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A Perfect Storm: Why the DRC Remains the Epicentre of the Ebola Epidemic

10 min read. The Western reaction to the Ebola contagion is, once again, a deeply colonial one. The more enlightened and civilized countries of the Old Continent (and the New one as well) are patronising impoverished African countries who keep paying the price of their own underdevelopment. The Ebola epidemic just confirms the underlying narrative engineered by centuries of oppressive politics – that this disease is the result of a “plagued” environment where even animals and the forces of nature carry some form of sickness.

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A Perfect Storm: Why the DRC Remains the Epicentre of the Ebola Epidemic

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is facing the worst Ebola outbreak in the history of this country. Nearly 400 people have died since August last year and the situation is only getting worse. Shortly after the elections last month, violence spiked, leading hundreds of refugees to flood bordering nations and many international health workers to withdraw from the country. Armed conflict threatened the safety of many healthcare professionals, forcing them to suspend their work and allowing the virus to spread. Once again, the government of the DRC answered to this crisis by shutting down the country’s Internet service, making things even worse.

But what is Ebola, and what’s the history behind this horrific disease? What are the numbers of the current outbreak and the risks for the neighbouring regions associated with this unmanaged crisis? How did the other African countries and the international community plan to deal with this humanitarian catastrophe?

What is Ebola and how does it work?

The Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) is a rare and often fatal haemorrhagic fever. An animal-borne illness, Ebola spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission. Much less contagious than many people think, the infection occurs only through direct contact with bodily fluids or secretions (blood, urine, semen, stool, saliva) of a sick or recently dead person. A healthy person needs to come in contact with infected body fluids or contaminated items (such as syringes, bed linen or soiled clothing) for the virus to be able to get in through broken skin or mucous membranes (nose, eyes, mouth). Sexual contact with a diseased individual can also transmit the virus.

People who are most at risk during an outbreak are health workers, people who are in close contact with infected individuals (such as relatives, close friends, and spouses/partners), and mourners who have direct contact with bodies. For example, during the 2014-2015 West Africa outbreak, 74 per cent of transmissions occurred among family members.

The incubation period ranges from 2 to 21 days during which the individual is not contagious. Early symptoms (dry phase) include intense weakness, sudden onset of high fever, joint and muscle pain, sore throat, headache, and stomach pain. As the virus spreads through the body, the host’s immune system is damaged, and other symptoms become manifest, including diarrhoea, skin rash, uncontrollable internal and external bleeding, and impaired liver and kidney function (wet phase). As the levels of blood-clotting cells drop, the patient may start bleeding from the mouth, eyes, ears, nose, and rectum.

People who are most at risk during an outbreak are health workers, people who are in close contact with infected individuals (such as relatives, close friends, and spouses/partners), and mourners who have direct contact with bodies. For example, during the 2014-2015 West Africa outbreak, 74 per cent of transmissions occurred among family members.

Currently, there’s still no official cure for Ebola, other than some experimental antiviral drugs that may stop the virus from replicating. Treatment is usually only supportive, and aimed at keeping the patient alive while his body fights the infection. Doctors manage the symptoms of Ebola with basic interventions to improve the chances of survival, such as providing intravenous fluids and electrolytes, administering oxygen therapy and medications to improve blood pressure and reduce fluid loss caused by vomit and diarrhoea. Patients can also receive blood transfusions and additional treatment to deal with secondary infections.

The average mortality rate associated with Ebola is slightly below 50 per cent. However, in some instances, fatality rates have reached up to 90 per cent in past outbreaks. Those who survive may experience several side effects during their long convalescence period, including weakness, vision and hearing impairment, and digestion problems. Survivors often face social stigma when they re-enter their communities.

The first outbreak

Ebola first appeared in 1976 when two consecutive outbreaks of fatal haemorrhagic fever occurred in South Sudan and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), approximately within 850 km of each other. The latter outbreak occurred in Yambuku, near the Ebola River, which gave the virus its name. However, researchers found that the virus existed long before these recorded outbreaks occurred, suggesting that encroachment into forested areas and increased interaction with infected wildlife may have caused the initial epidemics.

The genus Ebolavirus is a group of viruses that include several subtypes, of which only four are known to cause disease in humans. The other forms can infect other animals such as pigs, apes and duikers. The four viruses that infect humans (Ebola, Taï Forest, Sudan, and Bundibugyo) also affect non-human primates such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and monkeys, and fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family that help spread the infection to the general population. In fact, bats carrying the virus are the most likely source that transmitted it to apes and humans. However, the main reason why the virus spread so quickly during the initial outbreaks was the lack of proper hygienic measures taken to contain the contagion. The Yambuku mission hospital was underequipped and understaffed, and nurses reportedly re-used the same five syringes for roughly half a thousand patients a day even if they were contaminated.

2014: Ebola becomes a global threat

On March 23, 2014, a new EVD epidemic started spreading from a rural region of southeastern Guinea after a young boy from a small village was infected by bats. More cases of fatal haemorrhagic diarrhoea occurred in that area as the virus kept spreading rapidly toward nearby urban areas. Within weeks, the contagion had reached the bordering countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia, and in just a few months the epidemic became global, marking the beginning of the largest Ebola epidemic in history.

As the virus reached the more densely populated urban centres, the situation started deteriorating rapidly, and the World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). EVD crossed the borders of the African continent, reaching other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain. The poor public health infrastructure vastly contributed to the inability of the local authorities to contain the outbreak. Scientists and public health officials had only a vague idea how the virus spread, and the local community was never educated on how to prevent contagion. Many prevailing traditional and cultural practices related to mourning and burial provided additional opportunities for transmission.

Eventually, a careful implementation of health policies and infection prevention and control practices at the national and global level allowed the international community to curb the epidemic. Community engagement was critical in controlling the outbreak, especially when local leaders assisted with prevention programmes and the adoption of safe burial practices. Liberia and Sierra Leone were declared Ebola-free in early 2016, two and a half years after the first case was discovered. The aftermath, however, was tremendous; 11,325 people out of a total of 28,639 confirmed cases lost their lives to the infection. To put things in perspective, there were 2,427 reported cases and 1,597 deaths in all other known cases and outbreaks of Ebola combined.

The outbreak had also a tremendous impact on the healthcare sector of the countries affected; there were 513 confirmed deaths of health workers reported in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Sierra Leone and Liberia lost 7 per cent and 8 per cent of their doctors, nurses, and midwives to Ebola, respectively. The epidemic caused a total loss of $2.2 billion in the gross domestic product of the three countries, and their growth was stunted due to food security concerns that negatively affected agricultural exports and cross-border trade restrictions.

The role of conflict in Ebola epidemics

Currently the DRC is fighting another devastating Ebola outbreak. Since the first four patients tested positive for the Ebola virus on 1 August 2018, a total of 608 cases have been reported, with 368 deaths confirmed, a fatality rate of about 60 per cent. Despite the lessons learned during the last epidemic of 2014, the death count keeps rising every day. The virus has already started moving from the North Kivu province where it originated, and reached the neighbouring Ituri province. If the crisis is not contained quickly, the three bordering nations, Rwanda, Uganda, and South Sudan, are endangered as well.

Currently the DRC is fighting another devastating Ebola outbreak. Since the first four patients tested positive for the Ebola virus on 1 August 2018, a total of 608 cases have been reported, with 368 deaths confirmed, a fatality rate of about 60 per cent. Despite the lessons learned during the last epidemic of 2014, the death count keeps rising every day.

Since the first outbreak in 1976, 10 of the more than 30 known Ebola epidemics occurred in the DRC, the current one starting just weeks after the previous one was declared over. Congolese health officials have a lot of experience responding to Ebola cases in the DRC. But why is the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history ravaging a country which should be much more prepared than other countries? The answer is simple yet complicated at the same time. But it can be summed up in one word: conflict.

The history of the previous outbreak taught us all a very important lesson: that disorganisation is the most effective force to help the virus multiply and spread unobstructed. Anything that hinders treatment and prevention efforts places an unbearable burden on the already stressed health system, especially when hospitals and facilities must deal with the aggravated health problems associated with military conflict. War puts the civilian population under unnecessary distress, paving the way to what the WHO’s Deputy Director-General for Emergency Preparedness and Response already described as “the perfect storm”. A closer look at the data from the aftermath of the outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone shows how much the difficulties associated with local conflict can turn a tragedy into a catastrophe.

Liberia and Sierra Leone were already devastated by a decade of civil war that resulted in half a million deaths and over 200,000 refugees. Population displacement and military struggles increase the risk for an infectious disease to spread unhindered. Civilians may be forced to survive through marginal subsistence strategies when crops are collaterally or deliberately destroyed. This increases their vulnerability to disease. All the medications in the world are useless when the human body is already weak due to lack of food and water. Soldiers and armed groups, on the other hand, may face additional exposure during forced marches, advances, and reconnaissance missions in densely forested areas.

All the prevention and control strategies needed to contain an outbreak cannot be employed in a country facing the many challenges of an ongoing conflict. War brings insecurity, and when combatants keep carrying out deadly attacks on civilians, the entire country is paralysed and the body count keeps rising, exposing people to further contagion. Help from the international community must be temporarily halted, all crisis response strategies are slowed down to a crawl, and critical supplies end up being pinned down or seized by the military forces. Key communication channels may be hindered or severed when dictators or other governmental authorities try to muzzle dissidents by restricting freedom of speech.

The current situation in the DRC

Violence is rampant in the DRC right now, with rebel armed groups engaged in a constant state of warfare with government forces, and over a million refugees travelling out of the country. A lot of “red zones” are too dangerous for health responders to reach and help the infected. Mistrust is causing resistance among the local population who refuses experimental vaccines and take care of their sick relatives at home at a time when they’re most contagious. The constant state of uncertainty is causing widespread fear among the Congolese population, which is fleeing the country en masse, trying to cross the border towards the neighbouring Uganda. Many of these refugees will try to sneak through by avoiding patrols, and who knows how many of them could be infected?

Crooked politics and corruption are the norm, and the situation is very volatile. In December, the government of Joseph Kabila even resorted to using the Ebola epidemic as an excuse to disenfranchise a million voters and postpone the presidential election in the areas most affected by the disease. Protesters didn’t take this decision well, and took out their anger and frustration on the hotspot city of Beni, the site of one of the few Ebola-testing facilities available. During the riot, a few tents got burned. What’s worse, a few people panicked and fled the assessment centre. Some of them could be infected. Oh, and an epidemic of malaria has also likely broken in the region.

Crooked politics and corruption are the norm, and the situation is very volatile. In December, the government of Joseph Kabila even resorted to using the Ebola epidemic as an excuse to disenfranchise a million voters and postpone the presidential election in the areas most affected by the disease. Protesters didn’t take this decision well, and took out their anger and frustration on the hotspot city of Beni, the site of one of the few Ebola-testing facilities available.

Local politicians are also spreading abominable rumours that Ebola was created by the national government to exterminate the Nande population. They think that they’re boosting their popularity, but in their foolish madness they do not understand how much they’re endangering the lives of their own citizens (and of countless other people). People are now angry with health workers because they think these absurd rumours are true, and are unleashing their fury on the same persons who helped them in the beginning. Much of the international staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had to be moved to more secure locations when their safety has been threatened. The DRC has been deprived of the fundamental help of highly-qualified professionals who have unmatched expertise dealing with Ebola.

Ebola as a political rather than just a medical problem

Does the international community care about Ebola? To some extent, yes, it does. After all, if this lethal disease is not confined within the borders of these African countries, it may become a threat to the other, richer, more industrialised countries. It may kill rich people, which is something that neither the CDC nor the United Nations want to even think about. But as long as Ebola keeps killing poor people, there’s no need to redouble their efforts. To put things in perspective, during the devastating crisis of 2014, Germany spent on Ebola less than half of what it spent on a single footbal stadium during the 2006 World Cup. Many of the promises made in the past have not been kept, and it’s no secret that most of the Western aid is nothing but charity – useful to appease an immense mass of hypocrites, but not to make the West African health system stronger, more efficient, or more organised.

The Western reaction to the contagion is, once again, a deeply colonial one. The more enlightened and civilized countries of the Old Continent (and the New one as well) are patronising impoverished African countries who keep paying the price of their own underdevelopment. This epidemic just confirms the underlying narrative engineered by centuries of oppressive politics – that this disease is the result of a “plagued” environment where even animals and the forces of nature carry some form of sickness – a sickness whose eradication is part of the “civilizing” mission of Western countries. Except morals are always set aside every time it becomes clear how this mission is just an excuse for the economic exploitation of peoples and lands. Who else if not the American tyre company Firestone helped Charles Taylor establish a cruel dictatorship in Liberia – a country where Ebola caused nearly 5,000 deaths? But hey, Firestone protected its own workes so well that it was commended by the WHO for its timely and well-organised response. Great job, indeed.

The Western reaction to the contagion is, once again, a deeply colonial one. The more enlightened and civilized countries of the Old Continent (and the New one as well) are patronising impoverished African countries who keep paying the price of their own underdevelopment. This epidemic just confirms the underlying narrative engineered by centuries of oppressive politics – that this disease is the result of a “plagued” environment where even animals and the forces of nature carry some form of sickness…

Drawing a line

The current Ebola crisis is an international one that goes well beyond the scope of the citizens of the DRC. Politics are a curtain behind which the Western countries hide their double standards about global security. Yet, they cannot deny their responsibility in shaping the country in its current form. After all, the history of the DRC is still deeply intertwined with its colonial past, and its current political instability and the disastrous conditions of its healthcare system are the most obvious consequences.

For the Congolese health officials and the international community to be successful at containing the epidemic, a vaccine or treatment may not be sufficient. Patients must be reached, they must accept the therapy, and the health facilities where they recover must survive the onslaught.

To prevent this “perfect storm” from becoming a true cataclysm, conflict must be stopped, and a more radical approach to rebuilding the DRC’s health infrastructure is needed. If this is not done, everybody will pay a steep price – because a virus doesn’t understand nor does it care about politics.

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Dr. Claudio Butticè, Pharm.D., has written on topics such as medicine, technology, world poverty and science. Many of his articles have been published in magazines such as Cracked, Techopedia, Digital Journal and Business Insider. Dr. Butticè has also published pharmacology and psychology papers in several clinical journals, and works as a medical consultant and advisor for many companies across the globe.

Politics

Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa

8 min read. The recent Afrophobic attacks in South Africa are symptoms of a deeper problem that has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

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Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa
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South Africa has consistently experienced cyclical xenophobic flaring that has dented its image in Africa and in the world. The country continues to receive a high number of both documented and undocumented migrants as it has become a top destination in South-to- South migration. Beyond its geographical proximity to other African states, the current migration patterns have to be understood as a consequence of history and as such the xenophobic flaring has to be read as an unfinished business of decolonisation in Africa.

History created two processes that shaped Africa’s politics and economies, even up to today, creating a complex conundrum for our policy makers. Firstly, the Berlin conference created artificial borders and nations that remain problematic today. These borders were not fashioned to address the political and economic interests of Africans but the imperial powers of Europe. Institutions and infrastructure were created to service the imperial interests, and this remains the status quo despite more than four decades of independence in Africa. Secondly, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of “Cape to Cairo” became the basis upon which the modern economy was built in Africa. This created what the late Malawian political economist, Guy Mhone, called an enclave economy of prosperity amidst poverty, and resultantly created what Mahmood Mamdani termed the bifurcated state, with citizens and subjects.

A closer look at the African state’s formation history provides insights on the continuities of colonial institutions and continuous marginalisation of Africans as the state was never fashioned to address their political and economic interests from the beginning.

Drawing on classical African political economists, this article argues that, unknowingly, the South African government and in particular, the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, a former liberation movement, have fallen into the trap of the logic of the underlying colonial epistemologies informing migration debates in Africa. The Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

In his essay “In Defence of History”, Professor Hobsbawm challenges us to read history in its totality:

However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: “total history”. Not a “history of everything”, but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected.

It is when we read history in its totality that we are able to make connections about the relations between the past, present and future. Looked at closely, the current xeno/Afro-phobia insurrections engulfing South Africa have to be read within the totality of history. Therefore, this piece argues that the xeno/Afro-phobia flarings that have been gripping South Africa ever since 2008, and which have cast South Africa it in bad light within the African continent, are contrary to the ethos of Pan-Africanism and are largely a product of the history of the scramble and partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

Whose borders? Remembering the Ghosts of Berlin

By the beginning of the 1870s, European nations were in search of natural resources to grow their industries and at the same expand markets for their products. This prompted strong conflict amongst European superpowers and in late 1884, Otto von Bismarck, the then German Chancellor, called for a meeting in Berlin of various representatives of European nations. The objective was to agree on “common policy for colonisation and trade in Africa and the drawing of colonial state boundaries in the official partition of Africa”.

The xenophobic/Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

At the end of the Berlin Conference, the “European powers had neatly divided Africa up amongst themselves, drawing the boundaries of Africa much as we know them today”. It was at this conference that European superpowers set in motion a process that set boundaries that have continued to shape present-day Africa. Remember that there was no King Shaka, Lobengula, Munhumutapa, Queen Nzinga, Emperor Haile Selassie, Litunga of Barotseland among many other rulers of Africa at this conference. There was Otto von Bismarck, King Leopold II and their fellow European rulers who sat down and determined borders governing Africa today.

This is the epistemological base upon which current “othering” within citizenship and migration policies are hinged. This colonial legacy has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, where major European powers partitioned Africa amongst themselves and formalised it with the current borders that have largely remained intact and the basis of the modern state in post-colonial Africa. Therefore, policies on identity, citizenship and migration in Africa have been largely informed by modern nation-state forms of territoriality drawn from remnants of colonial policies. These have tended to favour the elites and modernised (privileged, intelligentsia, government officials and business) at the expense of the underclass in Africa, who form the majority.

Most of the institutions and policies characterising the post-colonial African state are bequeathed by legacies of colonialism, hence the need for African states to listen to the wisdom of Samir Amin and “delink from the past” or bridge Thabo Mbeki’s “two nations” thesis and create a decolonised Africa where Africans will be no strangers.

Africa’s citizenship and migration policies remain unreformed and informed by colonial epistemology and logics. The partitioning of Africa into various territories for European powers at the Berlin Conference means most of the present-day nation-states and boundaries in Africa are a product of the resultant imperialist agreement. The boundaries were an outside imposition and split many communities with linguistic, cultural and economic ties together. The nation-state in Africa became subjugated by colonial powers (exogenous forces) rather than natural processes of endogenous force contestations and nation-state formation, as was the case with Europe.

Stoking the flames

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference. Africa’s poor or the underclass are the most affected, as these xeno-insurrections manifest physically and violently amongst poor communities. Among elite communities, it manifests mostly in subtle psychological forms.

South African leaders continue to be oblivious to the crisis at hand and fail to understand that the solution to the economic crisis and depravity facing the South African citizenry can’t easily be addressed by kicking out foreigners. In 2014, prominent Zulu King Goodwill Zwelthini had this to say and the whole country was caught up in flames:

Most government leaders do not want to speak out on this matter because they are scared of losing votes. As the king of the Zulu nation, I cannot tolerate a situation where we are being led by leaders with no views whatsoever…We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries…The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals.

After a public outrage he claimed to have been misquoted and the South African Human Rights Council became complicit when it absolved him.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…” Not to be outdone, Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been on the blaze, blaming foreigners for the rise in crime and overcrowded service delivery.

On the other hand, Minister Bheki Cele continues to be in denial as he adamantly characterises the current attack on foreigners as acts of criminality and not xenophobia. Almost across the political divide there is consensus that foreigners are a problem in South Africa. However, the exception has been the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that has been steadfastly condemning the black-on-black attacks and has characterised them as self-hate.

Whither the Pan-African dream?

In his founding speech for Ghana’s independence, Kwame Nkrumah said, “We again rededicate ourselves in the struggle to emancipate other countries in Africa; for our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”

This speech by President Nkrumah set the basis upon which Ghana and some of the other independent African states sought to ensure the liberation of colonised African states. They never considered themselves free until other Africans were freed from colonialism and apartheid. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere had this to say:

I reject the glorification of the nation-state [that] we inherited from colonialism, and the artificial nations we are trying to forge from that inheritance. We are all Africans trying very hard to be Ghanaians or Tanzanians. Fortunately for Africa, we have not been completely successful. The outside world hardly recognises our Ghanaian-ness or Tanzanian-ness. What the outside world recognises about us is our African-ness.

It is against this background that countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa benefitted from the solidarity of their African brothers as they waged wars of liberation. Umkhonto weSizwe, the African National Congress’ armed wing, fought alongside the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army to dislodge white supremacist in Southern Rhodesia. And Nigeria set up the Southern Africa Relief Fund that raised $10 million that benefitted South Africans fighting against the apartheid regime. The African National Congress was housed in neighbouring African countries, the so-called frontline states of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Tanzania. In some cases, these countries had to endure bombings and raids by the apartheid regime.

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference.

The attacks on foreign nationals who are mostly African and black by black South Africans and the denial by South African government officials that the attacks are not xenophobic but criminal are attempts to duck a glaring problem that needs urgent attention. It is this denialism from authorities that casts aspersions on the Pan-African dream of a One Africa.

Glimmers of hope

All hope is not lost, as there are still voices of reason in South Africa that understand that the problem is a complex and economic one. The EFF has also managed to show deep understanding that the problem of depravity and underdevelopment of Black South Africans is not caused by fellow Africans but by the skewed economic system. Its leader, Julius Malema, tweeted amidst the flaring of the September 2019 xenophobia storm:

Our anger is directed at wrong people. Like all of us, our African brothers and sisters are selling their cheap labour for survival. The owners of our wealth is white monopoly capital; they are refusing to share it with us and the ruling party #ANC protects them. #OneAfricaIsPossible.

Yet, if policy authorities and South Africa’s elites would dare to revisit the Pan-African dream as articulated by the EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, they may be able to exorcise the Ghosts of Berlin.

Signs of integration are appearing, albeit slowly. East African countries have opened their borders to each other and allow free movement of people without the need for a visa. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has even gone further to allow people from Tanzania and Uganda to work and live in Kenya without the need for a visa. In addition, Rwanda and Tanzania have abolished work permit fees for any national of the East African Community. Slowly, the Ghosts of Berlin are disappearing, but more work still needs to be done to hasten the process. The launch of the African Union passport and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers further hope of dismantling the borders of the Berlin Conference. South African authorities need to look seriously into East Africa and see how they can re-imagine their economy.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…”

The continuous flow of African migrants into South Africa is no accident but a matter of an economic history question. Blaming the foreigner, who is an easy target, becomes a simple solution to a complex problem, and in this case Amilcar Cabral’s advice “Claim no easy victories” is instructive. There is the need re-imagine a new development paradigm in South Africa and Southern Africa in general to address questions of structural inequalities and underdevelopment, if the tide of migration to Egoli (City of Gold) – read South Africa- is to be tamed. The butchering of Africans without addressing the enclavity of the African economy will remain palliative and temporary. The current modes of development at the Southern African level favour the growth of South African corporates and thus perpetuate the discourse of enclavity, consequently reinforcing colonial and apartheid labour migration patterns.

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Politics

Gambling Against the Kenyan State

7 min read. After spending several months with gamblers in Kenya, Mario Schmidt finds that many see their activity as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

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Gambling Against the Kenyan State
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In the period from June to August this year Kenyan gamblers were hit by a wave of shocking news. Only a couple of weeks after Henry Rotich, Kenya’s National Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 10% excise duty on any amount staked in betting in order ‘to curtail the negative effects arising from betting activities’, the Kenyan government decided to shut down several betting companies’ virtual mobile money wallet systems because of alleged tax evasion. As a consequence, gamblers could no longer deposit or withdraw any money. This double attack on the blossoming betting industry has a background both in Kenya as well as elsewhere. Centered around the capitalist conundrum to realign the moral value of hard work and the systemic necessity to make profit, states tend to combine moral attacks on gambling (see the case of Uganda) with attempts to raise revenues. The vice of gambling turns into a virtue as soon that it raises revenue for the state.

It is also gambling’s allegedly nasty character which made the term a prime metaphor for the excesses of finance capitalism as well as for the pitiful status of the economies of neoliberal Africa characterized by rampant inequalities. Social scientists, politicians as well as journalists portray financial capitalism as a place where, in the words of George Paul Meiu, ‘gambling-like speculation and entrepreneurialism replace labour’ and the ‘magical allure of making money from nothing’, as Jean and John Comaroff have written, has seized the imagination of a vast majority of the population. Faced with a dazzling amount of wealth showcased by religious, economic and political leaders alike, young and unemployed men increasingly put their hopes on gambling. Trying to imitate what they perceive as a magical shortcut to unimaginable wealth, so the story goes, they become foolish puppets of a global capitalist system that they often know little about and have to face the dire consequences of their foolish behaviour.

After spending several months with gamblers both in rural as well as urban Kenya, I can only conclude that this story fails to portray reality in its complexity (see Schmidt 2019). While it is undeniable that some gamblers attempt to imitate the acquisition of a form of wealth that they perceive as resulting from a quick-to-riches scheme, a considerable number of Kenyan gamblers do not. In contrast, they portray and enact gambling as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

Narratives about betting leading to poverty, suicide and alcoholism neglect the fact that the majority of young Kenyan gamblers had already been poor, stressed and under extreme economic pressure before they started gambling, or, as a friend of mine phrased it succinctly: ‘If I don’t bet, I go to bed without food every second night, if betting does not go well, I might sleep without food two days in a row. Where’s the difference?’ Gambler’s betting activities therefore cannot be analyzed as a result of a miserable economic situation alone. Such a perspective clearly mutes the actors’ own view of their practices. They see betting as a form of work they can engage in without being connected to the national political or economic middle class or elite, i.e. without trying to enter into opaque relationships characterized by inequality. In other words, I interpret gambling as directed against what gamblers perceive as a nepotistic and kleptocratic state capitalism, i.e. an economy in which wealth is not based upon merit but upon social relations and where profit and losses are distributed in a non-transparent way through corruption, inheritance and theft.

Before I substantiate this assumption, let me briefly offer some background information on the boom of sports betting in Kenya which can only be understood if one takes into account the rise of mobile money. The mobile money transfer service Mpesa was introduced in 2007 and has since changed the lives of millions of Kenyans. Accessible with any mobile phone, customers can use it to store and withdraw money from Mpesa agents all over the country, send money to friends and family members as well as pay for goods and services. A whole industry of lending and saving apps and sports betting companies has evolved around this new financial infrastructure. It allows Kenyans to bet on sports events wherever they are located as long as they possess a mobile phone to transfer money to a betting company’s virtual wallet.

Gamblers can either bet on single games or combine bets on different games to increase the potential winning (a so-called ‘multi-bet’). Many, and especially young, male Kenyans, bet regularly. According to a survey I conducted last November around a rural Western Kenyan market centre 55% of the men and 20% of the women have bet in the past or are currently betting with peaks in the age group between 18 and 35. This resonates with a survey done by Geopoll estimating that over 70% of the Kenyan youth place or have placed bets on sport events.

Both journalistic and academic work that understand these activities as irresponsible and addictive had previously primed my perception. Hence, I was surprised by how gamblers frame their betting activities as based upon knowledge and by how they enacted gambling as a domestic, reproductive activity that demands careful planning. They consider betting as a meticulously executed form of work whose attraction partly results from its detachment from and even opposition to Kenyan politics (for example, almost all gamblers avoid betting on Kenyan football games as they believe they are rigged and implicated in local politics). Put differently, the gamblers I interacted with understand their betting activities as directed against a kleptocratic capitalist state whose true nature has been, according to my interlocutors, once more revealed by the proposal to tax gambling in Kenya.

Two of my ethnographic observations can illustrate and substantiate this claim, the first being a result of paying close attention to the ways gamblers speak and the second one a result of observing how they act.

Spending my days with gamblers, I realised that they use words that are borrowed from the sphere of cooking and general well-being when they talk about betting in their mother tongue Dholuo. Chiemo (‘to eat’), keto mach (‘to light the fire’), mach mangima (‘the fire has breath’, i.e. ‘is alive’) and mach omuoch (‘the fire has fought back’) are translations of ‘winning’ (chiemo), ‘placing a multi-bet’ (keto mach), ‘the multi-bet is still valid’ (mach mangima) or ‘the multi-bet has been lost’ (mach omuoch). This interpenetration of two spheres that are kept apart or considered to be mutually exclusive in many descriptions of gambling practices sparked my interest and I began to wonder what these linguistic overlaps mean for a wider understanding of the relation between gambling and the ways in which young, mostly male Kenyans try to make ends meet in their daily lives.

While accompanying a friend of mine on his daily trips to the betting shops of Nairobi’s Central Business District, I realized that the equation between gambling and reproductive work, however, does not remain merely metaphorical.

Daniel Okech, a 25-year-old Master of Business Administration worked on a tight schedule. When he did not have to attend a university class during the mornings which he considered not very promising anyway, he worked through websites that offered detailed statistical data on the current and past performances of football teams and players. These ranged from the English Premier League to the football league of Finland (e.g. the website FootyStats). He engaged in such meticulous scrutiny because he considered the smallest changes in a squad’s line-up or in the odds as potentially offering money-making opportunities to exploit. Following up on future and current games, performances and odds was part of Daniel’s daily work routine which was organized around the schedules of European football leagues and competitions. The rhythm of the European football schedule organized Daniel’s daily, weekly and monthly rhythms as he needed to make sure to have money on the weekends and during the season in order to place further bets.

Even though betting is based upon knowledge, habitual adaptations and skills, it rarely leads to a stable income. With regard to the effects it has, betting appears to be almost as bad as any other job and Daniel does not miscalculate the statistical probabilities of football bets. He knows that multi-bets of fifteen or more rarely go through and that winning such a bet remains extraordinarily improbable. What allows gamblers like Daniel to link betting with ‘work’ and the ‘reproductive sphere’ is not the results it brings forward. Rather, I argue that the equation between the ‘reproductive sphere’ and betting is anchored in the specific structure between cause and effect the latter entails.

What differentiates gambling from other jobs is the gap between the quality of one’s expertise and performance and the expected result. For young men in Nairobi, one could argue, betting on football games is what planting maize is for older women in arid areas of Western Kenya in the era of global climate change: an activity perfected by years of practice and backed up by knowledge, but still highly dependent on external and uncontrollable factors. Just like women know that it will eventually rain, Daniel told me that ‘Ramos [Sergio Ramos, defender from Real Madrid] will get a red card when Real Madrid plays against a good team.’

For young men who see their future devoid of any regular and stable employment betting is not a ‘shortcut’ to a better life, as often criticized by middle-class Kenyans or politicians. It is rather one of the few ways in which they can control the conditions of their type of work and daily work routine while at the same time accepting and to a certain extent even taming the uncontrollability and volatility of the world surrounding them.

Gamblers do not frame their betting activities in analogy with the quick-to-riches schemes they understand to lie behind the suspicious wealth of economic, political and religious leaders. While religious, economic and political ‘big men’ owe their wealth to opaque and unknown causes, gambling practices are based upon a rigid analysis of transparent data and information. By establishing links between their own life and knowledge on the one hand and football games played outside the influence of Kenyan politicians and businessmen on the other, gamblers gain agency in explicit opposition to the Kenyan state and to nepotistic relations they believe to exist between other Kenyans.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that, in the context of the betting companies’ alleged tax evasion, many gamblers have not yet repeated the usual complaints and grievances against companies or individuals that are accused of tax evasion or corruption. While some agree that the betting companies should pay taxes, others claim that due to the corrupt nature of the Kenyan state it would be preferable if the betting companies increase their sponsoring of Kenyan football teams. No matter what an individual gambler’s stance on the accusation of tax evasion, however, in the summer of 2019 all gamblers were eagerly waiting for their virtual wallets to be unlocked so they could continue to bet against the state.

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This article has been co-published between The Elephant and Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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Donald Trump: America’s ‘African Dictatorship’ Moment

8 min read. For decades, the grandiosity and excesses of Africa’s strongmen have been the subject of global ridicule and scorn. Now, under Donald Trump, Americans are finally getting a taste of what an African dictatorship looks and feels like.

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For the Love of Money: Kenya’s False Prophets and Their Wicked and Bizarre Deeds
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Am I the only one who felt a growing sense of ugly familiarity while watching the 4th of July proceedings in Washington DC? It took me a few days to fully comprehend the oddity of the spectacle. It was atavistically American: a questionable real estate mogul; fighter jets roaring overhead; fireworks blowing off with abandon as vague tenants of “bravery” were touted. One only needed to add in grandiose Lynard Skynyrd music, a screw-on plastic bottle of Bud Light (for safety) and the tossing of an American flag football to make it the most US-driven spectacle ever put on display.

Apart from an eye-rolling display of questionable Americana, the whole display struck a deeper and more sinister chord. Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before: military equipment being trucked in from all over the country to be displayed as props; invites extended mainly to party loyalists; outlandish claims of nationalistic strength in the face of unknown “threats”; and an ever-ballooning budget taken seemingly from the most needy of social programmes.

Further, the entirety of the charade was put on by a leader of questionable (at best) morals, one who openly blasts the press as anti-democratic and who is known to engage in dubious electoral practices.

Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media, with well-established media houses with sterling reputations formed through covering the 20th century’s most brutal occurrences suddenly at a loss that anything so gauche could take shape in the form of an American leader.

When it comes down to it though, doesn’t it all reside at the doorstep of personality type?

From where I sit, it most certainly does. All of these strongmen (and they are all male) – whether they’re in power, in post-political ennui or dead – have done the exact same thing. It is different strokes painted with the same brush. Their canvas, on this occasion, is that of spectacle, of projecting something that is better, stronger (dare I say less impotent?) than themselves. It is a public display of strength, ill-needed by those who don’t secretly know that they’re inwardly weak.

Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media…

To start with, those who have systematically oppressed and plundered a country often rub it in to commemorate their “achievements”. For example, there is still a nationally celebrated Moi Day annually in Kenya, despite the former president’s record of extrajudicial measures, devaluing of the Kenyan shilling and rampant institutional corruption. Yoweri Museveni has been “democratically” elected five times, and makes sure to always inspect military guards dressed in full pomp at major Ugandan national days and events. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame had an outright military parade during his latest inauguration in 2017. It is true, such days are often celebrated with a display of token military presence; at the inaugural “Trump Day” this past American Independence Day, an exception to the rule was not found.

A key tenet of such military-driven presidential events, at least within those run by would-be strongmen, is the heavy under-current of politicisation made more stark as the figurehead acts exceptionally stoic and well-behaved for the event. At the rally on the Fourth of July, chants of “lock her up” broke out among the crowd, and reports of minor clashes made the news. Therein, as they say, lies the key difference, the breaking point from a day of democratic celebration of national history into something more sinister. It is when the very essence of patriotism swings to identify with a single individual that the political climate can become potentially even more dangerous than it already is.

Within hours of the spectacle that put him at the centre, Trump made heavy-handed allegations of communism against his political “enemies”; within days he was saying that certain Congresswomen (all of colour) should go back to their countries of origin if they didn’t “love” the US enough. The standard, it seems, is political allegiance.

Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants, while directed at all four Congresswomen, (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan), were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US, where she eventually found a permanent home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This, when seen through the lens of escalating nationalism, jingoistic tendencies towards refugees (including the abysmal treatment of migrants on the United States’ southern border with Mexico in a series of “detention facilities”), and thrown as chum to stirring crowds at politically-driven rallies, is a dangerous recipe.

The message being espoused and defended at the present by both the Trump administration and right-wing politicians loyal to it has taken root at the very celebration of American democracy itself. It is, in fact, association by patriotism. It is becoming a deeper-seated sense of national identity and the mere act of seeing such policies associated with the nation’s independence is, to put it mildly, a dangerous precedent. It is a continuation of a trend of both ramping up and normalising such attacks on what is deemed “un-American” by those currently in power. This designation, once considered “beyond the norm” within United States’ politics, has rapidly shifted towards becoming the routine.

While the rally was taking place, Trump harangued the crowd with a 45-minute all-American masturbatory salute to military hardware. He read off assorted names of different combinations of letters and numbers, each signifying a different tool of top-grade, American-made weapon of death and destruction. Fighter jets, tanks, humvees, all were given their due with a salute through the rain-soaked vista of the National Mall of Washington DC. They were each named nearly laboriously, in exquisite reverence for their ability to unleash death on vague “enemies of the state” (typically seen in the guise of unspecified foreigners in Hollywood action blockbusters).

In a more current context, this is still a practice around the region. Military honour guards are inspected in ceremony by the head of state. In fairness, despite the US press’s fervent response, America has an awkward relationship with the fetishisation of the military on every official and unofficial national occasion. Fighter jets zoom over the heads of Americans. Since the 9/11 terror attacks, we have seen the rampant rise of forced acts of patriotism, many of which later turned out to be directly sponsored by the Pentagon to the tune of millions of US dollars (furnished by the US taxpayer).  This continued to deepen the divide among the American public along the lines of military interventionism and military prioritisation. It is an underlying sentiment of “tanks are now alongside White House officials, and who are you to disagree with their patriotism?” The association, as it were, is the issue.

It is a slippery slope when the military is viewed as an extension of the leadership, rather than one that protects the national interest. All too often within strongman-type of leadership structures, the military (and their goals) become an arm of the central governmental figure, with such events as seen on the Fourth of July being a means to “stroke the ego” of the leadership.

An adept dictator always knows where their bread is buttered: the more that one inflates the importance of the military and raises its stature, the more likely the military is going be loyal to you. In a sense, the Fourth of July parade was a natural extension of Trump’s extensive rallies in support of “the troops”, “the cops” and “the brave people guarding our border from the invasion from the South”. Daniel arap Moi is a good example of this behaviour; in the post-1982 coup period, he closed ranks, gave the military more emphasis, and rewarded loyalty.

Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants…were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US…

In turn, this behaviour can drive the chosen narrative of the state – that the military is way too powerful to be challenged. The story is told, played out on screen, marched in front of the masses, splashed across newspaper front pages. It helps to reinforce an idea, one of division, that of being on an opposing side from the government if you dare disagree.

Make no mistake, however ridiculous the Fourth of July show was, it was most definitely intended to be a show of strength. How could one feasibly dare to challenge the seat of power when the very entirety of military might is on public display, with guns pointed squarely into the crowd from the very basis of the Lincoln Memorial? This is not unlike the grandiose trains of government vehicles that accompany Museveni as he zips around Kampala or Uhuru Kenyatta as he delays traffic whilst travelling out to play golf on the outskirts of Nairobi. (The number of cars isn’t the point; it’s that they would crush you if you were to stand in their path.) Think what you want of Kagame’s policies and the issues surrounding democratic practices in Rwanda; only a fool would doubt his closeness to the top military brass. What Trump is engaging in now is the classic appearance of alliances – the same outer projection that any opposition’ would be met with those same large caliber guns that faced outward to the crowd. Only the obtuse would see that positioning as merely coincidental.

It isn’t a coincidence that those in the Trump administration’s camp were given prime seats at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. Those “in the know” are given strength by a sort of transitive property of influence. The man on the stage is in charge of those with the guns, and he approves of you enough to let you into the inner sanctum.

It is further not a coincidence that the “vicious, mean, hateful, disgusting democrats” weren’t even invited within shouting distance of the “in club”. They haven’t shown enough Trumpian loyalty to be positioned near the military hardware. Instead members of the Democratic Party were told to “sort themselves” and largely stayed away from the proceedings of the event at the National Mall in Washington DC that rainy evening.

The end consequences of these deepening of divisions could be seen during the event and in the immediate hours afterwards. Squabbles broke out, flag-burning protesters were angrily confronted, reports of arrests were made.

From the White House (or possibly from a late night flight down to a golf course) Trump began to launch public attacks against those who would have stood against his event, his party and his party’s party. The tirade began in public, with attacks that were based on race, classism and politics. The “haters” and “losers” were blamed, and the appearance of strength steadily deepened the already existing party line divisions.

It was in the hours after that that the evidence was most apparent that Trump had used the Fourth of July “Salute to America” as a means for further political grandstanding. The traditional 4th of July political “ceasefire” was sounded with the firing off of verbal and political shots. It was in the insults that the intended circling of the wagons became further crystallised. It was classic Trump and classic strongman – to put on the best of appearances only to sink several notches lower as soon as the cameras officially turned off.

Let’s finish with the gold standard of ridiculous self-congratulatory events – Idi Amin. Am I saying that the crimes of Idi Amin are equal to those of Trump? Obviously not, but am I comparing their gauche public tendencies and sub-par intellects? Absolutely. Amin was famous for his parades during times of extreme national duress. He continued on, medals ablaze with the military’s full might on display. Add to this his self-congratulatory nature, his vindictive political favouritism and his toxic displays of might. (Amin, it has been noted, was jealous of the then Central African Republic president, Jean-Bedel Bakassa, who visited him adorned with medals more extravagant than his own.)

As for Trump, he is not one to shy away from self-aggrandisement and self-promotion. His very own Boeing 737 is famously decked with solid gold interiors. His ego can even be described as all-consuming; it eats whatever stands in its path. It is a self-sustaining entity, a black hole from which there can be no escape. The same could be said about Amin – power went to his head, and quickly. Once it did, enemies were dispatched and invented to be dispatched.

Trump’s paranoia could be viewed as becoming extreme. There is an endless need for loyalty and deference to Trump, especially amongst his most loyal followers; the Fourth of July parade was simply the latest manifestation of it. With such parades, limits and moderation don’t typically follow suit.

There will be more events, bigger showmanship and more association with himself as the idyllic vision of America. He is filling out his strongman shows nicely now, and starting to walk around in them. He now needs feats of false strength in order to back himself up.

The key difference between Trump and Amin, of course, is that the US military is a global monolith, one that can destroy the world with the push of a red button by an orange finger.

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