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Now It’s George Floyd: America’s Enduring War on Black People

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America’s failure to have a concerted conversation on race and racism is not surprising because too much is at stake for too many people, interests, and institutions. But racism will not disappear by ignoring it, dismissing it, or wishing it away through fanciful invocations of a post-racial society.

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Now It's George Floyd: America's Enduring War on Black People
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George Floyd was sadistically murdered by a policeman with the connivance of several of his colleagues. They were all oblivious to Floyd’s anguished moaning, “I can’t breathe”, and the pleas of witnesses watching the tragic spectacle. The twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul erupted into several nights of fierce protests. Before long, demonstrations spread to more than twenty cities across the United States, from New York in the east to Los Angeles in the west, Detroit in the north, Houston in the south, Seattle in the northwest and Atlanta in the southeast.

Before George Floyd, there was Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two white men – a former police officer and his son – on 23rd February, 2020 when he jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. The killers were only arrested 74 days later after the video of the murder went viral. After that there was Breonna Taylor who was shot dead in her own apartment by two policemen in Louisville. Before these three there were many more African Americans shot dead by the police in America’s grisly ritual of sacrificing black lives at the altar of racism.

According to The Washington Post’s database on police killings that goes back to 2015, in 2015 the police killed 994 people, 962 people in 2016, 986 people in 2017, 992 people in 2018, and 1,004 people in 2019. Altogether, out of the 4,728 people killed by the police in the United States since January 1, 2015, 1,252, or 26.5%, were black. African Americans represent 13% of the country’s population. In short, African Americans are killed by the police at a rate that is twice as high as it is for whites.

The United States has one of the most violent and lethal police forces in the world. This should not be surprising because the origins of policing in the US go back to the ruthless slave patrols of plantation America. Thus, racial profiling and killing of African Americans by the police and white vigilantes betrays the enduring DNA of racism in American law enforcement agencies, society, and everyday life.

“This racial street theater against black peoples is an endemic, primal feature of the Republic,” wrote the New York Times columnist Charles Blow. It allows some ordinary white men and women to weaponise racial anxiety and racial hatred, as did the white woman who threatened a black man, a bird watcher, in New York’s Central Park that she was going to call the police and tell them that he was threatening her life.

The United States has one of the most violent and lethal police forces in the world. This should not be surprising because the origins of policing in the US go back to the ruthless slave patrols of plantation America.

Six years before Mr. Floyd was killed, Eric Garner died from a police chokehold. He also pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” Floyd thus joins a long list of African Americans, men and women, boys and girls, whose lives were terminated by the bullets, chokeholds, boots, and ropes of the police and white vigilantes. Millions more engaged in the mundane activities of daily life suffer from racial assaults of various magnitude: driving while black, jogging while black, walking while black, shopping while black, going to school or college while black, partying or playing while black, buying or renting property while black, being a boss while black, bird watching while black, even praying while black… the list is endless. The physical, psychic, emotional, social, economic, and political taxes of being black in America have always been inordinately high.

The national uprising following Mr. Floyd’s capricious murder signals a country spiraling into dysfunction out of the combustible conjuncture of three forces: the original and enduring sin of slavery and racism, the devastations of the coronavirus pandemic, which has been ineptly managed, resulting in the US claiming the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest numbers of cases and deaths, and an economic meltdown that has left more than 40 million people unemployed, which is reminiscent of the darkest days of the Great Depression.

Overseeing the triple emergences fueling America’s crisis of governance and nationhood, which is emblematic of the country’s historic decline, is the incomparably disastrous presidency of President Donald Trump. He is arguably the worst president in US history: incompetent, clueless, racist, chauvinistic, bombastic, idiotic, narcissistic, and a pathological liar. He is a tragic embodiment of the famous aphorism from the Ancient Greek writer, Euripides, which can be applied to powerful individuals and nations facing eclipse: “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

The moment embodied by George Floyd’s murder represents a perfect storm in the enduring madness at the heart of America’s public life and political economy, which is often camouflaged by the country’s awesome military might and national wealth.

A death that shook the world

George Floyd’s death has not only shaken the United States, it has shocked the world. African leaders and commentators have vehemently condemned the killing. The Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki, issued a blistering critique. According to a statement from the AU, he “strongly condemns the murder of George Floyd that occurred in the United States of America at the hands of law enforcement officers, and wishes to extend his deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.”

The AU statement went on to say: “Recalling the historic Organization of Africa Unity (OAU) Resolution on Racial Discrimination in the United States of America made by African Heads of State and Government, at the OAU’s First Assembly Meeting held in Cairo, Egypt from 17 to 24 July 1964, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission firmly reaffirms and reiterates the African Union’s rejection of the continuing discriminatory practices against Black citizens of the United States of America.”

Faki’s deputy, Kwesi Quartey, added his voice by stating, “This is one too many. We may be black, but we are people too… Africa demands a full investigation into this killing.”

Stung by African condemnations and criticisms, American diplomats in various African capitals have tried to quell the storm. According to the Voice of America, “Mindful of America’s image on a continent where China’s influence has grown and where many have felt a distinct lack of interest from the Trump administration in Africa, some U.S. diplomats have tried to control the damage. The ambassador to Congo, Mike Hammer, highlighted a tweet from a local media entrepreneur who addressed him saying, ‘Dear ambassador, your country is shameful. Proud America, which went through everything from segregation to the election of Barack Obama, still hasn’t conquered the demons of racism. How many black people must be killed by white police officers before authorities react seriously?’ The ambassador’s response, in French: ‘I am profoundly troubled by the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Justice Department is conducting a full criminal investigation as a top priority. Security forces around the world should be held accountable. No one is above the law.’”

In the meantime, according to Foreign Affairs magazine, “In a highly unusual move that reflects the degree of distress in the countries they are posted in, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Uganda also issued statements on Twitter, saying the embassies were ‘deeply troubled’ by the death of Floyd in police custody and that ‘[g]overnment officials should not operate with impunity in any country.’ Several U.S. diplomats said it is rare for U.S. embassies abroad to weigh in on domestic U.S. issues. But in this case, the embassies were compelled to respond after seeing how African leaders reacted to Floyd’s death with anger and dismay. ‘I think some of these posts had to say something because so many Africans are appalled by the footage,’ one U.S. official said. Long-standing racial injustices in the United States also pose a problem for Washington’s soft-power standing in Africa and its position as a vocal proponent of human rights across the continent.”

The United Nations Human Rights Commission joined the fray, tweeting that it “condemns George Floyd’s killing and urges serious action to stop police killings of unarmed African Americans. This is the latest in a long line.”

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, issued a statement: “I am dismayed to have to add George Floyd’s name to that of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many other unarmed African Americans who have died over the years at the hands of the police — as well as people such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin who were killed by members of the public.”

Anger over George Floyd’s killing rippled around the world. According to The Washington Post of May 29, “Some leaders took the opportunity to express solidarity with marginalised communities in the United States. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended a coronavirus news conference Friday morning by addressing the Canadians who are watching ‘the news out of the United States with shock and horror. Racism is real. It’s in the United States, but it’s also in Canada,’ he said. ‘We know people are facing systemic discrimination, unconscious bias and anti-black racism every day.’”

In Europe, “Norway’s Princess Martha Louise also took to social media to condemn Floyd’s death, sharing a photograph of a woman holding a sign that read ‘George Floyd’s life mattered.’ In the post, she called out the actions of the officers involved, deeming them ‘monsters’ and urging people to ‘wake up and stop the inhumanity.’” T

The leader of the British Labour Party, Keir Starmer, tweeted, “George Floyd must not become just another name. His shocking death should be the catalyst for change. To build a better society we must stand together against racism and injustice.”

America’s perennial critics also weighed in. “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a ‘racist and fascist’ approach led to Floyd’s killing and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. ‘We will be monitoring the issue,’ he tweeted.

On his English-language Twitter account, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, retweeted a tweet that read, “If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes.”

Predictably, China seized on the uproar over Floyd’s death to score points and as payback for criticism from the US on China’s draconian responses to massive protests in Hong Kong, and China’s treatment of Africans. The editor of the Global Times, a state affiliated paper wrote sarcastically, “Hong Kong’s rioters and police should carefully watch how the ‘democratic U.S.’ deals with the chaos in Minnesota” and accused the US of “double standards”. On its part, the state-run China Daily newspaper tweeted footage from the US protests with the hashtags #GeorgeFloydWasMurdered and #BlackLivesMatter.

On his English-language Twitter account, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, retweeted a tweet that read, “If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes.”

Progressive Pan-African movements, activists, and governments must raise the costs of denigrating and destroying the lives and livelihoods of its peoples anywhere in the world, whether on the continent or in the Diaspora. The struggle against racism must be waged in Europe, the old imperial and colonial architects of the modern oppressive world capitalist system; in the Americas that sanctified racial capitalism; in China, the aspiring superpower of the 21st century, with its own superiority complexes and anti-African racism recently on display during the coronavirus pandemic in which Africans were targeted; and in the countries of the global South that seek to perpetuate in the 21st century the hierarchies and mythologies of what W.E.B. Dubois identified as “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line”

America’s racial degeneracy  

What I find so sad and tragic about George Floyd’s brutal murder is its predictable familiarity. Six years ago, I wrote about other killings of African Americans that caused an outpouring of rage, which is reproduced verbatim below. The script remains the same. The anguish remains the same. The rhetoric remains the same. The public and political polarisations remain the same. The despair and hopes for change remain the same.

The protests after each tragic death reflect accumulated anger, pain, tiredness, frustration, and sadness at the African American condition in the United States over four centuries of slavery, slave codes, black codes, lynching, racial segregation, the new Jim Crow of mass black incarceration, and a litany of micro aggressions seared into the collective memories of African Americans over generations. In short, being black in America is exhausting and often dangerous.

The names are added to the long hall of infamy with sickening, stultifying regularity. The latest include Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and all those black boys and men, girls and women sacrificed at the altar of America’s racism, the country’s enduring original sin. Each generation of Americans is confronted by the ugly face of this primordial transgression, its staying power, its infinite capacities to make a mockery of the country’s vain self-congratulation as the land of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Proclamations that fall on deaf ears to its minority citizens and the outside world that experience and see the hypocrisies, contradictions, and inconsistencies spawned by the destructive deformities of racism.

The degeneracy of American racism runs deep; it is rooted in more than two centuries of slavery, the foundational matrix of American society, economy, and politics. It was renewed and recast during a century of Jim Crow, the laws that enforced racial segregation in Southern United States between 1877 and 1965. It survived and mutated over the last half century of civil rights. It persisted in the Obama era, confounding misplaced expectations for a post-racial society that the election of the country’s first black president was magically supposed to usher in.

The protests after each tragic death reflect accumulated anger, pain, tiredness, frustration, and sadness at the African American condition in the United States over four centuries of slavery, slave codes, black codes, lynching, racial segregation, the new Jim Crow of mass black incarceration, and a litany of micro aggressions seared into the collective memories of African Americans over generations.

Each generation of African Americans faces eruptions of this racial degeneracy, most tragically captured in deadly assaults against unarmed black males by the police that predictably provoke widespread local and national protests. Each moment acquires its symbols and slogans. This year it is Ferguson and the battle cry “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and New York and Eric Garner’s plaintive cry for life, “I can’t breathe.” Both have become rallying anthems of protests across the nation following the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers who killed the two men.

Outrage is often centered on the altercations between the law enforcement agencies and African American communities because of the racial disproportionalities in surveillance, profiling, arrests, and sentencing. Mountains of data show that African Americans are subject to forms of policing that are far more excessive, abusive, and disrespectful than European Americans. This has resulted in the creation of an American gulag of black imprisonment, a prison pipeline especially for black males from the schools, streets, and sidewalks of America.

Devaluing black lives, black bodies and black humanity

The broken relations between African American communities and law enforcement agencies and the exponential growth of a black prison industrial complex in the era following the civil rights struggles represent the contemporary forms of America’s age-old racial structures, hierarchies, and ideologies, the country’s new Jim Crow regime of existential, economic and epistemic violence against black lives, black well-being, and black citizenship.

Police brutality and unaccountability for violence against African Americans is facilitated by and a manifestation of the wider society’s values, expectations, and interests. The challenge is not simply to provide the police with better training or technologies, although that would help. Lest we forget, Eric Garner’s death was captured on video, and the grand jury still refused to indict the policeman. In a bygone era, public lynchings were spectacles of morbid public entertainment. The real issue is the value placed on black lives, black bodies, and black humanity by American society.

The discourse by the police and their supporters often taps into persistent racial codes: the bodies of the black victims are full of brawn, not brains, depicted as embodiments of some fearsome bestial power that threaten their police interlocutors, which can only be tamed by superior weapons and intelligence. The police officer who killed Michael Brown described the latter as an overpowering Hulk Hogan “demon” who “grunted” and charged at him like a mindless animal. A Republican Congressman blamed Eric Garner for his own death, saying “If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition, and was not so obese, he would not have died from this.” And 12- year-old Tamir Rice was mistaken for a 20-year-old, a homage to the black man-child stereotype of racial discourse in white supremacist America and colonial Africa.

Each generation of Americans is forced to reckon with the journey it has travelled towards racial equality. It discovers that while progress has been made, the distance it has travelled from the past, from the original sin of slavery, is much shorter than the road ahead. Each generation of African Americans is given no choice but to renew the struggles of previous generations against America’s racial degeneracy.

Cowardice and complicity

America’s racial backwardness is marked and sustained by cowardice, the complicity of the wider society in its perpetuation, the cognitive inability to take race and racism seriously, the political refusal to address it systematically, and the obliviousness of too many people to its destructiveness, not only for its victims but also for its perpetrators and beneficiaries. Racism diminishes the entire society, robbing it of its citizens’ full human potential; it leaves in its trail horrendous wastage of human resources and lives.

America’s failure to have a concerted conversation on race and racism is not surprising because too much is at stake for too many people, interests, and institutions. But racism will not disappear by ignoring it, dismissing it, or wishing it away through fanciful invocations of a post-racial society or misguided censure against political correctness. Failure to address it will continue to erode the moral, political, and constitutional fibre of the nation, and make it a global laughing stock for the glaring mismatch between what it preaches abroad and practises at home.

Racism diminishes the entire society, robbing it of its citizens’ full human potential; it leaves in its trail horrendous wastage of human resources and lives.

At the height of the Cold War and decolonisation, the United States lost hearts and minds in Africa, Asia, and Latin America because of the racist treatment of its black citizens. In today’s era of changing global hegemonies marked by the rise of the rest in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the ancestral homelands of America’s minorities, images beamed from American cities of police violence against people of colour diminish the country’s global soft power that it so badly needs as its hard power erodes. A serial domestic abuser cannot expect to be respected by its neighbours aware of such abuse, as is the case for America in today’s world of hyper connectivity.

Insofar as we are all raced, race and racism is our collective problem. It is not a black problem. It is an American problem. We must find the courage and the honest language to address it with the seriousness it deserves in all aspects of our lives at the individual, interpersonal, institutional, community, national, and global levels. Only then will the problem of the colour line of previous centuries cease to be a problem for future generations, and can we begin to fully realise the possibilities that lie in the indivisible and interconnected mutuality of our collective humanity to build truly democratic, inclusive, and humane societies.

This is what the lives, tragic deaths, and memories of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others before and since mean to me: the imperative that, as we say in Southern Africa, the struggle for liberation continues, for our liberation as peoples of African descent from centuries of Euro-American racism, and for the humanisation and democratisation of our countries in the diaspora and the world at large.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Politics

Moving, or Changing?

The purpose of the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe was the same as now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another, to change one’s social standing in relation to the country of origin.

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Moving, or Changing?
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Do we move to change, or do we move to stay the same?

That seems to depend on who we were, to begin with. In most cases, it seems we move in an attempt to become even more of whatever we think we are.

A good Kenyan friend of mine once (deliberately) caused great offense in a Nairobi nightspot encounter with a group of Ugandans he came across seated at a table. There were six or seven of them, all clearly not just from the same country, but from the same part of the country.

“It always amazes me,” he said looking over their Western Uganda features, “how people will travel separately for thousands of miles only to meet up so as to recreate their villages.

He moved along quickly.

“Most African Migration Remains Intraregional” is a headline on the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies website:

Most African migration remains on the continent, continuing a long-established pattern. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a figure that is likely an undercount given that many African countries do not track migration. Urban areas in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the main destinations for this inter-African migration, reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales.

Among African migrants who have moved off the continent, some 11 million live in Europe, almost 5 million in the Middle East, and more than 3 million in America.

More Africans may be on the move now than at any time since the end of enslavement, or perhaps the two large European wars. Even within the African continent itself. They navigate hostilities in the cause of movement—war, poverty and environmental collapse.

The last 500 years have seen the greatest expression of the idea of migration for the purpose of staying the same (or shall we say, becoming even more of what one is). The world has been transformed by the movement of European peoples, who have left a very visible cultural-linguistic stamp on virtually all corners of the earth. It is rarely properly understood as a form of migration.

It took place in three forms. The first was a search for riches by late feudal Western European states, in a bid to solve their huge public debts, and also enrich the nobility. This was the era of state-sponsored piracy and wars of aggression for plunder against indigenous peoples. The second form was the migration of indentured Europeans to newly conquered colonial spaces. The third was the arrival of refugees fleeing persecution borne of feudal and industrial poverty, which often took religious overtones.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity. The historical record shows that some humans have done this at the expense of other humans.

A key story of the world today seems to be the story of how those that gained from the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe outwards remain determined to keep the world organised in a way that enables them to hold on to those gains at the expense of the places to which they have migrated.

We can understand the invention and development of the modern passport—or at least its modern application—as an earlier expression of that. Originally, passports were akin to visas, issued by authorities at a traveler’s intended destination as permission to move through the territory. However, as described by Giulia Pines in National Geographic, established in 1920 by the League of Nations, “a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world”, the current passport regime “was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others”. Today the dominant immigration models (certainly from Europe) seem based around the idea of a fortress designed to keep people out, while allowing those keeping the people out to go into other places at will, and with privilege, to take out what they want.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity.

For me, the greatest contemporary expression of “migration as continuity” has to be the Five Eyes partnership. This was an information-sharing project based on a series of satellites owned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its original name was “Echelon”, and it has grown to function as a space-based listening system, spying on telecommunications on a global scale – basically, space-based phone tapping.

All the countries concerned are the direct products of the global migration and settlement of specifically ethnic English Europeans throughout the so-called New World, plus their country of origin. The method of their settlement are now well known: genocide and all that this implies. The Five Eyes project represents their banding together to protect the gains of their global ethnic settlement project.

In the United States, many families that have become prominent in public life have a history rooted, at least in part, in the stories of immigrants. The Kennedys, who produced first an Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then through his sons and grandsons, a president, an attorney general, and a few senators, made their fortune as part of a gang of Irish immigrants to America involved in the smuggling of illicit alcohol in the period when the alcohol trade was illegal in the United States.

Recent United States president Donald Trump is descended from a German grandfather who, having arrived in 1880s America as a teenage barber, went on to make money as a land forger, casino operator and brothel keeper. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States was the paternal grandson of a trader named Warren, a descendant of Dutch settlers who made his fortune smuggling opium into China in the 1890s.

While it is true that the entire story of how Europeans came to be settled in all the Americas is technically a story of criminality, whether referred to as such or not, the essential point here is that many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they impose on present-day applicants.

The purpose of migrations then was the same as it is now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another. It was about finding wealth, and through that, buying a respectability that had not been accessible in the country of origin. So, the point of migration was in a sense, not to migrate, but to change one’s social standing.

And once that new situation has been established, then all that is left is to build a defensive ring around that new status. So, previously criminal American families use the proceeds of their crime to build large mansions, and fill the rooms with antiques and heirlooms, and seek the respectability (not to mention business opportunities) of public office.

Many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they put to present-day applicants.

European countries that became rich through the plunder of what they now call the “developing world”, build immigration measures designed to keep brown people out while allowing the money keep coming in. They build large cities, monuments and museums, and also rewrote their histories just as the formerly criminal families have done.

Thus the powers that created a world built on migration cannot be taken seriously when they complain about present-day migration.

Migration is as much about the “here” you started from, as it about the “there” you are headed to. It is not about assimilating difference; it is about trying to keep the “here” unchanged, and then to re-allocate ourselves a new place in that old sameness. This is why we go “there”.

This may explain the “old-new” names so common to the mass European migration experience. They carry the names of their origins, and impose them on the new places. Sometimes, they add the word “New” before the old name, and use migrant-settler phrases like “the old country”, “back east”. They then seek to choose a new place to occupy in the old world they seek to recreate, that they could not occupy in the old world itself. But as long as the native still exists, then the settler remains a migrant. And the settler state remains a migrant project.

To recreate the old world, while creating a new place for themselves in it, , such migrants also strive to make the spaces adapt to this new understanding of their presence that they now seek to make real.

I once witness a most ridiculous fight between three Ugandan immigrants in the UK. It took place on the landing of the social housing apartment of two of them, man and wife, against the third, until that moment, their intended house guest. As his contribution to their household, the guest had offered to bring a small refrigerator he owned. However, when the two men went to collect the fridge in a small hired van, the driver explained that traffic laws did not permit both to ride up front with him – one would have to ride in the back with the fridge. The fridge owner, knowing the route better, was nominated to sit up front, to which his friend took great and immediate exception; he certainly had not migrated to London to be consigned to the back of a van like a piece of cargo. After making his way home via public means, and discussing his humiliation with his good wife, the arrangement was called off – occasioning a bitter confrontation with the bewildered would-be guest.

There must have been so many understandings of the meaning of their migration to Britain, but like the Europeans of the New World, the Ugandans had settled on replicating the worst of what they were running from in an attempt to become what they were never going to be allowed to be back home.

A good case in point is the ethnic Irish communities in Boston and New York, whose new-found whiteness—having escaped desperate poverty, oppression and famine under British colonial rule on what were often referred to as “coffin ships” —saw them create some of the most racist and brutal police forces on the East Coast. They did not just migrate physically; they did so socially and economically as well.

It starts even with naming.

The word “migrant” seems to belong more to certain races than to others, although that also changes. When non-white, normally poor people are on the move, they can get labeled all sorts of things: refugees, economic migrants, immigrants, illegals, encroachments, wetbacks and the like.

With white-skinned people, the language was often different. Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate”, to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

According to news reports, some seven million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion were absorbed by their neighboring European countries, most of which are members of the European Union. Another 8 million remain displaced within the war-torn country.

This is an outcome of which the Europeans are proud. They have even emphasized how the racial and cultural similarities between themselves and the Ukrainian refugees have made the process easier, if not a little obligatory.

This sparked off a storm of commentary in which comparisons were made with the troubles earlier sets of refugees (especially from the Middle East and Afghanistan) faced as the fled their own wars and tried to enter Western Europe.

And the greatest irony is that the worst treatment they received en-route was often in the countries of Eastern Europe.

Many European media houses were most explicit in expressing their shock that a war was taking place in Europe (they thought they were now beyond such things), and in supporting the position that the “white Christian” refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed with open arms, unlike the Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians before them.

Human migration was not always like this.

Pythagoras (570-495 BC), the scholar from Ancient Greece, is far less well remembered as a migrant and yet his development as a thinker is attributable to the 22 or so years he spent as a student and researcher in Ancient Egypt. The same applies to Plato, who spent13 years in Egypt.

There is not that much evidence to suggest that Pythagoras failed to explain where he got all his learning from. If anything, he seems to have been quite open in his own writing about his experiences, first as an apprentice and later a fellow scholar in the Egyptian knowledge systems. The racial make-up of Ancient Egypt, and its implications, was far from becoming the political battleground it is today.

Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate” to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

Classic migration was about fitting in. Colonial migration demands that the new space adapt to accommodate the migrant. The idea of migrants and modern migration needs to be looked at again from its proper wider 500-year perspective. People of European descent, with their record of having scattered and forcibly imposed themselves all over the world, should be the last people to express anxieties about immigrants and migration.

With climate change, pandemic cycles, and the economic collapse of the west in full swing, we should also focus on the future of migration. As was with the case for Europeans some two to three hundred years ago, life in Europe is becoming rapidly unlivable for the ordinary European. The combination of the health crisis, the energy crisis, the overall financial crisis and now a stubborn war, suggests that we may be on the threshold of a new wave of migration of poor Europeans, as they seek cheaper places to live.

The advantages to them are many. Large areas of the south of the planet are dominated physically, financially and culturally, by some level of Western values, certainly at a structural level. Just think how many countries in the world use the Greco-Latin origin word “police” to describe law enforcement. These southern spaces have already been sufficiently Westernized to enable a Westerner to live in them without too much of a cultural adjustment on their part. The Westerners are coming back.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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Politics

The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.

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The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money
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Despite being one of Africa’s greatest economists, Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi is little known outside Francophone intellectual circles. Writing in the 1970s, he offered a stinging rebuke of orthodox monetary theory and policy from an African perspective that remains relevant decades later. Especially powerful are his criticisms of the international monetary system and the CFA franc, the regional currency in West and Central Africa that has historically been pegged to the French currency—at first the franc, and now the euro.

Pouemi was born on November 13th, 1937, to a Bamiléké family in Bangoua, a village in western Cameroon. After obtaining his baccalaureate and working as a primary school teacher, Pouemi moved to France in 1960, where he studied law, mathematics, and economics at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Pouemi then worked as a university professor and policy adviser in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1977, he joined the IMF but quit soon after, vehemently disagreeing with its policies. He returned to Cameroon and published his magnum opus, Money, Servitude, and Freedom, in 1980. The recently elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, appointed Pouemi head of the University of Douala in August 1983—then fired him a year later. On December 27th, 1984, Pouemi was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room. Some of his friends and students argue he was poisoned by the Biya regime (which still governs Cameroon), while others believe that harassment by Biya’s cronies drove Pouemi to suicide.

International Monetary System

Writing in the turbulent 1970s after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates, Pouemi anticipated the three “fundamental flaws” with the international monetary “non-system”: one, using a national currency, the US dollar, as global currency; two, placing the burden of adjustment exclusively on deficit nations; and, three, the “inequity bias” of the foreign reserve system, which makes it a form of “reverse aid.” All three issues have been highlighted by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long recognized as a problem, the challenges with using the US dollar as the world’s currency have once again become apparent. Low- and middle-income countries (which include essentially all African countries) have to deal with the vicissitudes of the global financial cycles emanating from the center of the global capitalist system. As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation by engineering a recession—because if borrowing costs rise, people have less money to spend and prices will decrease—they are increasing the debt burden of African governments that have variable-rate loans in US dollars. Already, the World Bank has warned of a looming debt crisis and the potential for another “lost decade” like the 1980s. Moreover, higher interest rates in the US lead to the depreciation of African currencies, making imports more expensive and leading to even higher food and oil prices across the continent.

Pouemi viewed the IMF’s attempt to create a global currency through the 1969 establishment of the special drawing rights (SDR) system as an inadequate response to the problems created by using the US dollar. The issuance of SDRs essentially drops money from the sky into the savings accounts of governments around the world. The IMF has only issued SDRs four times in its history, most recently in August 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With African governments dealing with falling export earnings and the need to import greater amounts of personal protective equipment—and, eventually, vaccines—there was a clear need to bolster their savings, i.e., foreign reserves. The problem is that the current formula for allocating SDRs provides 60% of them to the richest countries—countries that do not need them, since they can and have borrowed in their own currencies. Of the new 456 billion SDR (approximately US$650 billion), the entire African continent received only 5% (about US$33 billion).

Decades ago, Pouemi had slammed SDRs as “arbitrary in three respects: the determination of their volume, their allocation and the calculation of their value.” Instead, Pouemi advocated for a truly global currency, one that could be issued by a global central bank in response to global recessions and that prioritized financing for the poorest countries. Such a reorientation of SDRs could provide a way of repaying African nations for colonialism and climate change.

Secondly, unable to get the financing they need, African governments with balance-of-payments deficits (when more money leaves a country than enters in a given year) have no choice but to shrink their economies. Pouemi strongly criticized the IMF, which he dubbed the “Instant Misery Fund” for applying the same “stereotypical, invariable remedies: reduce public expenditures, limit credit, do not subsidize nationalized enterprises” regardless of the source of a country’s deficits. Devaluing the currency is unlikely to work for small countries that are price takers in world markets and instead improves the trade balance by lowering domestic spending. The IMF has become “a veritable policeman to repress governments that attempt to offer their countries a minimum of welfare.” The current international monetary non-system then creates a global “deflationary bias,” since those countries with balance-of-payments deficits must reduce their spending, while those with large surpluses—like Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands—face little pressure to decrease their surpluses by spending more.

The third major issue with the current international monetary non-system is that developing countries have to accumulate foreign exchange reserves denominated in “hard” currencies like US dollars and euros, which means they are forced to transfer real resources to richer countries in return for financial assets—mere IOUs. Pouemi claimed that “if the international monetary system was not ‘rigged,’ reserves would be held as other goods like coffee or cocoa, gold for example. But the system is ‘rigged’; coffee reserves are quantified as dollars, pound sterling or non-convertible francs.” Instead, in the late 1970s, governments like that of Rwanda effectively lent coffee to the United States by using export earnings to purchase US treasury bills, whose real value was being quickly eroded by high inflation in the US. Hence, we live in a world where developing countries like China and Brazil lend money to rich governments like that of the US. As Pouemi explains: “The logic of the international monetary system wants the poor to lend to—what am I saying—give to the rich.”

CFA franc

Pouemi was also a harsh critic of the CFA franc, since maintaining the fixed exchange rate to the euro implies abandoning an autonomous monetary policy and the need to restrict commercial bank credit. Pouemi also argued that the potential benefits and costs of currency unions are different for rich and poor countries, and that therefore it is inappropriate to analyze African monetary unions through a European lens. His thoughts are especially relevant at a moment when the future of the CFA franc and West African monetary integration are up for debate.

In theory, by fixing the exchange rate to the euro, the two regional central banks that issue the CFA franc—the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’ouest (Central Bank of West African States) and the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique centrale (Central Bank of Central African States)—have relinquished monetary policy autonomy. They have to mimic the European Central Bank’s policy rates instead of setting interest rates that reflect economic conditions in the CFA zone. The amount of CFA francs in circulation is also limited by the amount of foreign reserves each regional central bank holds in euros. Therefore, “the solidity of the CFA franc is based on restricting M [the money supply], a restriction not desired by the states, but one proceeding from the very architecture of the zone.” As a result, the economies of the CFA franc zone are starved of credit, especially farmers and small businesses, hindering growth and development. In Pouemi’s words, “There is no doubt, the CFA remains fundamentally a currency of the colonial type.”

When discussing the possibilities for a single currency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Pouemi stressed that the potential benefits and costs of currency union are different for rich and poor countries. “There is not only a difference of perception of the mechanisms of cooperation” between Europe and Africa, “there’s a difference of the conception of common life. Economic cooperation as it is conceived in the industrialized West is the Kennedy Round, North-South dialogue, the EEC, etc.—in other words, essentially ‘customs disarmament’ or common defense; armament is the rule, disarmament the exception.” In Africa, however, economic cooperation is a positive-sum game. Conventional economic theory argues against monetary integration among African countries, since they trade little with each other. But to Pouemi, the goal of monetary integration is precisely to get these countries to trade more with one another. He also questions the view that monetary integration should come last, following the same sequence as the European Union from free trade zone to customs union to common market and, finally, to currency union. “This view is not only imaginary, it is practically non-verified; we have seen examples. Theoretically, it is indefensible: a 10% decrease in tariffs could be … offset by a devaluation of 10%.”

Pouemi also dismissed arguments that Nigeria would dominate the proposed ECOWAS single currency as another example of the classic colonialist tactic of “divide and conquer.” While he acknowledged that “monetary union between unequal partners poses problems,” these are “only problems, open to solutions.” They do not make monetary integration unviable. Such integration need not limit sovereignty. In a regional or continental African monetary union, no “currency would be the reserve of others. Each country would have its own central bank, free to conduct the policy that best suits the directives judged necessary by the government. The only loss of sovereignty following such a union would be the respect of the collective balance. It would not be appropriated by anyone; it would be at the service of all. It would be, for that matter, less a loss of sovereignty than the collective discipline necessary to all communal life.”

Pouemi advocated for an African monetary union with fixed exchange rates between members, the pooling of foreign reserves, and a common unit of account—like the European Currency Unit that preceded the euro. He thought that the debate over whether the CFA franc is overvalued is misguided, since there is no a priori reason for its members to have the same exchange rate. Fixed but adjustable exchange rates—as in the Bretton Woods system or European Monetary System—would allow each nation greater monetary and exchange rate policy autonomy. Settling payments using a common unit of account instead of foreign exchange reserves would help economize on the latter. Moving toward the free movement of capital, goods and labor—as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area—would help diffuse shocks through the monetary union. Finally, such a union would need to have a common policy on capital controls or at least collective supervision of international capital flows.

As Pouemi so eloquently lamented: “History will hold on to the fact that all of [Africa’s] children that have tried to make her respected have perished, one after the other, by African hands, without having the time to serve her.” We do not know what Pouemi could have accomplished had he had the time to serve Africa for longer. All we can do is heed his call that “in Africa, money needs to stop being the domain of a small number of ‘specialists’ pretending to be magicians.”

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Politics

The Post-colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh

The lesson from political economist Rok Ajulu’s academic work and activism: it’s not enough to change the “tenants,” but fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

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The Post Colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh
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In early May 2022, with almost three months to the August election, Kenya had close to 50 presidential candidates, and 5,000 people running for the 1,500 Member of County Assembly (MCA) positions. Ultimately, not all of these aspirants will be cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (more like “blunder commission” judging from the 2017 elections and its lack of preparedness for the August 2022 poll), but the question remains—one that the political economist, Rok Ajulu, asked in his 2021 book Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State: what is it about the post-colonial state in Africa that makes so many people want to control it?

In this impressive compendium, Ajulu chronologically and exhaustively mapped out the authoritarian turns of the Kenyan post-colonial state. In doing so, he documented the predatory nature of the colonial regime and how three successive African governments— headed respectively by Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki—have built on this legacy and, in addition, weaponized ethnicity at specific junctures to consolidate control and accumulation. And not just any accumulation: predatory and parasitic hoarding—in the sum of trillions of dollars and with many detrimental effects for the population—that is only possible when steered, despite declarations to the contrary from the top.

While he charts the oscillating, often moderate and neo-imperial allegiances of actors such as Jomo Kenyatta (the late father of outgoing president, Uhuru), Tom Mboya and Moi—none of whom were great fans of the Mau Mau—Ajulu’s focus is on how the state “becomes brazenly the instrument of the dominant political elite. This type of regime gravitates towards authoritarian dispensation of power precisely because economic mobility and expansion of the new elite is largely tied to their continued control of state-power.”

This thesis, while not unique to Ajulu and recognized in everyday discourse, is anchored here in a prolific and comprehensive archive, which also makes evident, as does the author, that the predatory pursuits of politicians are not unencumbered, even against the heavy-handed authoritarian implements (read political assassinations, state sanctioned ethnic clashes) they use to entrench them. Although Ajulu does not dwell on protests or resistances  to this authoritarian rule over four decades(please read this powerful book by Maina wa Kinyatti for that), and focuses primarily on party politics and the trajectories of (in)famous politicians to narrate the incremental creation of an authoritarian state in Kenya, the constant tug and pull of class tensions and the heterogeneous actions of supposedly homogeneous ethnic populations are always on the horizon.

Who is this man Rok Ajulu? In the short film about him called Breakfast in Kisumu, his daughter, the filmmaker Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, documents his academic and political labors dating to his exile from Kenya in the early 1970s. Oriented around interviews she had with him—and it is his narrations that piece together the diverse landscapes that are the visuals for this film (we actually, interestingly, barely see Ajulu)—his voice takes us through his life as a student, political activist  and academic, in a journey that spans Bulgaria, Lesotho, the UK and South Africa. The evocative images of these countries where Rok Ajulu lived, while recent, anchor this narrative that accounts for a life of political praxes in academia and beyond. Though his sojourns mainly pivot around academic pursuits, we also hear about his labors as an agricultural worker in Bulgaria, a pirate taxi driver in Fulham, London and, importantly, as an organizer with the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS) while at the National University of Lesotho in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for this work he was imprisoned for three weeks).

It is, perhaps, this period as an anti-apartheid organizer in Lesotho that created the path to a life in South Africa from 1994. Here he taught at Rhodes University and married Lindiwe Sisulu, the current Minister of Tourism (and one of the aspirants vying to succeed Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s next president), and daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activists Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Consequently, it is in South Africa, rather than Kenya, where his influence was more extensive, even as Kenya appears to have been the primary focus of his academic scholarship.

Ajulu-Bushell’s poetic film demonstrates that her father’s life was not ordinary. But it is perhaps the internationalist and pan-African paths he chose that led her to recognize him, as she does in this film, as a “father” but not a “parent.” Her bid to understand her father’s life as an adult and, simultaneously, to document his political praxes, appear to be what has prompted this documentary. While the style of the film may not be for everyone—there are a few seemingly gratuitous appearances of the filmmaker—Breakfast in Kisumu is an important tribute to a father, and one who is representative of a generation who endured many unanticipated and painful exiles for nations and lands which did not always claim them, but for which they gave their lives.

As the final book Ajulu wrote before he died of cancer in 2016, Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State is informed by questions that, likely, the author grappled with throughout his life.

Against the impending 2022 Kenya general elections that are not cause for much inspiration —with the male dominated alliances, handshakes, intrigues and elite contestations that characterize it—Ajulu’s thesis still rings true: that the state is the primary vehicle for accumulation and thus engenders a predatory authoritarianism by those who want to control it.

After years in an exile(s) documented by Ajulu-Bushell’s film, I’m not sure how optimistic Ajulu was for our Kenyan future, for he wrote in his final book: “Besides the change of tenants at the state house, not much really changed. The mandarins who used to lord it over the hapless rank and file remained in their same old places.”

At the very least, this generation can turn to the histories Rok Ajulu has documented in his book, as well as those he lived, to reflect on how, for this election and the next, we are not just going to change the “tenants,” but will fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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