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Coping With the Crises: A Reflection From an African University

13 min read.

Every university is unique and similar to other universities in its own way. This is especially evident in the types of challenges and crises it faces and how it deals with them, which is determined by its institutional contexts, capacities, and culture.



The Possibilities and Perils of Leading an African University
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Every university is unique and similar to other universities in its own way. This is especially evident in the types of challenges and crises it faces and how it deals with them, which is determined by its institutional contexts, capacities, and culture. By the time I joined USIU-Africa as Vice Chancellor in January 2016, I had been in academia for more than forty years in six countries on three continents and the Caribbean region at nearly a dozen universities of different types.

So, I thought I was inured to surprises. As it turned out, I faced both familiar and unfamiliar challenges and crises over the next six years. The routine challenges in universities were of course there. The surprises reflected the larger national and international contexts in which the university operated and revealed our institutional strengths and weaknesses as crises tend to do.

The Sovereignty of Nations

The first major crisis erupted while I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts attending a training seminar on Advancement Leadership for Presidents at Harvard University. It was Saturday, July 8, 2016, when I got a message that land belonging to USIU-Africa had been grabbed by a property developer. I was on the way to lunch with an old friend who had kindly agreed to take me to the airport later that day. In my wildest dreams I would never have imagined that as vice chancellor I would be dealing with land grabbing!

The question of land is central in Kenya’s history, political economy, and social imaginary. The country’s settler colonial capitalism rested on the dispossession of large tracts of fertile lands in central Kenya and coercive mobilization of cheap labor around country. The struggles over land between the British settlers and indigenous people lay at the heart of the nationalist movement that culminated in the liberation war led by the Land Freedom Army in the 1950s.

Also known as the Mau Mau rebellion or uprising, the conflict crystallized and unleashed complex forces and negotiations that shaped the trajectory of Kenya’s decolonization and postcolonial dispensation. I had done my PhD dissertation on Kenya’s colonial economic history from 1895-1963, so I understood the dynamics of land dispossession, squatting, grabbing, and ownership, how land was a source of accumulation and wealth, and a powerful symbol of status, identity, and belonging.

USIU-Africa had purchased the grabbed land in 1990, comprising 30 acres, which was not too far from the main campus, from an insurance company that in turn had bought it from another company that acquired the land in the mid-1980s from the former president of the country, Daniel arap Moi. It was high stakes land politics. Before long, another claimant, a major tycoon, joined the fray.

On the long flight from Boston to Nairobi, I was concerned about how this tragic saga would pan out. Immediately after my return the management team and I made some crucial decisions. We visited the two nearest police stations and began planning a peaceful demonstration against the land grabbers to raise public awareness. There was overwhelming support rom the university community.

The march took place on July 13. The chancellor, then in his late eighties, and I together with the management team led the six kilometer demonstration on Thika Superhighway, one of the city’s major thoroughfares, from the campus to the Muthaiga police station to deliver a petition. We deployed marshals to ensure there were no outside agitators to cause mayhem, hired a music band to keep spirits high, brought lots of bottled water and an ambulance. We wore headbands, carried placards, and marched under the banner “Our Land Our Future.”

The demonstration was widely hailed as the most peaceful ever conducted by any university in the country. While we were proud of that, we knew the hard work of reclaiming the university’s grabbed land had only begun. Over the next several days and weeks we visited the ministries of lands and education, organized seminars on land grabbing in Kenya with NGOs, and above all, our internal and external legal counsel began to pursue the legal avenues available to secure the university’s interests.

Months turned into years. It soon transpired that the university’s external legal counsel had allegedly been involved in the company that bought the land from the former president, so we had to get new legal counsel, which introduced complications as the former tried to work with some members of the Board of Trustees and University Council behind management’s back. This was my first encounter with counterproductive interference in legal matters by some members of the governing bodies. Others were to come.

The court case moved at a snail’s pace. No legal resolution had been reached by the time I left more than five years later. In the meantime, we fenced the adjacent ten acres to the grabbed 30 acres that were not disputed, and enhanced security for all of the university’s undeveloped lands on the main campus by constructing perimeter walls.

Security was a paramount institutional consideration because Kenya lives in a dangerous geopolitical neighborhood. The country has suffered several terrorist attacks, the most heinous in recent times include the attacks on the US embassy in 1998 that killed 213 people, the Westgate Mall in 2013 that killed nearly 70 people, in Mpeketoni in Lamu county in June 2014 that killed more than 60 peopleGarissa University in April 2015 that killed almost 150 people mostly students, and on the DusitD2 complex in Nairobi in January 2019 that killed 21 people.

Consequently, campus security was a constant preoccupation for the university leadership. Regardless of where I was at any time of the day or night, I was reachable by our security team. Universities in Kenya are expected to maintain and constantly monitor high levels of security. The name of our university added to our potential vulnerability. In addition to our own campus security team and a contracted security firm, we worked closely with the police, other security agencies, and the immigration department. We conducted periodic security forums and drills for the university community.

In 2019, following instructions from the relevant government ministries we established a biometric system for the entrance to campus. With the outbreak of Covid-19 we introduced an RFID card system. We discovered that daily there were dozens if not hundreds of outsiders without campus affiliation who had been coming on campus to use our facilities including the sports gyms.

Some students protested as these security measures made it impossible for those who had not paid their tuition or taken up deferred payment plans to enter campus. As I noted in another reflection, affordability is a serious problem for many students in Kenyan universities including USIU-Africa. On this matter, the Board and Council unequivocally supported management.

Personally, I was troubled by the emerging surveillance regime, but as vice chancellor I was committed to ensuring utmost security and safety for the university community. However, I declined traveling with armed bodyguard or acquiring a gun as I was advised as xenophobic attacks directed at me escalated. I took pleasure in walking freely on campus and in the neighborhood I lived.

The Politics of Authoritarianism and Anti-intellectualism

As a long-standing academic, public intellectual, and creative writer I relish vigorous debate and abhor anti-intellectualism. As a lifelong activist for democracy and human rights, I detest authoritarianism and the cultures of intolerance, bullying, mobbing, and harassment which are all too rampant on many campuses in Africa and around the world. USIU-Africa was no exception in this regard.

In many contexts, authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism radiate from the top including the governing bodies, which are increasingly comprised of businesspeople and politicians with poor understanding of universities. They seek to impose corporate and partisan modes of governance that flout the core values of academic freedom and shared governance for universities. Aside from the president or vice chancellor, and provost or deputy vice chancellor for academic affairs, management bodies are also increasingly occupied by non-academics who are sometimes indifferent or even hostile to the culture of universities as epistemic communities.

There is now a vast literature on the corporatization and politicization of universities, the imposition of business models and autocratic leadership styles. However, while universities cannot be reduced to businesses, they must exercise prudent business management to survive and thrive. Moreover, universities have never been splendidly isolated from the political dynamics of their societies, nor are they immune from their own internal politics that often reflect and reproduce prevailing and conflicting tendencies and trends in the wider polity.

In many universities, anti-intellectualism manifests itself in a growing disdain for the “argumentative” and “useless” humanities and social sciences, and the valorization of the STEM disciplines and the marketable professional fields.  The devaluation of the liberal arts that prize critical thinking, inquiry, search for truth, humanism, ethics, justice, and the indispensable literacies for interdisciplinary, intercultural, international, information and interpersonal engagement is accompanied by the instrumentalization of knowledges, skills, and outputs.

A Kenyan scholar, Wanjala Nasong’o, laments in The Daily Nation of April 6, 2022 “the rise of anti-intellectualism that intensified in Kenya under Moi, and that has become ubiquitous in the world on account of the rise of right-wing populist nationalism. Its essence is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who represent it; and a disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life. The result of this is the current general disdain towards all forms of intellectual activity and a tendency to denigrate those who engage in it… Anti-intellectualism is identified with religious anti-rationalism, populist anti-elitism, and unreflective instrumentalism… Religious anti-rationalism is the belief in the superiority of faith over reason and the fear that scientific endeavors will lead to the elimination of religion. The growth of religious fundamentalism around the world and the popularity of new-age religions in the face of contemporary life challenges is a testament to this.”

It was not unusual for academic or professional meetings to be opened by Christian payers oblivious to the fact that attendees were multi-religious or even agnostic and atheists. As I noted in a previous reflection, at USIU-Africa I was struck by the lack of a vigorous academic culture outside the classroom. Serious debates in leadership meetings were rare, save for those in management and occasionally the Senate.

Another troubling dimension of institutional cultures in many universities including USIU-Africa is the growth of incivility. In a speech I delivered virtually on May 26, 2021 to the USIU-Africa community and other participants, titled “Higher Education in a Post-Covid-19 World: Challenges and Opportunities for African Universities,” I commented extensively on this problem. I urged the audience to seriously embrace the values of academic freedom, shared governance, diversity, equity and inclusion, respectful internal and external communication, civility and collegiality, the role of universities as generative spaces in the rigorous search for truth, and their social responsibility by eschewing institutional naval gazing for the higher purpose of social impact.

On civility I stated, “The academic bully culture, as Darla Twale and Barbara De Luca call it in their book by that title has grown. Some call it academic mobbing. Incivility and intolerance in universities has several manifestations. At a macro level it reflects the frictions of increasing diversification of university stakeholders, growing external pressures for accountability, and the descent of political discourse into angry populisms. Student and faculty incivility are also fueled by rising sense of entitlement, consumerist attitudes, emotional immaturity, stress, racism, tribalism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, social media, and other pervasive social and institutional ills that universities must confront and address to foster healthier institutional climate.”

The culture of incivility at USIU-Africa was expressed in contradictory ways. There was exaggerated respect for authority, as evident in the pervasive reference and reverence for titles, undoubtedly a survival tactic from the legacies of national and institutional authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. There was also fear to confront dysfunctional behavior perpetrated by peers. I would often be approached by faculty, staff, and students who disapproved the attitudes and actions of their leaders and colleagues, saying “we don’t agree with what they are doing.” I would always ask them why they didn’t say so and openly debate their opponents.

In the first few years, I found meetings of the Faculty Council, which I attended upon invitation, quite vigorous, before they descended into sterile monologues by an intellectually insecure and intolerant leadership that would only allow their supporters to speak. Similarly, student politics tended to be constructive, notwithstanding predictable, and understandable protests over tuition increases. Things changed when the government imposed a uniform way of choosing student leaders.

This was prompted by efforts to curtail the power of longstanding popular leaders at some public universities. Instead of direct elections, the new system required all universities to establish an electoral college that would select the student leadership. This introduced increasingly sectarian political mobilization at a private university like ours that had not indulged in such politics before in which the populist factional leaders, who were not necessarily universally popular, could enjoy more power than the selected leaders they sponsored.

One event captured rising anti-intellectualism among some students.  In March 2019, students in the recently established pharmacy degree program sued the university for not changing the grading system to lower pass rates, which other students had rejected! They lost the case with costs. Ironically, the case raised national awareness that the university’s grading standards were high, contrary to colonialist stereotypes about the laxity of private and American-style universities. The following year enrollment in the pharmacy program shot up!

Throughout this saga, the Management Board and University Senate remained firm, confident that the university would prevail to maintain high grading standards. A few disgruntled faculty egged the pharmacy students on. The Council was unnerved and called for an emergency meeting and demanded daily updates. I even had to cut short my vacation to Mozambique where I was visiting my son. The propensity for misguided interventions by the Council worsened during the Covid-19-19 pandemic.

The Wrath of a Pandemic

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 forced universities around the world to confront unprecedented challenges that simultaneously exposed and exacerbated existing deficiencies and dysfunctions. Six stand out. First, in terms of transitioning from face to face to remote teaching and learning using online platforms. Second, managing severely strained finances. Third, ensuring the physical and mental health of students, faculty, and staff. Fourth, reopening campuses as safely and as effectively as possible. Fifth, planning for a sustainable post-pandemic future. Sixth, contributing to the capacities of government and society in resolving the multiple dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At USIU-Africa management began preparing for the Covid-19 pandemic almost immediately after it erupted. I subscribe to key higher education magazines in the United States, Britain, Canada, such as The Chronicle of Higher EducationTimes Higher EducationUniversity Affairs Canada, that send daily updates, and regularly read other academic media including University World News. By the end of January 2020, it was clear to me the world was facing a major health crisis.

Management activated the university’s business continuity plan that had been created a year before, set up a task force for Covid-19 and mobilized the occupational safety and health administration (OSHA) committee, and the governance bodies. We also began preparing faculty, students and staff through a comprehensive communication strategy using multiple platforms and disseminating information from authoritative sources to curtail misinformation and mitigate panic. A training program for transition to online teaching and learning was launched by the recently established USIU Online. A survey showed 94% of the students had access to smart gadgets.

By the time the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic and the Kenyan government announced closure of all education institutions from March 19, 2020, we were ready. The campus closed on March 17, and the following day we started offering classes online. The Spring and Summer semesters were concluded successfully online, and so was the Fall semester, during which improvements were made based on the experiences of the previous two semesters. This continued for the first two semesters in 2021, while during the third semester we partially reopened the campus. The provision of essential services in ICT, Library, Finance, Admissions, Counseling, and other areas continued online.

The University’s relatively successful online transition can be attributed to four key factors: robust business continuity planning; massive investments in electronic infrastructure in previous years and new investments during the pandemic; remarkable commitment by faculty, students, and staff, facilitated by continuous training; and using experiences to make improvements. We managed the welfare of international students unable to leave immediately by keeping them on campus until end of the 2020 spring semester.

Management and I were committed to managing the pandemic as effectively as possible, as well as actively planning for the future, exploring how to turn the challenges into opportunities. The university became a national leader in Kenya on e-Learning as evident in its partnerships with the Commission for University Education in organizing forums on the subject, CUE’s approval of the first online degree program in the country at USIU-Africa in 2020, and the university’s selection as a lead partner of the Mastercard Foundation for a major e-Learning initiative for some of the foundation’s partner institutions including eleven in Africa.

Personally, I participated in numerous national and international forums on the implications of Covid-19 as chair of the Board of Trustees of the Kenya Education Network, the country’s NREN, member of the Administrative Board of the International Association of Universities, and the Advisory Board of the Alliance for African Partnership, a consortium of about a dozen African universities and Michigan State University, and numerous other forums. I began researching on and writing a series of papers on the implications of Covid-19 for various aspects of higher education in Africa and around the world.

However, we faced challenges. One was ensuring quality of instruction and delivery of essential services. In the first few months, management and OSHA conducted daily reviews. Another centered on connectivity and devices for many of our students and faculty. We engaged the two telcos, Safaricom and Telekom, to provide subsidized subscription Wi-Fi rates. The integrity of the assessment process posed a special challenge. The schools adopted various mitigation measures including open book exams, using projects, online presentations, and prorating existing assessments. In addition, we acquired appropriate technology tools, such as the Responders Lockdown browser and monitoring system.

One of the biggest challenges was financial. The closure of the campus resulted in reduced revenues from auxiliary services and some student fees. Most significantly, for the rest of 2020, student enrollments fell significantly, and as a tuition dependent institution our finances became severely strained. Enrollments dropped because students’ parents or guardians faced job losses and salary reductions. Further, national examinations for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 2020 were postponed so there was no new pipeline for the fall 2020 semester.

Management organized numerous meetings in which the Director of Finance and I informed staff and faculty, as well as the governing organs about the dire financial situation we were facing. We invited the Faculty and Staff Councils for detailed briefings. I spent several weeks calling individual staff and faculty members to find out how they were doing, offer support, and solicit their views on how we could catalyze lessons from the pandemic to make the university more resilient and effective in future.

Within months of the outbreak of the pandemic several Council members demanded drastic measures including immediate salary cuts and furloughs. Management preferred a more measured approach to begin in the 2020-2021 budget year to maintain essential operations, morale, and as part of the duty of care to employees. Unconscionably, when there was blowback from a minority of faculty to measures adopted in the 2020-2021 budget, those same Council members tried to distance themselves from the budget over which they enjoyed the sole authority of approval according to the university’s charter and statues.

Prior to and after the approval of the 2020-2021 budget by the Council various consultations and engagements were held with the schools, staff and the faculty council executive committees to brief them on why it was necessary to implement the anticipated austerity measures. This was part of a tradition of wide consultations with stakeholders by management as it drafted the university budget for Council deliberation and approval.

The measures included graduated salary cuts (6%-23), suspension of institutional contributions to pension payments, placing some employees on unpaid leave, and suspension of the Employee Tuition Waiver. We indicated the measures would be reviewed each semester and based on student enrollment adjusted accordingly.

In addition, management developed several mitigation measures, such as strengthening fundraising, external partnerships, student recruitment and retention, and the university’s customer service and support. It is instructive that we secured the $63.2 million dollars for scholarships from the Mastercard Foundation that I mentioned in another reflection during the pandemic, and later huge support from the Foundation’s e-Learning initiative.

Before implementation we asked all employees to sign-off their approval. The majority approved. However, a minority group of opposed faculty applied for a court injunction to stop the implementation of the measures. They argued, against all evidence, that the university had enough resources to navigate the crisis without undertaking any drastic measures. Their blatant dishonesty and shenanigans would have been hilarious if the implications were not so serious.

Management believed it had a firm case to prevail in court. Many employers in Kenya including universities had implemented similar measures, so had much richer universities in the developed countries, as I shared continuously in my presentations to faculty and staff. The court issued a temporary injunction against implementation of the measures and encouraged mediation. After several futile attempts in which the litigants refused to consider any of the cost containment measures, it was clear to management that the court case should proceed in an expedited manner.

However, some members of the Council preferred more negotiations which persisted for the rest of the academic year. The litigants succeeded in running down the clock. Informed advice from management and the external legal counsel to Council hit against a wall of an inexplicable fear of the court process. The university continued to bleed financially. By January 2021 nothing had come out of the negotiations and the university found itself in dire financial straights.

The university was forced to undertake two drastic measures. First, dozens of employees on unpaid leave were furloughed. I found this deeply painful. A suit against the redundancies by the two unions that represented a few dozen staff failed because we had scrupulously followed labor law and institutional policies and procedures. It was the exercise of such due diligence that made management confident of prevailing in the suit lodged by the faculty litigants.

Second, various options were explored to secure temporary revenues to sustain operations including bank loans. In the end, the Board of Trustees, which has fiduciary responsibility over university assets, approved the liquidation of more than a third of the university’s limited endowment. It had never been tapped before waiting for it to grow large enough for the conventional annual endowment spending rate of 4-5% to support institutional priorities such as student aid.

This crisis compromised the university’s financial future. Institutional culture, on which I will say more in another reflection, had eaten prudent management and made a mockery of an otherwise effective pandemic management strategy. It was a case of institutional exceptionalism, entitlement, self-sabotage, and financial illiteracy by a litigious minority run amok. I was deeply saddened.

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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.


Kenya’s Police Are Violent and Unaccountable – Should They Be Abolished?

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, the police were “Africanised” but retained much of their colonial character. Under Daniel arap Moi’s authoritarian regime (1978-2002), the police continued to play a key role in repressing dissent.



Kenya’s Police Are Violent and Unaccountable – Should They Be Abolished?
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A world without the police is inconceivable to many people. The police are viewed as part of modern society’s foundation, ensuring democracy and keeping people safe.

In practice, however, police around the world sometimes repress social movements, stifle democracy, and exacerbate social and racial injustice. Across the African continent, they often use force to prop up repressive regimes. And in Kenya in particular, extortion and extrajudicial killings by the police are rampant.

Kenya is unusual for its extensive attempts to reform the police. Reform efforts began in earnest in 2008, when the police were found to be complicit in post-election violence. And yet, after 15 years and billions of shillings spent, the police reform project has largely failed.

The Kenyan police remain repressive, unaccountable and effectively unreformable. Many citizens complain about how the police treat them like ATMs – a source of cash. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the police killed tens of Kenyans while enforcing curfew measures.

We’ve conducted hundreds of interviews, discussion groups and over a decade of ethnographic research into how counter-terrorist policing and securitisation have shaped Nairobi. And in turn, how local residents respond to police violence and build their own practices of care, mutual aid and security.

We have come to the conclusion that the police make most people feel less safe. Many residents told us they don’t depend on the police for their safety: they keep each other safe. Given the impasse of police reform – and citizen responses to this – there is a strong argument to be made for the abolition of the Kenyan police altogether.

Policing at an impasse

Modern police institutions made their first appearances on the African continent as part of colonisation and the expansion of European capitalist interests.

In Kenya, the roots of policing lie in early colonial “conquest”. The Imperial British East African Company developed security forces to protect its expanding economic interests in the 1890s, and the Kenya-Uganda Railroad developed its own police force in 1902.

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, the police were “Africanised” but retained much of their colonial character. Under Daniel arap Moi’s authoritarian regime (1978-2002), the police continued to play a key role in repressing dissent.

There have been calls to reform the Kenyan police for decades. But the 2007-08 post-election violence, in which police were complicit in widespread ethnic violence, accelerated attempts at reform.

Over the past 15 years, police reform has been enshrined in the 2010 constitution and actualised in numerous acts of parliament. It’s been supported internationally with funding and technical expertise from the UN, the US and the EU, among others. It prompted the reorganisation of the police service and the establishment of civil oversight mechanisms.

Yet, despite all of these efforts, the Kenyan police remain corrupt, violent and unaccountable.

Civilian oversight over the police has proved ineffectual. The Independent Policing Oversight Agency has managed to bring only 12 cases of police violence to conviction out of more than 20,000 complaints received between 2012 and 2021. That is only one out of every 1,667 complaints. The under-resourced agency simply can’t grapple with the immense volume of reported police abuses.

The case for abolition

Police reform has failed. Is it time to consider abolition?

Abolition is not about simply tearing things down, but rather asking what should exist in place of outdated and violent systems that no longer serve people. Abolition is a creative and constructive project with deep philosophical roots.

So why abolish the Kenya police?

  1. The police are functionally obsolete for most Kenyans. In many low-income neighbourhoods, our research shows that people avoid calling the police to respond to crises or crimes. For many, experience shows that the police can make matters worse.
  2. The police often exacerbate insecurity, violence and corruption. To provide for their own safety, residents increasingly organise themselves into networks of friends, family and neighbours for basic safety. For instance, women in Mathare, Nairobi, organise their own security practices, which include conflict resolution, de-escalation of violence and support for survivors.
  3. In more affluent neighbourhoods, residents increasingly rely on private companies to provide security in their compounds. Police are seen as one among many security services available for hire. In our research, the few positive experiences with the Kenyan police were reported (predominantly) by such affluent residents.
  4. The remaining function of the police is “enforcing order” and protecting the state against society. Officers uphold and protect a rarefied governing class and political elite against the population.

Police abolition, therefore, would mean dismantling ineffective and repressive institutions and replacing them with systems of actual safety, systems that enable society to thrive.

What should replace the police?

When confronted with the idea of “abolition” for the first time, many people often respond: “but who will keep us safe?”

In Nairobi, the answer is to be found in existing social practices. The problem is that there’s a lack of resources to support alternatives to punitive security. We call for defunding the police and investing these resources in such alternatives.

  1. Invest in communities.When we ask about local security problems, residents often answer that the lack of schools, food, land, quality housing, water, electricity, toilets, healthcare and safe places for kids to play are what cause “insecurity”. Reinvestment in community means funding such social infrastructure to allow people to thrive. This reduces crime and violence.
  2. Invest in alternative safety mechanisms.This means strengthening dispute-resolution mechanisms that help resolve conflicts without violence. The government needs to support existing social justice centresnetworks and movements fighting for change.

When these forms of social reinvestment are pursued, the need for the police is greatly diminished.

The Conversation

Wangui Kimari, Anthropologist, University of Cape Town and Zoltán Glück, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, American University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Nigeria: A Messiah Will Not Fix Country’s Problems

In Nigeria’s recent election cycle, many citizens looked to Peter Obi for change. But the country needs people-led social transformation, not saviors.



Nigeria: A Messiah Will Not Fix Country’s Problems
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On February 25, Nigerians once again took to the polls with a determination that their votes could change the fate of a country in deep despair. For the seventh time since a civilian dispensation began in 1999, Nigerians hoped that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would conduct a free, fair, and credible election. This hope was reinvigorated by the emergence of technology that would ensure, purportedly, a transparent process. Yet, once again, voters had their dreams crushed with an election marred by violence, ballot box snatching, forged results and, of course, voter intimidation and buying. In the days that followed, despite mounting evidence of irregularities and international outcry, INEC declared Bola Ahmed Tinubu, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the winner of the presidential poll. The continuation of a gerontocratic oligarchy was solidified.

Although media attention focused on a young class of voters and the uniqueness of this historical moment, a deeper analysis is necessary. If nothing else, this election provided an opportunity to examine the shifting landscape of Nigeria’s elite electoral politics, and the increasingly complex voting patterns of citizens, while understanding these voters are increasingly a minority—less than 30 percent of the registered voters (about one-tenth of the population) cast their vote.

The dizzying rise of Peter Obi as a “third force” candidate over the last nine months was largely due to a movement of emergent and middle-class youth, the so-called “Obidients,” who used technology to galvanize a youthful base to push forward their candidate. That the Obidient movement was formed, ironically, off the back of the EndSARS movement, is in many ways a direct contradiction. The generation that was “leaderless” now suddenly had a leader. The rate at which young people chose this candidate still gives me whiplash. But there was no shaking their convictions. Obi was their candidate, and no one could shake their belief that a new Nigeria would be formed under his presidency, despite the evidence that he was directly endorsed by the same ruling class that has led to the country’s demise.

Obi is not a revolutionary, a social welfarist, nor even pro labor, but he became the savior many youth were looking for to “rescue” Nigeria. Ironically, the millions of youth that fought the EndSARS battle, and named themselves the leaderless soro soke (“speak up” in Yoruba) generation, did not seek elective office themselves. Rather, many put their eggs in Obi’s basket in supporting an older, veteran politician whose clean cut and soft demeanor led to his near deification. Other EndSARS activists, including Omoyele Sowore, were mocked for running in the election and were seen as not experienced enough for the job. In the end Sowore  performed abysmally at the polls, despite his demonstrated commitment to Nigerian youth and human rights record and involvement in the EndSARS protests (Sowore’s African Action Congress polled only 14,608 votes, faring worse than in the 2019 election).

This absolute faith in Obi was demonstrated when his followers patiently waited for five days after the election to hear from him. Instead of sending them into the streets, he advised them to wait for him to challenge the electoral irregularities in the courts. Why did a leaderless generation need a hero?

The contradictions in the EndSARS ideology and the Obidient campaign will be tested in the years ahead. After the Lekki massacre on October 20, 2020 brought the massive street protests of the EndSARS movement to an abrupt halt, many of the sites of protests shut down completely and groups that were loosely organized dismantled into relative silence for almost two years. In fact, there was little indication that EndSARS would evolve into a mass political movement until Peter Obi emerged on the scene in May 2022. The first- and second anniversaries of the Lekki massacre were marked by smaller protests in Lagos and a few other cities, which paled in comparison to the numbers at the 2020  protests. Still, efforts to free many of the prisoners arrested during EndSARS are proving difficult, with some protesters and victims still in jail today. There was no direction, no cohesiveness, and no willingness to move forward at that point. But in May 2022, seemingly out of nowhere, things began to shift. A candidate emerged that many EndSARS protesters seemed to think would be the savior.

Understanding the youth divide

While often lumped into a sum, the category of “youth” is not a single class of people. When Obi was said to carry the youth vote he actually only carried the vote of a particular category of young people, an emergent middle and professional class, who were also some of the most vocal in the EndSARS movement. However, if we are to use the discredited election geography as a proxy for representation, it is clear that this demographic is both well defined and narrow. Major urban areas like Lagos and Abuja pulled towards Obi, as did a few Eastern states. The North Central states including Plateau and Benue asserted their own identity by aligning with Obi, perhaps in a rejection of the Northern Muslim tickets of the Peoples Democratic Party (with whom Atiku Abubaker ran) and the APC.

The 2023 election also forces us to re-examine the dynamics of class, ethnic and religious divides and the deepening malaise of the poor and their disengagement with politics. What is clear from this election, like many before, is that Nigeria has yet to come of age as a democracy; indeed, the conditions for democracy simply do not exist. It is also quite evident that the Nigerian elite are adept at changing the political game to suit the mood of the Nigerian people. Electoral malpractices have shifted over time in response to the increasing pressure of civil society for accountable elections. Strong civil society advocacy from organizations focused on accountability and transparency in government have pushed against electoral practices. While these practices continue, there are significant shifts from previous elections where vote buying was brazen. However, it begs the historical questions: has Nigeria ever had a truly free and fair election, and is the process with which democracy is regenerated through the ballot the path for emancipatory politics? These questions become more relevant as the numbers of voters continue to dwindle, with the 2023 election having the lowest turnout in Nigeria’s electoral history, despite the social media propaganda around the youth vote and the turning tide of discontent that was predicted to shape the election.

Lessons from history

The fact that young people were surprised by the events on February 25 may be indicative of youthful exuberance or a startling lack of knowledge of history. The idea that a ruling class, who had brought the EndSARS struggle to a bloody end, would somehow deliver a free and fair election, needs more critical scrutiny. For those that remember the history of the June 12, 1993 elections—annulled after the popular rise of MKO Abiola—the election is no surprise. But for young people deprived of history education, which has been removed from Nigeria’s curriculum for the past 30 years, the knowledge may be limited. When a young person says they have never seen an election like this, they also cannot be faulted, as many young voters were voting for the first time. Given that many youth seem to underestimate the long history of elections and electoral fraud, the question of intergenerational knowledge and of a public history that seems to be absent from electoral discourse cannot be ignored. It is also hard to fault young voters, in a  land where there is no hope, and whatever hope is sought after can be found in the marketplace.

Many of the young organizers were adept at reading their constituencies and mobilizing their bases, but some of the elephants in the room were ignored. One of these elephants, of course, was the deep geographic and ethno-religious and class divisions between the North and the South. This is evident in the voting patterns in the North West and North East where Obi’s campaign did not make a dent. Though Obi ran with a vice president from the North, the majority of votes in Northern zones were divided between PDP, APC and New Nigeria People’s Party while two of the North Central states, Plateau and Nasarawa, went to Obi’s Labor party. Kano, the largest voting population in the country went to Rabiu Kwankwaso’s NNPP, an outlier who was ignored to the peril of opposition parties (Kwankwaso was the former governor of Kano).

Obi’s campaign also focused on the emergent middle class youth, as well as appealing to religious sentiments through churches on a Christian ticket and ethnic sentiments appealing to his Ibo base in the South East, where he swept states with more than 90 percent of the vote. The North is largely made up of the rural poor with poverty rates as high as 87 percent and literacy rates among young women in Zamfara state as low as 16 percent. Tracking Obi’s victories, most of the states where he won had lower poverty rates and higher literacy rates; states like Delta and Lagos have the lowest poverty counts in the country. While Obi used poverty statistics to bolster his campaign, his proposed austerity measures and cuts in government spending do not align with the massive government investments that would be needed to lift Nigerians out of poverty. While the jury is still out on the reasons for low voter turnout, deepening poverty and the limited access to cash invariably impacted poor voters.

Historically, Nigeria’s presidency has swung between the North and the South, between Muslims and Christians, and this delicate balance was disrupted on all sides. In 2013, an alliance between the Southern Action Congress (AC), the Northern All Nigeria’s People’s Party (ANPP), and Congressive People’s Alliance (CPC) to produce the Action People’s Congress (APC) was able to remove the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who had dominated the political scene. Another important historical note is that of the legacy of Biafra that lives on, as an Igbo man has never taken the helm of the Presidency since the Civil War. While Obi ran on the promise of a united youth vote, the lingering ethnic and religious sentiments demonstrate the need for his campaign to have created a stronger alliance with the North and the rural and urban poor.

The failure of the youth vote is also a failure of the left

The other factor that we must examine is the failure of the left to articulate and bring into public critique the neoliberal model that all the candidates fully endorsed. Many young Nigerians believe if Nigeria works, it will work for everyone, and that “good governance” is the answer to the myriad problems the country faces. The politics of disorder and the intentionality of chaos are often overlooked in favor of the “corrupt leader” indictment. The left was divided between the Labor Party, whose presidential flag bearer ran on a neoliberal rather than pro worker or socialist platform, and the African Action Congress, who ran on a socialist manifesto, but failed to capture the imaginations of young people or win them over to socialist politics and ideology. In seeking to disrupt the two party power block, young Nigerians took less notice of the lack of difference between the three front running parties, and chose to select the lesser of three evils, based on credentials and the idea that Obi was “the best man for the job.” In fact, the Nigerian youth on the campaign trail emphasized experience in government as a criteria for a good candidate, over and above fresh ideas.

The left also failed to garner the EndSARS movement and channel it into a political force. The emergent youth middle class, not the workers and the working poor, continued to carry the message of liberal rather than revolutionary politics. Unfortunately, just as the gunning down of Nigerian protesters caught young people off guard in October 2020, so too the massive rigging of this election. However, there is no cohesive movement to fight the fraud of this election. The partisan protests and separate court cases by the Labor Party and PDP, demonstrate that the disgruntled candidates are fighting for themselves, rather than as a single voice to call out electoral fraud and the rerun of the election. The fact that there is acceptance of the National Assembly election outcomes and not the presidential election, points to the seeking of selective justice, which may eventually result in the complete disenfranchisement of the Nigerian people.

At this time we must seek answers to our current dilemma within history, the history that we so often want to jettison for the euphoria or overwhelming devastation of the moment. The question for the youth will now be, which way forward? Will we continue to rely on the old guard, the gerontocratic oligarchy that has terrorized Nigerians under the guise of different political parties for the past 24 years? Or will we drop all expectations and pursue the revolution that is sorely needed? Will young people once again rise to be a revolutionary vanguard that works with millions of working poor to form a truly pro-people, pro-poor party that has ordinary Nigerians as actual participants in a virbrant democracy from the local to the federal levels, not just during election time but every day?  Will the middle class Nigerian youth be willing to commit class suicide to fight alongside the poor to smash the existing oligarchy and gerontocracy and snatch our collective destiny back?

It is a time for truth telling, for examining our own shortcomings. As young people, as the left, and as civil society, we have relied too long on the oppressors for our own liberation.

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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Africa in the New World Disorder

The war in Ukraine indicates a new world disorder, where great powers fight for primacy and Africa continues to be exploited.



Africa in the New World Disorder
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There are some of us in Africa who believe that we should not invest any serious thinking in the war in Ukraine as it is one of the “European tribal wars.” The logic of that belief is that in Africa we have too many of our own problems to invest energy and effort in European problems. The trouble of being African in the present world order, however, is that all problems and wars end up African in effect if not in form. In the sense in which one who knows it feels it, every war in the world is an African war because Africans have, for the longest time, felt and known wars that are not of their creation. The African condition itself can be understood as a daily experience of war.

Over centuries Africa has been structured and positioned to be on the receiving end of all world problems. As such, Africa is not only the storied cradle of mankind, but also the cemetery of the human condition where every human and world problem comes to kill and to die as well. The worst of the human condition and human experiences tend to find final expression in Africa. It is for that reason that Julius Nyerere once opined that the Devil’s Headquarters must be in Africa because everything that might go wrong actually goes wrong in the continent.As the world tiptoes precariously from the COVID-19 pandemic, at the same time it seems to be tottering irreversibly towards a nuclear World War III. The countries of the world that have the power and the privilege to stop the war pretend to be unable to do so. Even some powerful and privileged Western thinkers are beating the drums of war. For instance, Slavoj Zizek, considered “the most dangerous philosopher in the West,” wrote for The Guardian in June 2022 to say: “pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine,” and “the least we owe Ukraine is full support, and to do that we need a stronger NATO.” Western philosophers, not just soldiers and their generals, are demanding stronger armies and bigger weapons to wage bigger wars. In Ukraine, the conflict is proving too important to be left to the soldiers, the generals and the politicians. In that assertion Zizek speaks from the Euro-American political and military ego, whose fantasy is a humiliating total defeat of Russia in Ukraine. Zizek, the “dangerous philosopher” takes his place as a spokesperson for war and large-scale violence, agitating from a comfortable university office far away from the horrors of Bakhmut.

United States President, Joe Biden, spoke from the same egopolitics of war before the Business Roundtable CEO Quarterly Meeting on March 21 last year: “And now is a time when things are shifting… there’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it.  And we’ve got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.” Clearly, an “end of history” fantasy of another unipolar world led by the US and its NATO allies has possessed Western powers that are prepared to pump money, weapons and de-uniformed soldiers into Ukraine to support the besieged country to the “last Ukrainian.” During a surprise visit to Kyiv on the eve of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden hawkishly said the US will support Ukraine in fighting “as long as it takes,” dismissing diplomatic alternatives. Suggestions for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine that have come from influential figures, such as Henry Kissinger on the right and Noam Chomsky on the left, have been dismissed with the sleight of the left hand, and this is as Ukraine is literally being bombed to dustAfrican countries that have for years been theaters of colonial invasions, proxy wars, sponsored military coups, and regime changes can only see themselves in Ukraine. What Ukraine is going through is a typical African experience taking place in Europe and the first victims are Europeans this time.

Being Africans in Africa, at the least, should equip us with the eyes to see the war in Ukraine for what it is, a war driven by a Euro-American will to power, a spirited desire for world dominion against the Russian fear of NATO encirclement and containment, and nostalgia about a great Soviet empireIt is a war of desires and fears from which the belligerents will not back off. The envisaged “new world order” can only be another “world disorder” for an Africa that has for so long been in the periphery of economic, political, and military world affairs.

Destined for war: The Thucydides trap

Well before the war, the Singaporean diplomat and scholar Kishore Mahbubani described how the “world has turned a corner” and why “the West has lost it” in trying to maintain its economic and political dominion by any means necessary and some means unnecessary. Power is shifting under the feet of a young and fragile Euro-American empire that will not lose power peacefully, hence the spirited desire to force another unipolar world without China and Russia as powersTaiwan and Ukraine are the chosen sites where the Euro-American establishment is prepared to militarily confront its threatening rivals. That “from AD 1 to 1820, the two largest economies were always those of China and India” and that “only in that period did Europe take off followed by America” is little understood. That the Euro-American empire has not been the first and it will not be the last empire is little understood by the champions of the “new world order” that Francis Fukuyama, in 1989, mistakenly declared as “the end of history and the last man;” a world ruled by the West, led by the US  and its European allies had arrived and was here to stay in Fukuyama’s enchanting prophecy. Ensuing history, 9/11 amongst other catastrophic events, and the present war in Ukraine, were to prove Fukuyama’s dream a horrific nightmare. Mahbubani predicts that the short-lived rise and power of the Euro-American Empire has “come to a natural end, and that is happening now.” It seems to be happening expensively if the costs in human life, to the climate and in big dollars are to be counted.

In the struggle of major world powers for dominion of the globe Ukraine is reduced to a burnt offering. While, on the one hand, we have a terrified Euro-American empire fearing a humiliating return to oblivion and powerlessness, on the other hand we have the reality of an angry China and Russia, carrying the burden of many decades of geopolitical humiliation. Such corners of the world as Africa become the proverbial grass that suffers when elephants fight. The scramble to reduce Africa to a sphere of influence for this and that power is a spectacle to behold and the very definition of the new world disorder; a damaged and asymmetrical shape of the world where the weaker other is dispensable and disposable.

In its form and content, this new world disorder is ghastly to ponder, not only for Africa, but also for the rest of the world. Graham Allison pondered it in 2015 and came up with the alarming observation that “war between the US and China is more likely than recognised at the moment” because the two powerful countries have fallen into the Thucydides Trap. The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, described the trap when he narrated how avoiding war becomes next to impossible when a ruling power is confronted by a rival rising power that threatens its dominion. Thucydides witnessed how the growing power and prosperity of Athens threatened Sparta in ancient Greece,  driving the two powers to warThe political and historical climate between China and the US captures the charged political temperatures that punctuated the relations between an entitled and proud Sparta confronted with the growth and anger of a frightening Athens. The proverbial chips were down.

For the US and China to escape the Thucydides Trap that is luring both superpowers to war, “tremendous effort” is required of both parties and their allies. The effort is mainly in mustering the emotional stamina to see and to know that the world is going to be a shared place where there must never be one center of power; that political, economic and military diversity is natural, and the world must be a decolonial pentecostal place where those of different identities, and competing interests can share power and space, is the beginning of the political wisdom that can guarantee peace. President Xi Jinping of China seems to have read Allison’s warning about the Thucydides Trap that envelops China and the US because on a visit to Seattle he was recorded saying: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might make such traps for themselves.” The world is sinking deeper into new disorder and violence because rival powers cannot resist the Thucydides Trap and keep repeating “strategic miscalculations” based on their will to power and desire for global dominion.

The problem with China (the Athens of our present case) that troubles the US as the Sparta of the moment is that, as Allison observes, “China wants to be China and accepted as such—not as an honorary member of the West.” The problem with world powers, past and present, seems to be that they cannot live with difference. In fact, political, economic and cultural differences are quickly turned from competition to conflict, from opposition to total enmity. How to translate antagonism to agonism, and to move from being enemies to being respectful adversaries that can exist among each other in a conflictual but shared world is a small lesson that seems to elude big powers, whose egopolitics drives their geopolitics into a kind of militarized lunacy. One would be forgiven, for instance, to think that playground toys are being spoken of when presidents of powerful countries talk about monstrous weapons to be deployed in Ukraine. Observing from Africa one can hazard the view that big powers might be small and slow learners, after all. The death-drive of the superpowers is perpetuated by the desire to force other countries, including other powers, to be “more like us” when they are formidably determined to be themselves. To break out of the Thucydides Trap and avoid war, for instance, the US has to generate and sustain enough emotional stamina to live with the strong truth that China is a 5,000-year-old civilization with close to 1.5 billion people and in its recent rise is only returning to glory and not coming from the blue sky. And that the world has to be shared with China and other powers, and countries. China, and allies, would also not have learnt well from  many years of decline if they dreamt and worked for a world under their sole dominion.

Any fantasy of one world ruled from one mighty center of power is exactly that, a fantasy that might be pursued at the dear cost of a World War. Away from that fantasy, the future world will be politically pentecostal, not a paradise but a perpetually in the making and incomplete world where human, national, cultural, political and religious differences will be normal. From Africa that future world is thinkable and world powers should be investing thought and action in that and not in new monstrous weapons and military might.

Africa in the new world disorder

The symptoms are spectacular and everywhere to be seen. It can be the Namibian President, Hage Geingob, on live television having to shout at a German politician, Norbet Lammert, for complaining about the growing Chinese population in Namibia. Geingob asks why Germans land in Namibia on a “red carpet” and do “what they want” but it becomes a huge  problem for the West when the Chinese are seen in Namibia. That Namibia should not be reduced into a theater of contestation between the West and China because it is a sovereign country was Geingob’s plea to the German politician. It can be President Emmanuel Macron of France, in May 2021, asking President Paul Kagame of Rwanda for forgiveness for France’s role in the genocide of 1994—the bottom line being that African conflicts and genocides bear European footprints and fingerprints. Africa is reduced to the West’s crime scene, from slavery to colonialism and from colonialism to present coloniality. 

Coloniality is brought to life with, for instance, the US Republican lawmakers launching a bill “opposing the Republic of South Africa’s hosting of military exercises with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and calling on the Biden administration to conduct a thorough review of the US-South Africa relationship.” Africa as an object that does not have the agency to act for itself but is acted upon in the new world disorder, is real. It is Africa as a child in the world system that must be protected from other relationships and that must be told who to relate with and who not to relate with. It is also Africa as an owned thing that must be protected from rival owners. Behind the myth of African independence and liberation is the reality of Africa as a “sphere of influence,” about which world powers are still scrambling for control and ownership, including Russia and China. When in January 2018, Donald Trump referred to African countries as “all these shithole countries,” he meant that Africa still metaphorized the toilet of the world order, where disposable waste and dispensable people were to be found. Looking at the world disorder from Africa is a troubling view from the toilet of world affairs.

Looking at the world disorder from Africa with African eyes and sensibility makes it obvious that it is Africa that should be against war and for a decolonial, multipolar world order where differences are legitimated, not criminalized; where economic competition, political opposition, and rivalry are democratized from antagonism to agonism; and where political opponents are adversaries that are not necessarily blood enemies that must work on eliminating each other to the “last man.” Such a world order may be liberating in that both fears and desires of nations may play out in a political climate where might is not necessarily right. From long experiences of being the dominated and exploited other of the world, Africa should expectedly be the first to demand such a world. 

World powers need to be persuaded or to pressure themselves to understand what Mahbubani prescribes as a future world order that is against war, and liberating in that it is minimalist, multilateral, and Machiavellian. Minimalist, in that major countries should minimize thinking and act like other countries are minors that should be changed into their own image. Multilateral in the sense that world institutions, such as the United Nations, must be pentecostal sites where differences, fears and desires of all countries are moderated and democratized. Machiavellian in that world powers, no matter how mighty they believe they are, must adapt to the change to the order of things and live with the truth that they will not enjoy world dominion alone, in perpetuity. The world must be a shared place that naturalizes and normalizes political, economic, cultural, and human diversity.

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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