in Khartoum. All across the country all kind of operations, from banks, to hospitals, airports, ports, and government agencies, have been shut down for days. Workers are protesting side by side with scientists, doctors, lawyers, shop owners, street vendors, and journalists. The entire country is once again united against a common threat.

But the reprisal was swift and cruel, with dozens of airport workers arrested and hundreds of people detained without charge. Despite its attempts at distorting the truth through propaganda, the RSF now looks more and more like an army of occupation than a force that is guaranteeing civil order and security.

The current situation and the reaction of the international community

The commander of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as “Hemeti”), is a ruthless veteran of the war in Yemen – his RSF troops are still fighting there to help the Saudi-led coalition. For obvious reasons, he is backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who do not want see a major Arab country like Sudan transition to democracy. The Saudis and the Emiratis know that he is the ideal candidate to preserve the autocratic status quo in Sudan after the fall of al-Bashir, and have already warned against the “folly” of a popular uprising. They have explicitly expressed their support for Hemeti and other military leaders. Several videos uploaded on social media clearly show that the militiamen who carried out the killings during the June 3 attack were geared with Emirati-manufactured armaments.

The United States’ reaction was cautionary at best. The Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale, expressed concern over the crackdown during a talk with the Saudis, noting “the importance of a transition to a civilian-led government”. A diplomat will be sent to ease the talks between the FCC and the TMC, but so far, no real pressure has been exerted on Egypt or the Saudis to act against the TMC forces or to help the FCC.

The commander of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as “Hemeti”), is a ruthless veteran of the war in Yemen – his RSF troops are still fighting there to help the Saudi-led coalition. For obvious reasons, he is backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who do not want see a major Arab country like Sudan transition to democracy.

After initially supporting a transition towards civilian rule, the African Union (AU) spoke against the intervention of international actors in the current Sudanese situation. But the AU’s chairperson is none other than Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Field Marshal who won elections with a landslide victory by obtaining 97 per cent of votes. It is not a coincidence that el-Sisi seized power after his army massacred 1,000 unarmed protesters at a sit-in in Cairo in 2013.

Now, after days of talks, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed finally managed to broker a new agreement between the civilian and military forces. On 12 June, the strikes were momentarily suspended after the TMC agreed to release political prisoners, and the two parties are now at the negotiating table once again. The situation is extremely unstable, and the TMC is starting to feel the pressure of internal divisions. What the future holds for the Sudanese people is really hard to tell, but their defiant battle against all odds is a prime example of the immense power that common people unknowingly hold against their oppressors.

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Politics

Man Enough? Why Men Shouldn’t Have To Be

Still, the question remains: What would men gain by relinquishing the power that masculinity has so far unfairly accorded them? Freedom for one. Because it is not just women and LGBTI folks who are oppressed by the idea of gender; heterosexual men are too.

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A fable I was taught as a young Kikuyu boy seeks to explain the rise of the patriarchal society. It speaks of a time, long ago, when women ruled over men. Unhappy with the state of affairs, the “oppressed” men conspired to get all the women pregnant at the same time, and so easily overthrew them. They have since been the undisputed rulers.

The misogyny and fear of women expressed in that tale are alive and well in contemporary Kenya’s male-dominated society. Today they manifest in the repeated refusal of the country’s parliament to enact laws mandated by the country’s constitution that prohibit any public body (including Parliament) of having a composition of more than two-thirds of their members from one gender. It is manifested in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s own refusal, which gives the lie to his rhetoric at last week’s Women Deliver Conference in Canada to implement the same rule in his appointments and nominations. It is a fear that may, ironically, be also driving discrimination and oppression of men – specifically, homosexual men.

Banning homosexuality

Last month, in a convoluted and contradictory judgment, the High Court upheld colonial-era laws that criminalised sex acts “against the order of nature”. Enacted at the very dawn of colonial occupation by the famously stuck-up Victorians, the laws are today spuriously defended as reflective of “African culture”. The High Court in Botswana recently struck down as unconstitutional an identical law, also introduced by the British, declaring it “discriminatory” and warning that “human dignity is harmed when minority groups are marginalised”.

Many times, such harmful laws are supported by the same Kenyan men who rabidly oppose women’s empowerment. As it turns out, this may not be a coincidence. According to researchers at the University of Geneva, prior to the feminist revolution of the late 1960s, men had largely constructed their masculinity in opposition to women as anti-femininity. However, as society moves towards greater gender equality and as men are encouraged to get in touch with their “feminine” side and to show emotion and vulnerability, some men, particularly those of a more traditional bent, look for something else to serve as a foil for their idea of masculinity. Typically, they emphasise their heterosexuality. As, Prof Juan M. Falomir, who led the research team says, “homophobia is the alternative way of asserting their masculinity.”

Last month, in a convoluted and contradictory judgment, the High Court upheld colonial-era laws that criminalised sex acts “against the order of nature”. Enacted at the very dawn of colonial occupation by the famously stuck-up Victorians, the laws are today spuriously defended as reflective of “African culture”.

The trajectory of Kenya’s legal prohibitions exemplifies this. As women in Victorian Britain teetered on the verge of a vast change in the laws that had constrained them since medieval times, their menfolk were imposing draconian decrees targeting specifically male homosexual behaviour in their colonies. Today, as women in Kenya increasingly assert themselves in public spaces and challenge the norm of masculine domination, the blowback is not just against them but also against gay men.

Gay women too suffer bigotry and violence. As is true in many other countries, they are subjected to horrific abuse, including assaults and rape, as research on their lived experiences in Kenya has shown. “Masculine presenting” gay women or “studs” experience more discrimination and abuse and are “deliberately locked out of conversations around protection of women by State actors,” the research found. Infamously, the Kenya Film Classification Board last year banned the multiple award-winning movie Rafiki “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya”. The constitutionality of the ban is currently being challenged in court.

Here too, constructions of masculinity are at play. “Patriarchy becomes panicked at these women denying men an opportunity for sex on demand, power on demand, or both. Their power and ability to live the life…outside the autocracy of male influence…becomes a threat to society as it is constructed,” says Dr Njoki Ngumi. Men see lesbians both as sexual rivals taking “their” women, and also as women denying them sex and power.

The link between misogyny and other bigotries is particularly visible online, a platform that has been described as “the gateway drug for extremists”. Today in the West, the rise of populist, far-right governments has also coincided with the accession of an increasing number of women to the pinnacle of power. Donald Trump was widely expected to lose to a woman in 2016. The outgoing Prime Minister of the UK is a woman as is the Chancellor of Germany. And Santiago Zabala has also linked the inclusion of “a racist, homophobic and anti-immigration party” in Spain’s ruling coalition to “the patriarchal obsession with the so-called natural order and the politics of hate that it incubates”.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that it is women who have borne the brunt of the violence committed by men who are unable to construct masculinity in terms other than domination of another. In recent years, for example, reports of women maimed or murdered by their partners or by men they have spurned have become a staple of Kenyan daily news. Such assaults are about reminding women of their place in patriarchy’s pecking order, especially when – as witnessed in the public violence meted out on female politicians in Kenya at the hands of their male counterparts – they dare to confront or deny a man.

Reconstructing masculinity

But how exactly do we go about reconstructing masculinity? Is that even possible? Or does the solution lie in abandoning the idea of gender altogether as fundamentally anti-human? After all, masculinity and femininity are social, religious, political and cultural constructs, only incidentally related to biological accoutrements. When the Standard newspaper calls Amina Mohammed “the only ‘man’ in Uhuru’s Cabinet” or Macharia Gaitho says the same about Martha Karua in the Daily Nation, they do not mean to suggest that the two are in possession of penises and scrotums. When one is told to “man up” or “don’t be a pussy”, the reference is not to biology. All these are pretty offensive – and plainly wrong – cultural constructions that suggest that traits like bravery and assertiveness are to be associated with males while fear and submissiveness are inherently female.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that it is women who have borne the brunt of the violence committed by men who are unable to construct masculinity in terms other than domination of another. In recent years, reports of women maimed or murdered by their partners or by men they have spurned have become a staple of Kenyan daily news. Such assaults are about reminding women of their place in patriarchy’s pecking order, especially when they dare to confront or deny a man.

If we understand that, then we can begin to see the idea of gender itself as just another weapon in the service of patriarchal domination. Rather than a dictate of biology, it is a way of ordering society’s power structure in much the same way other fictional constructs, such as race or tribe, have been historically used.

But while we may rightly take umbrage at media folk ascribing particular qualities to race or tribe (imagine the uproar if the Standard were to describe Mohammed as “the only Kikuyu” or Gaitho were to call Karua “the real mzungu” as a way of recognising their contributions), we seemingly have no problem with the false dichotomies of male as strong and female as weak.

Even the Kikuyu fable I cited at the beginning is an attempt to use biology as a justification for the tyranny of man over woman. Women, it suggests, are weak because they can become pregnant – an assertion that has been shown to be scientifically bogus. If anything, it is the other way around. A recent study in the US found that elites athletes and pregnant women have similar endurance levels. Pregnancy, researchers found, “pushes the body to the same extremes as endurance events like long-distance triathlon competition Ironman or the Tour de France.”

But the fable doesn’t stop there. It constructs female rule as inherently oppressive and men as victims who are justified in using women’s biology against them – kind of like waylaying a cyclist at the end of the Tour de France, which is hardly a fair fight. It is interesting to observe how these ideas then play out in real life as when men deny women access to birth control or abortion and the persistence of practices like FGM or early marriage, all of which are meant to serve as a form of control.

It is no accident that the gender roles and attributes that patriarchal societies have invented tend to favour the dominion of men and to construe biology as women’s inescapable prison. Men, they believe, have freedom that women don’t because women can be raped, need to be defended, cannot hunt or fight. So, the logic goes, biology has decreed that their place is in the home, to serve as the caretaker and caregiver for the man who is able do those things. Yet every day, women are demonstrating the falsehood of such ideas. Sure, the average man is physically bigger and stronger than the average woman, but that does not tell us if he’s braver, more intelligent, a better hunter or a better fighter. After all, humankind’s rise to the top of the food chain has little to do with the size of our muscles.

Femininity is associated with silly and frivolous pursuits while masculinity is about serious things. Women gossip, men talk; women are vain and illogical; men are practical. Yet this script is quickly flipped when it suits the latter, especially when it involves labours that are long, non-stop and are most likely to be devalued or demanded for free. Suddenly women are inherently better, more loving and more attentive parents, while men are inherently incompetent assholes who should not be left alone with either the house or the children. This despite numerous studies demonstrating that supposedly hardwired gender differences are really the result of social conditioning – “it is the experience of parenting, and not some inalterable genetic factor or hormone, that constitutes what we call the ‘maternal instinct.’”

Playing the victim card

Of course, this is not welcome news for men. Most of us like the world just as it is. We can do pretty much what we want – boys will be boys – and we justify it (and comfort ourselves) with the delusion that nature decrees that it is the women who must pick up the pieces (and our socks). We are the kings – why would we want to give that up? When nature is no longer a sufficient prop, we resort to inventions like culture, tradition and even the law and conveniently interpreted religion to cement our place at the top. When those are themselves undermined by reason, we turn the tables and, like the folks in the fable, don the garb of the victim.

“The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate,” declared Adam. “Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little,” is how the eighteenth-century English poet and essayist, Samuel Johnson, sought to justify the oppression of women.

Today in Kenya, we are assailed by online calls for the uplifting of the “boy-child” who has apparently been hard done by as a result of the focus on empowering girls and women. Now it is not in dispute that many boys need help. What is telling is the assertion that the help has to come at either the expense of or as a reaction to that given to girls – even though it is undeniable that across the board, girls and women suffer much more violence and denial of opportunities, mostly at the hands of men. However, the boy-child (and male empowerment) activists many times betray their motives by behaving as if the boy-child problem stems, not from the same patriarchal system that oppresses girls, but rather from the attempt to abolish it and its effects.

This construction of masculinity as victimhood is also evident in the resistance to attempts to decriminalise homosexuality. A typical example is provided by Ghetto Radio, which is popular with Nairobi youth, and which recently reported on the “Alarm Over Rising Rate Of Lesbians In Eastlands”. As Dr Ngumi explains, “Women who are not coded as heterosexual, and thus available for male desire, are going about their business. But here, they are reported to be stirring up ‘fear of being rejected’ in men [in] a falsely alarmist and bigoted news piece which can instigate violence against them.”

A common refrain is that gays threaten the survival of the species, which is baffling considering that they are a tiny minority. And yet, it makes sense if you consider that it is also about group domination as well. As Lara Temple noted in her study of male rape, scholars “have posited … that the subjugation of gay men stems from the perception that they forfeit their male privilege by behaving like women”.

For men who construe sex as something men do to women as an expression of power and penetration as conquest, men who allow themselves to be so penetrated are seen at traitors who endanger the status of all males. It is this idea of a loss of status that is behind the popular notion that homosexuality is somehow “spread” or people are “recruited” into it and that the homosexuals are coming for us all – the patriarchy’s version of the zombie apocalypse.

Biology is not destiny

Gender is probably an irredeemably oppressive way to organise the world. Modelling the world as inherently divided into a male and female half with gendered responsibilities and roles has terrible implications. Take for example Nigerian feminist and academic, Obioma Nnaemeka’s assertion that “each gender constitutes the critical half that makes the human whole. Neither sex is totally complete in itself. Each has and needs a complement, despite the possession of unique features of its own”. This creates the clearly problematic image of a world of incomplete people seeking to find their “other half”, rather than one where relationships are voluntary and can take a variety of forms.

A common refrain is that gays threaten the survival of the species, which is baffling considering that they are a tiny minority. And yet, it makes sense if you consider that it is also about group domination as well. As Lara Temple noted in her study of male rape, scholars “have posited … that the subjugation of gay men stems from the perception that they forfeit their male privilege by behaving like women”.

There is absolutely no reason why, in this day and age, biological differences should be assumed to ascribe limitations beyond the physical – just because nature decrees that it is the women who give birth and breastfeed, there is no reason to assume that they then must be the sole, or even primary caregivers. In the vast majority of instances, men and women can competently perform the same roles and share responsibilities. There is therefore no need to encourage men to get in touch with their supposed “feminine” side since what is coded feminine – such as a desire for and work towards cleanliness, hygiene and beauty in one’s self and their surroundings, as well as a desire to socialise with, care for and listen to others – is actually just human.

The same could be said of arguments that ideas of masculinity need not solely encompass violence and domination. Given that gender and its attributes are social constructions, Nigerian professor of history, Egodi Uchendu, notes that “yardsticks for assessing manifestations of masculinity could differ from place to place and from continent to continent”. There is no one masculinity, rather a multitude of ways to define manliness (as opposed to maleness). Some, like the Zulu, include traits such as honesty, wisdom and respect. Uchendu points out that among the Hua of Papua New Guinea, masculine subjects are seen “highly placed but physically powerless and weak”. And masculinity “is lost by men as they age but gained by women through childbearing”. Yet it is unclear why certain human qualities should be reserved to a particular sex at a particular time (or why their acquisition should necessarily come at the expense of other desirable traits) when they are clearly available to everyone at every time. And worse, they inevitably set up a power dynamic and competition that opens doors to violence and domination.

Towards a gender-free world

Creating a world free of gender does not mean that people wouldn’t think of themselves as men or women just as ridding the world of racism and tribalism needn’t require that people forsake their other made-up identities based on the biological adaptations coded as race, or on the imagined lineages coded as tribe. It just requires that we acknowledge that these are not markers of inherent differences beyond the physical or genealogical – if even that. This, however, will not be easy, just as creating a world free of other bigotries is not. The legacies of millenia of discrimination and marginalisation will need to be addressed and people, especially women, should be afforded help to overcome it. It is that legacy, for example, that necessitates measures like the not-more-than-two-thirds gender rule.

Unfortunately, we do not have recourse to a Thanos-like snap of the fingers that would dissolve long-standing bigotries and hostilities. Legal changes, while necessary, are not sufficient. They will need to be accompanied by targeted efforts to help women, as well as civic and cultural education campaigns and societal willingness to learn new ways to live and relate with each other. Change would take time to effect and to take hold. There will be many false starts, as there have been in the fight against racism and tribalism. But in the end, it will be worth it.

Creating a world free of gender does not mean that people wouldn’t think of themselves as men or women just as ridding the world of racism and tribalism needn’t require that people forsake their other made-up identities based on the biological adaptations coded as race, or on the imagined lineages coded as tribe. It just requires that we acknowledge that these are not markers of inherent differences beyond the physical or genealogical – if even that.

Getting rid of gender-determined roles would require men, for example, to shoulder their fair share of unpaid household labour – cooking, cleaning and caring – most of which is foisted on women. This would free the latter to pursue education, dreams and careers. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that what we often think of as a gender pay gap is more accurately described as a childbearing pay gap or motherhood penalty. Basically, women take a lifetime earnings hit when forced to drop out of the workforce to take care of children. In Kenya, a 2018 report by USAID notes that “unpaid care and domestic work burdens limit women’s contributions in and benefit from productive activities, constrains their mobility, and limits their access to market resources”. The same does not happen to men. In fact, a New York Times piece on pregnancy discrimination noted that while “each child chops 4 percent off a woman’s hourly wages…men’s earnings increase by 6 percent when they become fathers”. Yet there is no physical or biological reason why childcare and domestic duties cannot be more equally shared.

Dr Ngumi notes that “if masculinity is defined by oppression, for men it cannot be practised without it”. Going forward, Kenya, like other societies around the world, will need to address the problems created by the toxic idea of gender and to create better, more meaningful, and more complete notions of humanity that are not legitimised by the oppression of someone else. Men, in particular heterosexual men, will need to understand that life is not a zero-sum competition with and over women. The truth is, as Kenyan lawyer and writer, Marilyn Kamuru says, “There is room for all of us, men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, to live more authentic, freer lives.”

Breaking the dominance chain

Still, the question remains: What would men gain by relinquishing the power that masculinity has so far unfairly accorded them? Freedom for one. Because it is not just women and LGBTI folks who are oppressed by the idea of gender; heterosexual men are too. Kenyan academic Godwin Murunga notes that “the idea of flawed or hegemonic masculinity has been used to indicate that though all men enjoy the “patriarchal dividend” by the sheer fact of being men, these dividends do not accrue to all of them in the same manner and in equal measure”. It is perhaps more useful to think of it as a spectrum of domination, with women and sexual minorities at the bottom but with dominance being expressed right through the chain. Masculinity causes men to harm other men who are weaker, poorer, or who are of a different race or religion.

During the recent brutal attacks on protesters in Sudan, many men, as well as women, were raped by the Janjaweed militias. In fact, the rape of men is well-documented as a weapon in conflicts ranging from the Syrian civil war to that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And, as with the rape of women, it is about power, not sex. As a harrowing report on the rape of men in the Guardian explained, notions of gender and masculinity force a conspiracy of silence between perpetrators and victims with the latter often stigmatised and deserted by family and friends once their story is discovered. One victim in the report was afraid to let his own brother know: “I don’t want to tell him…I fear he will say: ‘Now, my brother is not a man'”. This demonstrates the truth of Lara Temple’s observation that “the rape of men is a form of gender oppression in which gendered hierarchies are reproduced”.

As alluded to above, men are also forced to give up a part of their human self in order to become more manly. The prohibitions against showing emotion, the constant competition to be First Bodi – or Alpha Male, the pressure to accumulate sexual “conquests”, all these take their toll, constantly shrinking their pool of experience, isolating them from the world, turning them into tired, grumpy, angry, old men, who have no idea how to love, how to be tender, how to be kind, or how to maintain mutually beneficial human relationships.

And they are downright dangerous. Studies have shown that “the system that keeps men in a collectively dominant position over women and in competitive relations to other men comes at a cost for men in terms of their health and quality of life. Faced with an ideal where physical resilience is valorised, men find it harder to seek healthcare and engage in preventive activities.”

On the other hand, equality has clear benefits for men. As Thomas Sankara said, “We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”

Women’s empowerment need not – and does not – come at the expense of men. On the contrary, it is indispensable to their welfare and to that of all of society. The World Bank estimates that gender inequality in 2014 cost the global economy $160 trillion – which is double the total estimate for global GDP. And that figure has been rising along with population growth. Twenty years before, it was $123 trillion.

Bigotry, in the end, is incredibly short-sighted even as concerns the bigot’s own interests. “The repeal 162 case is an excellent example of this,” says political analyst and author, Nanjala Nyabola, citing the High Court ruling upholding laws criminalising gay sex. “Was it worth unraveling constitutional protections against discrimination just to protect a heteronormative idea of marriage which wasn’t even on the table?” she asks pointedly.

The cost of discrimination is not just to the victims but is borne by society as a whole. All of Kenya would benefit from a more diverse Parliament in terms of better governance. And the refusal to implement a constitutional principle is not just troubling for women. For if the people in power can ignore that provision, who is to say they cannot ignore any other provision? Are men really willing to forgo their own protections just to keep women in their place? Rather than be king of a small pond, wouldn’t it be better to share the bounty of an ocean of humanity? Only a man blinded by the idea of masculinity would say no.

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Politics

Call It By Its Name: Tribalism’s Moment in American Politics

Tribalism has become a buzzword within American politics at present, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The affliction becomes especially acute when compared with the state of tribalism within East Africa, particularly in Kenya.

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Call It By Its Name: Tribalism’s Moment in American Politics
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The United States of America has a fundamental issue with using certain terminology. When it comes to certain hills, the cultural norm is to die upon them without admitting certain ugly truths. The issue of American tribalism is one such battle of attrition.

In the US, in all brutal honesty, there is no admittance to looking at issues through a tribal lens; it is considered an almost uncouth term, inaccurate, sensationalist and (through a more ugly lens) applicable to an interchangeable “other”. I’ve had conversations revolving around this, when Americans are quick to point out that the issue of “tribalism” is a fundamentally African problem, something that occurs overseas, within countries that are painted with an unspoken brush of “lesser” – less developed, less “civilised”, less democratic, less Western, depending on the kind of jingoistic plug they want to apply to racism or neo-colonialism.

Tribalism has become a buzzword within American politics at present, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The affliction becomes especially acute when compared with the state of tribalism within East Africa, particularly in Kenya. The issue is, above all, an insidious indictment against another group. It is an inherent and unfounded bias against perceived characteristics that cuts across facts and rationality. Tribalism is, in many aspects, the very epitome of the “us against them” mentality. So how does this play into American politics?

The very definition of tribalism, according to Merriam Webster, is “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group”. Americans just tend to think that this is merely a question of ethnicity, of belonging to a literal tribe, thus positioning themselves falsely above the fray; in denial of any association with any such allusion parallel to an issue often associated with the “developing” world.

Americans just tend to think that this is merely a question of ethnicity, of belonging to a literal tribe, thus positioning themselves falsely above the fray; in denial of any association with any such allusion parallel to an issue often associated with the “developing” world.

As Kenyan citizens are all too aware, the very nature of tribalism is its pervasiveness. For those prescribing to fall in line with tribal ideas, it can become all-encompassing and derogatory of other groups in the extreme. In the mind of a “tribalist”, Kikuyus are shrewd business minds and are surely taking over the country to their own ends; Luos are loud and boisterous, too uncouth for political control; Merus have long fuses but terribly explosive tempers once the fuse is completed; Kalenjins will borrow things but are not to be trusted with them; Kambas are flashy in their style but have spent the rent for the style achieved. All of these stereotypes, when manifesting as the first and foremost notion of a group, can become deeply engrained, however head-slapping they may be.

Despite the progress made over these divisions in Kenyan society, it is still a common occurrence to come across an individual who holds true to their notions about others, and can’t be told otherwise. It is the last aspect, that of being unable or unwilling to deviate from a divisive perception that is most applicable to the political situation in the United States approximately 17 months ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The liberal and conservative wings are at each other’s throats to an extent that hasn’t been seen in the United States since the darkest days of the clashes between those against the Vietnam War and those supporting the military action.

Therefore, it is only right to look with a critical lens towards my own side, my own social identity, my own political “tribe”. It is time for me to admit my personal political views. I fall into the liberal camp and have always done so. Despite my leanings, it is impossible to look at the tone of the liberal wing of American society objectively and not view them as part of the problem, at least with regard to the furthering of the tone. I will pause here and allow for a multitude of familial connections and social acquaintances to send me sharply worded messages explaining that their side is worse; it is them that are furthering the division, that it is Republicans who are on the wrong side and that good liberal democrats could never think as cruelly as conservative voters do. They prove my point: one of the ugly realities of tribalistic thinking is to buck criticism from those within your own ranks and to view such criticism as a betrayal to the group.

From the liberal side of things, the perception is clear. There is open talk among the left that Republicans are a “threat”; that they are “seizing control” and are “selling out to a dictator to get what they want”. It is rebounded off left-leaning media echo chambers, in satire, from Democratic politicians themselves. Tribalism, in its essence, is finding societal safety in a group, and damn the others if you think they impede on your safety.

The messaging from the left-leaning side is that the right-wing tribe is a threat, that they are a minority in the US that are seeking to maintain their ill-gotten political control by any means necessary, including those means that are less than democratic. They are only in the game for themselves, while exploiting members of their own political base (who will, of course, follow them blindly) to gain more of a stranglehold on American society; the Republicans are trying to form the United States as moulded around the conservative ideal (which was based on oppression in the first place, of course) in spite of what would be a “positive outcome” for the long-suffering masses. (The Kenyan reader will probably find that prior statement uncomfortably familiar in tone to some of the talk swirling about before the 2007 elections. This is meant in no way to diminish the horrors of the post-election violence and elevate American problems as to somehow “more so”; merely to point out tonal similarities.)

The conservative tribe must also be examined in close detail, as there a direct line to cut towards tribalistic tendencies in both tone and action. From this end, some of the divisions have been made more acute, if not deepened in a more extreme fashion. When dealing with issues of the politically tribal, the top brass should be the major holder of any responsibility for the messaging and resulting actions of their followers.

There is no clearer example of an individual who should be held accountable than that of Donald Trump himself. It isn’t an exaggeration to state that he has frequently engaged in incitement along tribal lines. His words must speak for themselves. Mexicans (and other Latin American migrants) are rapist criminal invaders, hell-bent on taking the “homeland” for their own ill purposes. Democrats are disgusting, manipulative and treacherous, seeking to overthrow the very power that the conservatives currently lay claim to within the United States. Muslims are a threat, and are to be banned. Political dissidents are committing treason. Those who investigate serious allegations of ongoing criminal activities are actively engaged in a “witch hunt” and must be ignored by those loyal to the White House, regardless of evidence.

The conservative end of the media, such as FOX News, isn’t much different, repeating talking points, calling Democrats “rats” in front of millions of viewers. The barrage of information, misinformation, and accusation-hefting has become a constant staple. Those Republican politicians who have fallen into the camp of “dissent” have their loyalty publicly questioned by the White House. That’s the essence of political tribalism – to further the message of the group through a means of clarity-by-murkiness.

In recent weeks and months, Trump has spoken repeatedly and publicly (without proven basis) of a conspiracy against him aimed at usurping the White House and launching some sort of coup (as those loyal to the left could never accept the outcome of a controversial election in 2016 and are thus trying to undermine the administration). Violent action is repeatedly hinted at, to be carried out at the hands of “those with the guns” in America.

The conservative end of the media, such as FOX News, isn’t much different, repeating talking points, calling Democrats “rats” in front of millions of viewers. The barrage of information, misinformation, and accusation-hefting has become a constant staple. Those Republican politicians who have fallen into the camp of “dissent” have their loyalty publicly questioned by the White House. That’s the essence of political tribalism – to further the message of the group through a means of clarity-by-murkiness.

So what is the result of this political climate in America? Both sides have gone further towards their respective ideologies, leaving a gaping gulf between them, with little room for political maneuvering, social interaction, or public discourse within it. At a localised level, the true extent of tribalism comes to fruition: neighbours fuming at each other, families not on speaking terms, friendships ending and punches thrown at political rallies. This is fundamentally a problem of communities being pitted against one another; and is a question of being primed to do so, with the loudest voices being lifted to the forefront and drowning out what one report on tribalism in America called “the exhausted majority” – those tired of the constant fighting but resigned to the untoward realities therein. Those at the fringes hold more and more sway, and hold the rest of the community accountable to fall in line, encouraging that silence. Right now in the United States, that is the pervasive tone. The average person, upon hearing a political discussion, seems spent by the very idea of engaging in it, turned off, angry and unsure of what to do; there seems to be an air of not knowing exactly what to do about the perceived takeover of the political discourse.

A fundamental misunderstanding of tribalism is that is the entirety of a population that becomes ensnared and takes extreme action. This largely isn’t the case; it is usually a small proportion of the population yelling the loudest and taking to the streets in numbers that would intimidate other disorganised citizens. In America, those few yelling the loudest often have semi-automatic guns.

Will the United States look to Kenya to learn from the nation’s recent history? There is, unfortunately, little to no chance of that, as American society is nothing if not jingoistic and bullheadedly independent. If one was apt enough to look though, the entire blueprint of the darkness of tribalism invading politics would be laid bare in the Kenyan example; the same tones used, the waters of messaging getting muddied, the divisions deepening, and finally, in the wake of a disputed and inflammatory election, an entire nation taken to the very brink of irreversible damage.

If tribalism, at its very core, is identity politics, are the political climates within the two countries truly all that different? It reflects badly upon the US, in a further parallel to view itself as somehow “above” sinking to political violence at levels comparable of those “other” countries. After all, in much of the West, Kenya pre-December 2007 was talked about in a patronising tone of being a “good” African country incapable of slipping into a vacuum of politically stoked bloodshed. The explosion in Kenya was largely sparked by a rough year-long period of fear-mongering and polarising rhetoric and speech so questionable that six prominent Kenyan public figures of politics and the media were investigated by Kenya and the International Criminal Court for incitement to violence. This period of amplification came atop decades of divisive politics and tribalistic tension.

Within the US, although the overall feeling remains that the nation will somehow carry on unscathed, historical evidence points to a potential for a darker outcome. Already, there have been calls that the 2016 election outcome was somehow “rigged” on the part of the Democrats, stealing a result that wound up in an electoral college victory regardless.

There is a further wrinkle when addressing the political leaders engaging in tribalism: they often skate on with impunity, above the fray that they’re helping to create, outside the fire that they’re stoking and without real consequences for their statements and actions.

The protectionist mantra has also been intensified, with “armies” of Latin American immigrants allegedly due at any second to stream across the border and snatch away power. There have been explicit nods to white nationalist causes from the White House, making the statement that in fact, yes, white America has something to fear. Trump in essence has been stating that he alone can combat the causes of those fears, real or imagined. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to look at some of the statements made by the current administration as acts of tribal incitement. He’s offered protection to his supporters who would act violently at political rallies against protesters, offering to even “pay their legal fees”. He’s repeatedly attacked his critics, even, in the case of Senator John McCain, after their passing due to their political opposition to him. He has repeatedly dehumanised those outside his support group, calling them cowards, liars, cheats. He has heralded the most vehement and extreme among his base, even to point of promoting them to be members of the White House staff. He’s even claimed publicly that if an attempt to formally remove him from office were made, a revolt would take place in the US. If tweets, including such inflammatory language, had come from an African leader’s phone at 3 am, it might well end up as exhibit A at International Criminal Court proceedings.

There is a further wrinkle when addressing the political leaders engaging in tribalism: they often skate on with impunity, above the fray that they’re helping to create, outside the fire that they’re stoking and without real consequences for their statements and actions. That is the case with Trump currently; even as he’s preyed upon the pre-existing divisions within the US for his own personal exploitation and “all coverage is good coverage” political PR strategy, nothing concrete has stuck to him. He still holds the office, he still wields power, he’s consolidated his political base around him to the extent of commanding the highest ever approval ratings among his base, all the while pushing the left further away and across the void. No charges have been made against him. There has been no formal announcement of impeachment. The powerful political figures in his party have largely fallen in line. During the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, there was an outpouring of violence at political rallies. It is yet to be seen if the continued toxicity of the last three years will bleed over into the ramping up of the political season, and if that dye has already been cast.

In 2007 it did in Kenya and in the aftermath of it all, no one was really held to account. Those who suffered the most were far away from the lush compounds in Lavington or Karen; far away from jetting out of the country for an extended holiday or a jaunt in Zanzibar, and that, more than anything, is the inherent tragedy of tribalism; that those who champion division, rile the sides to rattle sabers against one another and possibly incite actual violence never end up holding the water for anyone below them.

The real answers, however, aren’t in the lofty political bourgeois debate and scramble for influence, but down at the street level, where Americans are forming their own ranks among the citizenry.

The likes of Donald J Trump have the capital to stay away from it all and to give the same sleazy statements feigning outrage at the very notion that they should somehow be held to account for their words and actions on media platforms, on the campaign trail, and within the very halls of power. Floyd Mayweather has nothing on the ability of a tribe-stoking politician to duck a punch. No lessons have been learned in the US, not from our own recent election, not from Kenya’s past and not from any international voice or citizen of the “political bubble”. The problem is that in a nation so driven to the extreme of division, in this far out of the actual depths of election season (and the actual ballot day of Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020), the bottom is very hard to see. After all, the Democratic Party is still a year out from picking a champion and it is yet to be seen if any in the Republican Party would dare to challenge Trump (a move which would inevitably push him to consolidate his base by bringing them closer into the fold).

The real answers, however, aren’t in the lofty political bourgeois debate and scramble for influence, but down at the street level, where Americans are forming their own ranks among the citizenry. Just the other week, on the steps of the state capital of Wisconsin in Madison (itself an incredibly divided so-called “swing state”), a protest against the recent anti-abortion measures passed in Alabama took place, and I joined in the ranks of those protesting against the recent ban. I watched as in front of me members of the two sides yelled into each other’s faces over the shoulders of police ranks formed to keep proceedings calm. Nothing was resolved, but in that exchange I saw a microcosm of such confrontations that can only increase in frequency and vehemence in the months and years to come. But to what end is impossible to say. Neither side is willing to give an inch at this point, a precarious position to take when at the precipice.

If ever there was a time for America to listen, for once, to Kenya, it is now. For the people in the Rift Valley, nothing was resolved despite all the posturing and promises. Those who lit the fire in Kenya stood back and watched the flames rise. Right now in the United States, it seems, that some in power are willing to flick the matches.

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