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Race and Revival: A Posture of Protest for a New Pentecostal Movement

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The early Pentecostals rejected war, militarism, patriotic indoctrination, wage slavery and racism, believing that the love of Jesus had to supersede the love for nation-state, money, social class and whiteness. We must revive the passions of early Pentecostal leaders and examine Pentecostalism in fresh ways.

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On the night of April 9, 1906, a small congregation led by William J. Seymour, a black preacher, was meeting at a home on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles, California. The group was three days into a ten-day fast, praying and waiting on God. Suddenly, “as though hit by a bolt of lightning, they were knocked from their chairs to the floor” and they began to speak in tongues and shout out loud praising God.

In the next few days, news of the event spread throughout the neighbourhood, and Seymour began to look for an alternative venue to accommodate his growing congregation. At one point, the front porch of the house collapsed under the weight of the swelling crowd. They found a place at 312 Azusa Street, a ramshackle building that had most recently served as a stable for horses with rooms upstairs for rent.

It was in this building on Azusa Street that the modern Pentecostal movement can trace its origins. People from all over the United States and beyond came to experience the “outpouring of the Holy Spirit”, and from the outset the Azusa Street movement was remarkable for attracting a diverse group of followers – black, white, Asian, people of all ages, income and class backgrounds.

Consider that this was happening in 1906 in “Jim Crow” America, just a decade after the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that entrenched racial segregation as law in the US. The racial intermingling was a scandal, to some extent even more than the “Weird Babel of Tongues”, as a front-page headline from the Los Angeles Times described it. The paper continued: “Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve racking (sic) attitude of prayer and supplication.”

Seymour’s mentor, Charles Parham (who was white), broke with his erstwhile disciple and was sharp in his criticism: “Men and women, white and black, knelt together or fell across one another; a white woman, perhaps of wealth and culture, could be seen thrown back in the arms of a big ‘buck n-gger,’ and held tightly thus as she shivered and shook in freak imitation of Pentecost. Horrible, awful shame!”

A few years earlier, Seymour had attended Parham’s bible school, which at the time violated Texas Jim Crow laws – Seymour had to take a seat just outside the classroom door. Later Parham and Seymour preached on street corners together, but Parham only allowed Seymour to preach to black people.

Seymour himself endorsed speaking in tongues as a sign of the Holy Spirit, but with time came to believe that although tongues-speech was the initial evidence, it was not the absolute evidence. He saw that some white people could speak in tongues and continue to treat people of colour as inferior to them. For Seymour, Holy Spirit tongues-speech had to be accompanied with a breaking down of racial barriers and a reordering of society – it had to be, as Ashon Crawley writes, a posture of protest: “It would have to be a practice that is not merely a style, but also a political practice.”

This stance was not unique to Seymour. Contrary to what today’s Pentecostalism may suggest, early Pentecostals – especially those who stayed close to Seymour’s position – rejected war, militarism, patriotic indoctrination, wage slavery and racism, believing that the love of Jesus had to supersede the love for nation-state, money, social class and yes, whiteness. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 (which came just eight years after the revival on Azusa Street) would put their convictions to the test. They opposed the war and refused to be drafted into the US military, arguing against it as conscientious objectors.

They were vilified for this, and called “traitors, slackers, cranks and weak-minded people for extending Jesus’ love beyond racial, ethnic and national boundaries”, as the seminal work, Early Pentecostals on Nonviolence and Social Justice, an edited collection of writings by those early leaders including Seymour himself, outlines.

Pentecostalism is mainstream now, so if you are thinking of a group that is radically committed to social justice and the breaking down of racial hierarchies and capitalistic exploitation, Pentecostals wouldn’t be the first folks who come to mind. But that obscuring of Pentecostalism’s early, radical history has made us all the poorer for it, and has resulted in reaching for prayer, speaking in tongues and public piety as the default, go-to reaction in the face of crisis. To be sure, early Pentecostals did pray, shout, jump, speak in unknown tongues and get slain in the Spirit. But they did more – their Spirit baptism had real-world, political consequences.

Seymour’s breaking ranks with his mentor Parham in some contexts is attributed to a difference in doctrine – Parham believed that tongues were real, translatable human languages, whose purpose was to empower missionaries to travel around the world converting non-believers to Christianity. Seymour believed that this could be the purpose of tongues, but that tongues could also be a “divine language”, perhaps the language of angels that could not be understood by human ears.

Pentecostalism is mainstream now, so if you are thinking of a group that is radically committed to social justice and the breaking down of racial hierarchies and capitalistic exploitation, Pentecostals wouldn’t be the first folks who come to mind.

Is it any wonder then that as a white man Parham’s understanding of tongues was embedded in a missionary-driven, evangelistic and imperial project, but Seymour – who as a black man could not even sit inside the very Bible school classroom teaching the concept of tongues – was convinced that the Holy Spirit had to bring a broader, more elevated freedom-speech that had the power to tear down the immediate racial restrictions in his own life?

In our context here in Africa, spirit-empowered movements were not necessarily a direct outgrowth of the Azusa Street revival. Some were, such as the Assemblies of God, Apostolic Church and Church of God in Christ, established by American Pentecostal denominations. But others either arose independently, and became known as African-initiated/ independent churches, or emerged out of Western mission churches as a revivalist streak within mainline denominations – Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Mennonite and so on. In later years another category emerged, that is the neo-Pentecostals, which became most associated with Pentecostalism as most of us know it today – the urban-centred, upbeat prosperity gospel churches.

“Good people” in positions of power

My own experience with Pentecostal and evangelical churches while growing up in middle-class Nairobi was one of not necessarily avoiding direct engagement with the political, but instead implicitly ascribing one of two theories of political change, if not both simultaneously.

The first theory assumed that concerns regarding social justice would resolve themselves spontaneously if the general population received the redemptive message of Christ and became Born-Again and Spirit-filled. It was a matter of simple arithmetic – individual salvation would eventually translate into societal transformation, one soul at a time.

This strategy may appear, at first glance, to be disengagement with the public sphere and with politics. However, as Damaris Parsitau’s research has demonstrated, African Pentecostals do not regard prayer, fasting and evangelism to be apolitical. Not at all. In fact, they are intensely political, a strategy that spiritually “takes the nation for Christ” through crusades, tent revivals, healing and deliverance services, conferences and symposia, fellowships, ladies’ meetings, men’s meetings, prayer fellowships and night vigils, and expects that this will eventually have real-world, political consequences.

The first theory assumed that concerns regarding social justice would resolve themselves spontaneously if the general population received the redemptive message of Christ and became Born-Again and Spirit-filled. It was a matter of simple arithmetic – individual salvation would eventually translate into societal transformation, one soul at a time.

The second theory of change is more targeted, and in some ways, more elitist. It is the idea that Christians can “infiltrate” and influence structures of power for good. In practice this means working to ascend to positions of influence in order to harness that power towards a “godly” agenda. This second strategy has become more refined in the neoliberal era, one that is ostensibly meritocratic, a “marketplace of ideas” where the best ideas and the most qualified people would rise to the top.

The mission was to ensure that these people, apart from being technically qualified for the job, would also be Born-Again, Bible-knowing, Spirit-filled and so “ambassadors” for Christ. It would also mean pastors and other religious leaders ascending to unofficial but incredibly influential positions as advisors to presidents and politicians, for example through organising “National Prayer Breakfasts” in Africa and elsewhere, which are usually attended top government officials.

Ebenezer Obadare’s Pentecostal Republic outlines how this latter strategy has played out to great effect in Nigeria since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999. Obadare’s book makes a categorical assertion – that the Nigerian democratic process over the past two decades is ultimately inexplicable without the emergent power of Pentecostalism, “whether as manifested in the rising political influence of Pentecostal pastors, or in a commensurate popular tendency to view socio-political problems in spiritual terms”.

The problem with both of these political strategies, when we really think about it, is that both work with the general assumption that the fundamental political structures of society are either inconsequential to public welfare, or if they are, they are in the main, sound and just. They assume that all we need to fix racism, capitalistic exploitation, social decay, violence and neo-colonialism is first, a change of heart, and second, “good people” ascending to positions of power and influence. The system is mostly sound, the idea goes – all that is needed to fix it is “leadership”. However, these notions do nothing to radically challenge the status quo; rather they reify and stabilise it.

Slave patrols and modern-day policing

However, in the past few weeks, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the US, we have seen the limits of those arguments. Take the problem of police violence, for example. It is not a result of “a few bad apples”. Abuse, harassment, misconduct and brutality are not rare or aberrations; they are structural and part of everyday policing.

Policing in the African colony was always and inherently designed to protect the property of the elite – at first, European property and people, and later, the property of their African comprador successors. The African poor were viewed as a problem to be contained. The enforcement of minor offences designed to restrict African movement and corral them into working for European farms and industries took up most of the colony police’s time and resources. Even to this day, the first question that a Kenyan police officer is likely to ask you upon contact is for your ID card – a hangover from colonial vagrancy laws that still exist, which render the African as an “illegal” presence in the colony unless the African’s existence is justified – that is, if his/her labour benefits the colonial state.

The second theory of change is more targeted, and in some ways, more elitist. It is the idea that Christians can “infiltrate” and influence structures of power for good. In practice this means working to ascend to positions of influence in order to harness that power towards a “godly” agenda.

In the US, policing in the South started as slave patrols, first to capture runaway slaves and return them to their masters, and second to provide a form of organised terror that would deter enslaved people from revolting. Later, the police’s major job was to enforce the black codes of the Jim Crow South to control the lives and movements of black people. In the early 20th century in cities in the North, municipal police were primarily involved in suppressing and breaking up the labour strikes of the day.

In such a context, where impunity, classism and racism is the structure, the scaffolding and the raison d’être of the police force, how can one honestly say that you can “influence” it for good? Even the Jesus in the gospels did not move to Rome to “influence” Caesar; his life and ministry were instead in Judea, among peasants and fishermen.

Furthermore, oppressive regimes are sustained not by brute force alone, but also by a coterie of enablers who mistakenly believe that they can “change the system from the inside” but really only end up legitimising the regime. Using the context of Zimbabwe and the ruling party Zanu-PF, Alex T. Magaisa, in this article, expertly peels the layers off this fantasy that is frequently held sincerely by well-meaning and competent people, but which only ends up normalising the abnormal, and so becomes invaluable in giving a sheen of legitimacy to a thoroughly oppressive regime.

Magaisa’s searing analysis can apply to any illegitimate or repressive system in any country. “They may start from the periphery wearing the label of ‘technocrats’ but soon enough, they will find themselves deep in the cesspool, wearing scarfs and chanting ridiculous slogans…,” he writes. Cocktail parties and prayer breakfast meetings are not just about hobnobbing with the high and mighty; they also give the impression that everything is normal, which is something oppressive regimes desperately need. But as we say on social media, it always ends in premium tears.

In Obadare’s analysis, although Pentecostalism has indeed influenced the struggle for state power in Nigeria, it has had little effect on the state itself, “whether in terms of its governing philosophy or animating spirit”. In fact, Pentecostalism in Nigeria is a force focused on appropriating state power, and even demobilising civil society. Parsitau echoes this view. Her research highlights that in the Kenyan context, Pentecostal and Charismatic theology abstracts social evil into spiritual terms – attributing problems such as inequality, poverty and crime as the work of the devil, demons and other malevolent spiritual agents.

New sight, new tongues and a new wind

In my view, using simplified language like this is not necessarily a bad thing. Structural evil is sometimes so insidious and its effects so thorough that if you don’t have access to terms like “neoliberalism”, “the prison-industrial complex” or “exploitative capitalism”, the only way you can sincerely describe the devastation around you is to ascribe it to the devil.

It is actually demonic that the world’s richest 1 per cent have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people, or that the 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa. How else can you describe our violent world where anti-blackness is global, where black lives are disposable, where women’s lives are the most precarious? How can you reckon with a planet that seems to be hurtling towards self-destruction? How can one exist in a world like that and remain sane?

In such a context, where impunity, classism and racism is the structure, the scaffolding and the raison d’être of the police force, how can one honestly say that you can “influence” it for good? Even the Jesus in the gospels did not move to Rome to “influence” Caesar; his life and ministry were instead in Judea, among peasants and fishermen.

Facing the truth – that fellow humans are, in fact, responsible for this state of affairs – is sometimes too much to contemplate. It would drive one to commit retributive mass murder, or resort to suicide. James Baldwin puts it thus: “To be a Negro in this country [the USA] and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” (We could say the same about being black anywhere in the world.)

Escapist though it may be, attributing such evil to the devil is, in some ways, a way of preserving one’s sense of humanity. Since I am human, surely those who commit such evil must be animated by a malevolent force, otherwise, how could we both be human?

But because Pentecost Sunday was recently held on 31 May, I want to argue, like Rev William J. Barber does, for a new Pentecost – and for revisiting the passions of early Pentecostal leaders and examine Pentecostalism in fresh ways. The account of the day of Pentecost in the New Testament, Acts 2, outlines a dramatic moment when Jesus’s followers spoke in new and unknown tongues, and were given new sight and power as a wind shook the building they were in. My dear friend Curtis Reed once told me that many Christians are exhausted by trying to identify and resist domination and intimidation because it is frequently housed in Christian language (like Deputy President William Ruto saying he’s “investing in heaven” when dishing out large sums of money to churches).

If we are to find that again in this moment, we need new sight (to clearly see the structures of domination) new tongues (language to describe what we are seeing) and a new wind (if whiteness is invisible and powerful like air, then Pentecost in 2020 would mean new energy and drive to confront these entrenched systems, just as we’ve seen a wind of consciousness drive a whole generation to the streets in Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York, London, and further still).

In my view, using simplified language like this is not necessarily a bad thing. Structural evil is sometimes so insidious and its effects so thorough that if you don’t have access to terms like “neoliberalism”, “the prison-industrial complex” or “exploitative capitalism”, the only way you can sincerely describe the devastation around you is to ascribe it to the devil.

The first thing the believers did after receiving the Spirit at the end of Acts 2 was to sell their possessions and share according to each one’s need, going against the logic and normative framework of Empire. (Empire is about extraction, accumulation, excess and wastage, as the early Jesus followers must have experienced intimately as oppressed subjects of the Roman Empire.)

We must remember that the modern Pentecostal movement was led by a black preacher who saw that any claim of Holy Spirit baptism must have anti-racist and anti-imperialist real-world political consequences. This must lead us to move against patriotic indoctrination, militarism, and capitalistic excess. The love of Jesus and the power of the Spirit cannot be an abstraction, and cannot be limited to individual rehabilitation, but must extend into a practice of justice and equity for all people. It must be, as Seymour discovered, a posture of protest.

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Christine Mungai is a writer and journalist based in Kenya. Currently, she is the curator for Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, a co-creation space that supports public-interest storytelling. She was a 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Her work has been published in The Elephant, The Africa Report, Rest of World, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and Adi Magazine, among other outlets.

Politics

Moving to the Metropole: Migration as Revolution

In an act that should be seen as revolutionary, Africans are moving to the centre to benefit from the resources that continue to be extracted from their continent.

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When African students and other black persons escaping Ukraine at the start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict were being ejected from exiting transport (trains and busses) and denied entry into neighbouring Poland, many Africans were enraged with the shameless display of racism. One of these Africans was a middle-aged man from Congo—must have been a graduate student—only recently settled in Germany. Seated inside a café at the Berlin central train station with five of his German and British friends, he exploded: “One wonders how they built all these things? From where did you get all this money? Look where we are, this Hauptbahnof [main train station] must have consumed a fortune. The vehicles you make? No way!” His monologue lasted a while as his friends listened either in agreement or disbelief: “This is our money,” he went on.  “This is why you never stop these civil wars on the continent only to treat us like sub-humans. But we will not stop coming, whatever the cost!” he declared. His voice sounded austere, choked with emotion. None of his friends volunteered an immediate response. Then one said, this Ukraine situation is embarrassing.

While the angry tirade was sparked by the treatment of Africans trying to escape a war zone, clearly, this man had thought about all this stuff for some time. He must have been educated or observant enough to make the connections between the extraction back home in the DRC, the endless violent wars, the resources in Europe (as coming from his home), and the racist treatment of his kindred who otherwise deserve some respect for sustaining the beautiful lifestyles and infrastructures of the western world. Had he listened to Mallence Bart-Williams’ viral TEDx Talk? The story of this Congolese man, whom I will call Tshibumba Matulu (after the painter Tshibumba Matulu that Dutch anthropologist, Johannes Fabian writes about in Remembering the Present) is the story of “the metropole and the periphery” that dependency theorists Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The last line of his vitriol is interesting enough in the sense that now, Africans are seeking to see the world as one whole and thus determined to move to the centre—follow up on and seek to enjoy their resources—at whatever cost. Indeed, despite the innumerable roadblocks (immigration laws, expensive and convoluted visa processes, slave traders in the Maghreb, drowning in the Mediterranean, rank racism, and Islamophobia in the western world), Africans are moving to the centre, to the metropole, en masse. They are determined to follow up on their resources.

This is the story of both the open and disguised violence of neoliberalism, where Africa is heavily mined on the cheap, exploited through unequal exchange, climate/conservation colonialism, with the proceeds coming from African human and natural resources being stolen through inexplicable claims of value addition. This point of view has been recently, succinctly and loudly expressed by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in her fight with French President Emmanuel Macron over immigration policies in Europe. Known for her anti-immigrant policies, Meloni’s (selfish) position is that if the French stopped stealing resources from 14 African countries through the clearly colonial and extortionist CFA, Africans would not be forced to make the dangerous journeys to Europe (where, by implication, they come to follow up on their resources, which are violently extracted leaving behind absolute poverty and suffering). In that viral clip doing the rounds across the globe, Meloni concludes that the solution to stop Africans from moving from their country to Europe is to leave them alone and have them receive the full benefit of their God-given resources:

So, the solution is not to take Africans and bring them to Europe, the solution is to free Africa from certain Europeans [especially France] who exploit it and allow these people to live off what they have.

While this message seemed directed at the French, the spread of (both violent and structural) capitalism across the African continent is real and threatening. With the collapse of the African economies about 30 years ago (via structural adjustment programmes), where foreign-owned companies returned under the neoliberal order and took over Africa’s major resources or the pillars upon which these economies stood—mineral resources (gold, oil, coffee, diamonds), banking, telecommunications, selling of agricultural products which used to be a function of cooperatives and direct government help—the continent has been left in a clear condition of morbidity. The bold choice, which I argue should be seen as revolutionary, is to move to the centre and demand the benefits of the resources that have been endlessly stolen from the continent, violently and through disguised extractivist structures.

***

Being a Congolese from Goma, Tshibumba Matulu must have witnessed the scramble for Congolese resources by the rich and mighty of the western world very up-close and personal—Dan Gertler International (DGI), Glencore Plc. and Alain Goetz, all of whom have a strong foothold in the country’s mining sector. These multinational companies own almost all the mining sites in the DRC, and have been implicated in the unending violence in the country, which is connected to the ways in which resources are mined. Take South Sudan as the other example where Glencore has a strong foothold in South Sudanese oil. In early November 2022, Glencore Plc. executives were found guilty of bribing the South Sudanese leadership—starting just four weeks after the country’s independence—as “they sought to profit from political turmoil . . . they inserted themselves into government-to-government deals that had been negotiated at preferential rates”.  The Africa Progress Panel estimated that in a period of two years (2010-2012), DRC lost US$1.3 billion in asset sales to DGI. A 2021 study showed that DRC risked losing US$3.71 billion to controversial Israeli businessman Dan Gertler. This is a lot of money—which ends up in Israel where Gertler is one of the richest men and has been controversially implicated in a thousand scandals in Congo. To understand the fact that modern extraction follows a colonial model, one has to appreciate the fact that colonialism’s extraction was and is always outsourced to corporations. King Leopold operated in his individual capacity as a businessman, using his loot to build estates, infrastructures and palaces in Belgium (and not on the African continent). That an independent businessman, Dan Gertler, would promise guns to a government and actually deliver on his promise exposes the ways in which governments in the west outsource businessmen to colonise Africa on their behalf.

These multinational companies own almost all the mining sites in the DRC, and have been implicated in the unending violence in the country.

Dependency theory so succinctly exposed the roots and execution of underdevelopment in Black Africa, which is, in brief, resources being extracted on the cheap from the periphery (Africa), to be moved and generate more value in the metropole. If these resources ever come back to the continent (Latin America or Africa), they return more expensively. In this periphery-metropole dichotomy, endless capitalist exploitation (which mostly thrives on violence) not only depletes resources and opportunities at the periphery, but also makes life unliveable and unbearable. It then enacts tougher controls to keep the peoples of the periphery at the periphery so that they do not move to the metropole and overwhelm its amenities. This is why African journeys to the metropole are not only dangerous, but are also defined by more drama that tends to generate an incredible amount of grim news broadcasts. Dependency theory does not explicitly follow up on the revolutionary journeys where the exploited—like Tshibumba Matulu—painstakingly seek the benefits of their resources in the metropole. This is perhaps because it pursued another route out of this colonial conundrum, which was to de-link the metropole from the periphery.

Capitalism’s violence, revolutionary journeys

Transiting through airports in Dubai or Doha, one will encounter East African languages, especially Kiswahili and Luganda. Manning a counter in twos or threes, staff tend to speak to each other in their languages. While duty stations may not be allocated depending on the mutual native linguistic intelligibility between workers, since all speak English, somehow, workers from the same Great Lakes linguistic community find themselves together. That the numbers of labour migrants moving to the Middle East have soared over the past years is not just testament to the availability of job opportunities in the Middle East, but also to the dire conditions in which they live in their countries—conditions made difficult by the capitalist neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, and in some cases by conflict (especially in Northern Uganda, Karamoja, Turkana areas, South Sudan and Somalia). Middle Eastern salaries are not the greatest attraction as they range between US$600 and US$900 depending on seniority (far much less for domestic work). But that the same amounts cannot be earned back home speaks more to the dire conditions at home.

Data from the Uganda Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development published in the Daily Monitor, indicates that for the last six years (2016-2022), an average of 24,086 Ugandans left the country annually in search of employment, especially in the Middle East. What makes conditions so hostile in the Great Lakes Region?  Besides Somalia and Central African Republic—where there is outright violence—why is the scale of movement of young people in particular so high in the Great Lakes region? It is the ravages of both internal capitalism (by the petty bourgeoisies) and foreign capital moving from South Africa northwards, but also coming from Europe and North America—and China exploiting the neoliberal environment. This is evident in cases of land grabbing, forced evictions, refugee crises caused by resource wars, especially in DRC and South Sudan, and the terrible business environment in the region.

Dependency theory does not explicitly follow up on the revolutionary journeys where the exploited painstakingly seek the benefits of their resources in the metropole.

Theoretically and practically, without the violence of the state and other related state actors, it is difficult for capitalism to reproduce itself.  States do not only set the conditions under which extraction occurs (such as banking regimes, neoliberal regimes), but they are also ready to commit violence on the exploited. In Uganda, cases of land grabbing by local capitalists have made land ownership and agriculture difficult. In other cases, collusion between the state and foreign capitalists to evict peasants off their lands is causing first, rural urban-migration, and then journeys abroad. Among the most memorable cases is that of the 2001 evictions in Mubende where the German coffee company Neumann Gruppe used outright violence (with the help of the state), including shooting, burning houses and animals, and maiming people to create way for a coffee plantation. Over 2,000 families remain destitute and are yet to find justice. Faced with mass unemployment, extortionist banking regimes with high interest rates that have stymied creativity and made business difficult across East Africa, many young people struggle to start thriving businesses.

Violent evictions have also taken place in Kenya and Tanzania to create way for capitalist expansion or capitalist ostentation (Franz Fanon warned that political elites would turn the continent into an entertainment centre for foreign capitalists). This is the story in Samburu where evictions have taken place to create way for American charities. It is the story of the green colonialism that led to the Ogiek and Maasai evictions from the Mau Forest in the name of conservation. Guillaume Blanc’s recently published book, The Invention of Green Colonialism, demonstrates how the rhetoric of conservation (by colonially founded organisations including UNESCO, WWF, IUCN) perpetuates a colonial model of conservation that privileges animals and plants over humans. While capitalists in Europe and North America—consuming endlessly—have destroyed nature, they have maintained a mythical, fictionalised Eden in Africa, insisting that peasants, who have developed ways of coexisting with nature, who eat very little meat, have neither cars, nor computers nor smartphones, are a danger to the environment. They are evicted from huge swathes of land that are then reserved for white people to hunt and gaze at wild animals.

Away from the forests and the plains, the poor are also being “cleansed” from the capital cities. The 2021 Mukuru Kwa Njega eviction in Nairobi that left 40,000 people homeless is etched in the memories of Kenyans. In what Mwaura Mwangi aptly termed “Demolition Colonialism”, thousands of poor Nairobians have had their houses demolished so that the rich can enjoy easy transit. This is not anti-development position, but rather a reading that seeks to recognise the rights of the poor, and make visible the history of slums in major cities across Africa.

Theoretically and practically, without the violence of the state and other related state actors, it is difficult for capitalism to reproduce itself.

Then come the wars in the DRC, Somalia, CAR, and South Sudan—a product of business dealings by multinationals including Glencore and CNOOC, among others— that have led to an increase in refugees numbers, now reaching 2.3 million people according to UNHCR. In his book Saviours and Survivors, Mahmood Mamdani implicates CNOOC and ExxonMobil in protecting oil wells using different rebel groups in the Sudan-South Sudan conflict. The end product of these clandestine oil dealings are the over 1.5 million refugees hosted in Uganda, making it the country with the largest number of refugees in the world. The influx of people escaping resource-related conflicts has overwhelmed resources in the Great Lakes region.  And while many of the refugees will stay in the region, many others are making the journey to the Middle East, to Europe and to North America.

With all this aggressive capitalist expansion manifesting in different forms, the African in the Great Lakes (and other places on the continent) is left with no choice but to make the journey to Europe and to North America. I want to read these journeys not just as migration, but as revolution. They might seem puny, unorganised and migrating out of desperate need, but Africans are moving to the centre to benefit from the resources that continue to be extracted from their continent. This is how the extractors perceive these journeys—not as migration, but as revolution—which explains why there are so many roadblocks along the way.

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Politics

The Campaign that Remembered Nothing and Forgot Nothing

Once a master of coalition building, Raila Odinga killed his own party and brand, handed over his backyard to William Ruto, threw in his lot with Uhuru Kenyatta, ended up being branded a “state project”, and lost.

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The Original sin

A seasoned Nairobi politician, Timothy Wanyonyi had cut a niche for himself in the Nairobi governor’s race that was filled with a dozen candidates who had up to that point not quite captured the imagination of Nairobians. Some candidates were facing questions over their academic qualifications while others were without a well-defined public profile. In that field Wanyonyi, an experienced Nairobi politician, stood out. On 19th April, the Westlands MP’s campaign team was canvasing for him in Kawangware. They had sent pictures and videos to news teams seeking coverage. But that evening their candidate would receive a phone call to attend a meeting at State House Nairobi that would put an end to his campaign. Before Tim made his way to State House, insiders around President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters that Wanyonyi was out of the Nairobi governor’s race.

Wanyonyi’s rallying call “Si Mimi, ni Sisi”—a spin on US Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Not me. Us” 2020 presidential campaign slogan—distinguished him as a candidate who understood the anxieties of Nairobians. “They were looking for someone who would see the city as a home first, before seeing it as a business centre,” one of his political consultants told me. But the Azimio coalition to which Wanyonyi’s ODM party belonged was very broad, with several centres of power that didn’t take into account—or maybe didn’t care about— Nairobi’s political landscape. Wanyonyi’s candidacy was hastily sacrificed at the altar of the coalition’s politics. Former President Uhuru Kenyatta, the coalition’s chairman, had prevailed on Raila Odinga, its presidential candidate, to essentially leave Nairobi to Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party in exchange for ODM picking the presidential candidate.

That was the only consideration on the table.

However, it was a miscalculation by the coalition. Azimio failed to appreciate the complex matrix that is a presidential election in Kenya. While the top ticket affects the races downstream, it can be argued that the reverse is also true. It is ironic that Raila Odinga, a power broker and a master of coalition building who was running for presidency for the fifth time, was choosing to ignore these principles. His own ascension in politics had been based on building a machine—ODM—that he used carefully during every election cycle. Yet in this election he was killing his own party and brand. The Azimio La Umoja coalition party was built as a party of parties that would be the vehicle Raila would use to contest the presidency. However, the constituent parties were free to sponsor parliamentary candidates. It sounded like a good idea on paper but it created friction as the parties found themselves in competition everywhere. To keep Azimio from fracturing both itself and its votes, the idea of “zoning”—having weaker candidates step down for stronger ones, essentially carving out exclusive zones for parties—gained traction, and would itself lead to major fall-outs, even after it was adopted as official Azimio policy in June.

However, beyond the zoning controversy, Wanyonyi’s candidacy served as a marker for a key block of Odinga voters—the Luhya—assuring them of their place within the Azimio coalition. Luhya voters have been Odinga’s insurance policy during his last three presidential runs. With Nyanza and the four western Kenya counties of Kakamega, Bungoma, Vihiga and Busia in his back pocket, he would be free to pick up other regions. Odinga claimed 71 per cent of the Luhya bloc in 2017 but this time, western voters were feeling jittery about the new political arrangements.

There is also another consideration. The Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi is also significant, and Odinga had carried the capital in his previous three presidential runs. The Nairobi electoral map is largely organized around five big groups: the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and Kisii. For the ODM party, having a combination of a Luo-Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi has enabled Odinga to take the city and to be a force to reckon with.

However, it appeared that all these factors were of no importance in 2022. So, Tim Wanyonyi was forced out of the race. He protested. Or attempted to. Western Kenya voters were furious, but who cared?

Miscalculation

The morning after the State House meeting, a group calling themselves Luhya professionals had strong words for both Odinga and Azimio.

“We refuse to be used as a ladder for other political expediencies whenever there is an election,” Philip Kisia, who was the chairman of this loose “professional group” said during a press conference that paraded the faces of political players from the Luhya community. The community had “irreducible minimum” and would not allow itself to “to be used again this time.” Other speakers at that press conference—including ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna—laid claim to what they called the place of the Luhya community in Nairobi. The political relationship between Luhyas and Luos has not been without tensions; in the aftermath of the opposition’s unravelling in the 90s, Michael Kijana Wamalwa and Raila Odinga fought for supremacy within the Ford Kenya party. Wamalwa believed the throne left by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was his for the taking. However, Odinga’s son, Raila, mounted a challenge for the control of the party, eventually leaving Ford Kenya to build his own party, the National Development Party (NDP). The Luhya-Luo relationship was broken. Luhya sentiment was that, having been faithful to Odinga’s father, it was time for Wamalwa to lead the opposition.

These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet. This time, however, he was different. He didn’t seem to care about those fragile egos. After the press conference, a strategist in Odinga’s camp wondered aloud, “Who will they [Luhyas] vote for?”

The next 21 days were to be pivotal for Kenya’s presidential election. Azimio moved on and introduced Polycarp Igathe as their candidate for Nairobi. A former deputy governor in Nairobi who had quit just months after taking office, Igathe is well known for his C-suite jobs and intimate links to the Kenyan political elite. His selection, though, played perfectly into the rival Kenya Kwanza coalition’s “hustlers vs dynasties” narrative which sought to frame the 2022 elections as a contest between the political families that have dominated Kenya’s politics and economy since independence. The sons of a former vice president and president respectively, Odinga and Uhuru were branded as dynasties while the then deputy president claimed for himself the title of “hustler”.

These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet.

But, William Ruto’s side also saw something else in that moment—an opportunity to get a chunk of the important Luhya vote. Ruto first entered into a coalition with Musalia Mudavadi, selling their alliance as a “partnership of equals”, and then followed that up with the offer of a Luhya gubernatorial candidate to Nairobians in the name of Senator Johnson Koskei Sakaja.

Meanwhile, Wanyonyi’s half-brother, the current Speaker of the National Assembly, Moses Wetangula, was a principle in Ruto’s camp. Up to this point, Wetangula had struggled to find a coherent message to sell Ruto’s candidacy to the Luhya nation. But, with his brother being shafted by Azimio, Wetangula saw a political opening; he quickly called a press conference and complained bitterly about the “unfair Odinga” whom he said the Luhya community would not support for “denying their son a ticket to run for the seat of the governor of Nairobi”. His press conference went almost unnoticed and it is not even clear if Azimio took notice of the political significance of Wetangula’s protestations.

Azimio had offered their opponents an inroad into western Kenya politics and Ruto wasted little time trying turn a key Odinga voting bloc. With Sakaja confirmed as the Kenya Kwanza candidate for the Nairobi governor’s race, Wetangula and Kenya Kwanza made Western Kenya a centrepiece of their path to presidency. Tim Wanyonyi was presented as a martyr. The Ford Kenya leader took to all the radio stations, taking calls or sending emissaries, to declare Odinga’s betrayal. In the days and weeks that followed, William Ruto would make a dozen more visits to Luhyaland than his rival, assuring the voters that there would be a central place reserved for them in his administration. In contrast, on a visit to western Kenya, Raila Odinga expressed anger that an opinion poll had shown him trailing Ruto in Bungoma. “He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!” he told the crowd. He would eventually lose Bungoma and Trans Nzoia to William Ruto.

To be sure, Odinga won western Kenya with 55 per cent of the vote, but William Ruto had 45 per cent, enough to light his path to the presidency. He would repeat the same feat in Nairobi and coast regions, traditionally Odinga strongholds where he would have expected to bag upwards of 60 per cent of the vote. Azimio modelling had put these regions in Raila’s column but Kenya Kwanza took advantage of the mistake-prone Odinga. And wherever Odinga blundered, Ruto mopped up. As Speaker, Wetangula is today the third most powerful man in in the country. Yet just four years ago, he was an Odinga ally who had been stripped off his duties as a minority leader in the Senate by Odinga’s ODM party. At the time he warned that the divorce “would be messy, it would be noisy, it would be unhelpful, it would not be easy, it would have casualties”. It was the first of many political blunders that Odinga would make.

Unforced errors

Looking back, Odinga’s 2022 run for the presidency had all the hallmarks of a campaign that didn’t know what it didn’t know; it was filled with assumptions, and sometimes made the wrong judgment calls. By handing over his backyard to Ruto and choosing to ally with President Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila ended up being branded a “state project”.

In 2005, Odinga had used the momentum generated by his successful campaign in a referendum against Mwai Kibaki’s attempt to foist on the country a bastardized version of the constitution negotiated in Bomas to launch early campaigns for his 2007 presidential run. However, this time, as the courts hamstrung his attempt to launch the BBI referendum, Ruto was already off to the races, having begun his presidential campaign three years early.

“He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!”

With the rejection of constitutional changes, which were found to be deeply unpopular among many Kenyans, Odinga was finally in a strange place, a politician now out of touch, defending an unpopular government, a stranger to his own political base. The failure of BBI as a political tool was really the consequence of Odinga’s and Kenyatta’s inability to understand the ever-changing Kenyan political landscape. Numerous times they just seemed to not know how to deal with the dynamism of William Ruto. He would shape-shift, change the national conversation, and nothing they threw at him seemed to stick, including, corruption allegations. For a politician who created the branding of opponents as his tool, Odinga had finally been branded and it stuck.

Bow out

In the final day of the campaigns, both camps chose Nairobi to make their final submissions. Azimio chose Kasarani stadium. It was, as expected, full of colour, with a Tanzanian celebrity musician, Diamond Platnumz, brought in to boot. Supporters were treated to rushed speeches by politicians who had somewhere else to be. Azimio concluded its final submission early and the speeches by Odinga and his running mate, Martha Karua, weren’t exactly a rallying call. It was as if they were happy to be put out of their pain as they quickly stepped off the stage and left the stadium. In contrast, Ruto’s final submission was filled with speeches of fury by politicians angered by “state capture” and the “failing economy”. Speaker after speaker roused the audience with their defiant messages. They ended the meeting an hour before the end of IEBC campaign deadline. A video soon appeared online of William Ruto sprinting across the Wilson airport runway to catch a chopper and make it to one final rally in central Kenya before the IEBC’s 6 p.m. campaign deadline.

Pictures of the deputy president on top of a car at dusk in markets in Kiambu were the last images of his campaign to be shared on social media. Ruto won because he wanted the presidency more than Odinga and was willing to work twice as hard as both Odinga and Kenyatta.

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Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven

From its beginnings as a fishing village, Lagos has grown into a large metropolis that attracts migrants seeking opportunity or Internally Displaced Persons fleeing violence.

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Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven
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Lagos, City of Migrants

From its origins as a fishing village in the 1600s, Lagos has urbanised stealthily into a vast metropolis, wielding extensive economic, political and cultural influence on Nigeria and beyond. Migration in search of opportunities has been the major factor responsible for the demographic and spatial growth of the city as Lagos has grown from 60,221 in 1872 to over 23 million people today. The expansion of the city also comes with tensions around indigene-settler dynamics, especially in accessing land, political influence and urban resources. There are also categories of migrants whose status determines if they can lay hold of the “urban advantage” that relocating to a large city offers.

A major impetus to the evolution of modern Lagos is the migration of diverse groups of people from Nigeria’s hinterland and beyond. By the 1800s, waves of migrants (freed slaves) from Brazil and Freetown had made their way to Lagos, while many from Nigeria’s hinterland including the Ekiti, Nupes, Egbas and Ijebus began to settle in ethnic enclaves across the city. In the 1900s, migrant enclaves were based on socio-economic and/or ethnicity status. Hausas (including returnees from the Burma war) settled in Obalende and Agege, while the Ijaw and Itsekiri settled in waterfront communities around Ajegunle and Ijora. International migrant communities include the Togolese, Beninoise and Ghanaian, as well as large communities of Lebanese and Indian migrants. The names and socio-cultural mix in most Lagos communities derive from these historical migrant trajectories.

Permanent temporalities

A study on coordinated migrations found that, as a destination city, Lagos grew 18.6 per cent between 2000 and 2012, with about 96 per cent of the migrants coming from within Nigeria. While migration to Lagos has traditionally been in search of economic opportunities, new classes of migrants have emerged over the last few decades. These are itinerant migrants and internally displaced persons.

Itinerant migrants are those from other areas of Nigeria and West Africa who travel to work in Lagos while keeping their families back home. Mobility cycles can be weekly, monthly or seasonal. Such migrants have no address in Lagos as they often sleep at their work premises or in mosques, saving all their earned income for remittance. They include construction artisans from Benin and Togo who come to Lagos only when they have jobs, farmers from Nigeria’s northern states who come to Lagos to work as casual labourers in between farming seasons (see box), as well as junior staff in government and corporate offices whose income is simply too small to cover the high cost of living in Lagos.

While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly. This is mostly because of the economic challenges Nigeria is currently facing that have crashed the Naira-to-CFA exchange rates. As a result, young men from Togo, Ghana and Benin are finding cities like Dakar and Banjul more attractive than Lagos.

Photo. Taibat Lawanson

Photo. Taibat Lawanson

Aliu* aka Mr Bushman, from Sokoto, Age 28

Aliu came to Lagos in 2009 on the back of a cattle truck. His first job was in the market carrying goods for market patrons. He slept in the neighbourhood mosque with other young boys. Over the years, he has done a number of odd jobs including construction work. In 2014, he started to work as a commercial motorcyclist (okada) and later got the opportunity to learn how to repair them. He calls himself an engineer and for the past four years has earned his income exclusively from riding and repairing okada. Even though he can afford to rent a room, he currently lives in a shared shack with seven other migrants.

He makes between N5000 and N8000 weekly and sends most of it to his family through a local transport operator who goes to Sokoto weekly. His wife and three children are in the village, but he would rather send them money than bring them to Lagos. According to him, “The life in Lagos is too hard for women”.

Since he came to Lagos thirteen years ago, Aliu has never spent more than four months away from Sokoto at a time. He stays in Sokoto during the rainy season to farm rice, maize and guinea corn, and has travelled back home to vote every time since he came to Lagos.

 

The second category of migrants are those who have been displaced from their homesteads in Northern Nigeria by conflict, either Boko Haram insurgency or invasions by Fulani herdsmen. The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee. With many who initially settled in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) dissatisfied with camp conditions, the burden of protracted displacement is now spurring a new wave of IDP migration to urban areas. Even though empirical data on the exact number of displaced persons migrating out of camps to cities is difficult to ascertain, it is obvious that this category of migrants are negotiating their access to the city and its resources in circumstances quite different from those of other categories of migrants.

IDPs as the emerging migrant class in Lagos 

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, two of every three internally displaced persons globally are now living in cities. Evidence from Nigeria suggests that many IDPs are migrating to urban areas in search of relative safety and resettlement opportunities, with Lagos estimated to host the highest number of independent IDP migrants in the country. In moving to Lagos, IDPs are shaping the city in a number of ways including appropriating public spaces and accelerating the formation of new settlements.

There are three government-supported IDP camps in the city, with anecdotal evidence pointing to about eighteen informal IDP shack communities across the city’s peri-urban axis. This correlates with studies from other cities that highlight how this category of habitations (as initial shelter solutions for self-settled IDPs) accelerate the formation of new urban informal settlements and spatial agglomerations of poverty and vulnerability.

While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly.

IDPs in Lagos move around a lot. Adamu, who currently lives in Owode Mango—a shack community near the Lagos Free Trade zone—and has been a victim of forced eviction four times said, “As they [government or land owners] get ready to demolish this place and render us homeless again, we will move to another area and live there until they catch up with us.”

In the last ten years, there has been an increase in the number of homeless people on the streets of Lagos—either living under bridges, in public parks or incomplete buildings. Many of them are IDPs who are new migrants, and unable to access the support necessary to ease their entry into the city’s established slums or government IDP camps. Marcus, who came from Adamawa State in 2017 and has been living under the Obalende Bridge for five years, said, “I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.

Blending in or not: Urban integration strategies 

Urban integration can be a real challenge for IDP migrants. Whereas voluntary migrants are often perceived to be legal entrants to the city and so can lay claim to urban resources, the same cannot be said about IDPs. Despite being citizens, and despite Nigeria being a federation, IDPs do not have the same rights as other citizens in many Nigerian cities and constantly face stigmatisation and harassment, which reinforces their penchant for enclaving.

The lack of appropriate documentation and skillsets also denies migrants full entry into the socio-economic system. For example, Rebekah said: “I had my WAEC [Senior Secondary school leaving certificate] results and when Boko Haram burnt our village, our family lost everything including my certificates. But how can I continue my education when I have not been able to get it? I have to do handwork [informal labour] now”. IDP children make up a significant proportion of out-of-school children in Lagos as many are unable to get registered in school simply because of a lack of address.

Most IDPs survive by deploying social capital—especially ethnic and religious ties. IDP ethnic groupings are quite organized; most belong to an ethnic-affiliated group and consider this as particularly beneficial to their resettlement and sense of identity in Lagos. Adamu from Chibok said, “When I come to Lagos in 2017, I come straight to Eleko. My brother [kinsman] help me with house, and he buy food for my family. As I no get work, he teach me okada work wey he dey do.”

The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee.

Interestingly, migration to the city can also be good for women as many who were hitherto unemployed due to cultural barriers are now able to work. Mary who fled Benue with her family due to farmer-herder clashes explained, “When we were at home [in Benue], I was assisting my husband with farming, but here in Lagos, I have my own small shop where I sell food. Now I have my own money and my own work.”

Need for targeted interventions for vulnerable Lagosians

“Survival of the fittest” is an everyday maxim in the city of Lagos. For migrants, this is especially true as they are not entitled to any form of structured support from the government. Self-settlement is therefore daunting, especially in light of systemic limiting factors.

Migrants are attracted to big cities based on perceived economic opportunities, and with limited integration, their survival strategies are inevitably changing the spatial configurations of Lagos. While the city government is actively promoting urban renewal, IDP enclaving is creating new slums. Therefore, addressing the contextualised needs of urban migrant groups is a sine qua non for inclusive and sustainable urban development.

“I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.

There is an established protocol for supporting international refugees. However, the same cannot be said for IDPs who are Nigerian citizens. They do not enjoy structured support outside of camps, and we have seen that camps are not an effective long-term solution to displacement. There is a high rate of IDP mobility to cities like Lagos, which establishes the fact that cities are an integral part of the future of humanitarian crisis. Their current survival strategies are not necessarily harnessing the urban advantage, especially due to lack of official recognition and documentation. It is therefore imperative that humanitarian frameworks take into account the role of cities and also the peculiarities of IDP migrations to them.

Lagos remains a choice destination city and there is therefore need to pay more attention to understanding the patterns, processes and implications of migration into the city. The paucity of migration-related empirical data no doubt inhibits effective planning for economic and social development. Availability of disaggregated migration data will assist the state to develop targeted interventions for the various categories of vulnerable Lagosians.  Furthermore, targeted support for migrant groups must leverage existing social networks, especially the organised ethnic and religious groups that migrants lean on for entry into the city and for urban integration.

*All names used in this article are pseudonyms

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