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Recolonising the Mind: How the Kenyan and Ugandan Revolutions Were Hijacked

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Failed Revolution
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In her subtly seminal work of fiction Dust, the novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owour names “silence” as Kenya’s third official language, after English and Kiswahili.

Kenya today is a challenging place to live in, especially if you are young, very old, female, and not rich, which is just about everybody.

The country is currently in the grip on an election cycle. This suggests that change is on the way. Or is it?

This article should be about who is saying what to the electorate, and what their chances are.

But, given the grim economic realities for those called “the poor” in Kenya, it would seem that Kenyan elections since the return of multipartyism have been about not who is in the running, but who is not present. More about what is not being said, than who said what. Somebody seems absent from the party.

What happened to the Kenyan revolution?

In just one succinct paragraph written in Kwani 02, Andia Kisia, eschewing the de-personal that data-reciting brings to the matter of “development, tells us the meaning of poverty in Kenya, and the need for change:

What does it really mean to say that a people are not yet ready for a revolution? A revolution implies change to the status quo and the status quo in Kenya, as in any so-called developing country, is a sorry one indeed: it is poverty of the most life- destroying kind, a situation maintained and defended by a small wealthy and avaricious class. Open any development economics text, and Kenya always merits a mention as one of the countries with the largest disparities between rich and poor. The poor know this not as an interesting fact in a textbook, but as their daily reality: as the ignorance of daily meals, as the death of children from the most innocuous ailments, from medieval life expectancy rates. It seems unforgivably arrogant to say that these people do not want to see the substance of their lives change for the better, that they are not ready for that change. So what does it mean to say that Africans in general, or Kenyans in particular, are not ready for revolution? (p. 311)

Into the breach has sauntered a whole cast of hugely colourful characters, whose activities generate plenty of sound. Given how increasingly lethal electoral politics have become here, perhaps it is better not to name names or point to examples. But we can all think of at least two.

The antic-laden political drama rolling out this election season seems to see nothing of the concerns Andia Kisia describes, and takes place against the meta-narrative of the Odinga/Kenyatta sometimes friendly, sometimes acrimonious almost Lebanese-style feud in which the son of a former Vice President is going to run against the son – now President – of the President to that Vice President.

All our yesterdays

To hear, or rather, to have heard Kenya’s literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong’o tell it, Kenya once was on the brink of a socialist upheaval that was to sweep away the entire basis of post-colonial Kenyan society, and even excavate its settler colonial roots.

This perspective took root among more than a few intellectuals, and many youth, particularly students. It gave rise to heated discourse in the media and led to public demonstrations. The authorities reacted. Riots and other disturbances were dealt with physically. Interestingly, however, there was also an engagement at the level of ideas, in however circumspect a style executed. Ngugi, in particular, acquired a couple of nemeses in the media and academia that seemed to devote much of their energy to tracking and deconstructing his various arguments.

At a more exalted, shall we say, level, even the Kenyan presidency was moved to weigh in. This basically became an extension of the Cold War debates about the best or better ways to organise society. As such, the philosophical dimension of the matter was often brought in.

People were individuals, not “cogs in a machine”, one would hear the president assert at some national function.

That was back in the very late 1970s.

Today is a different picture, to say the least. We certainly don’t hear many –if any – national figures tussling with tenets of Enlightenment thinking.

How did mainstream Kenyan politics move from talk for and against revolution to what we see now? Or more accurately, why is there such a persistent silence around this question, to the point that it never even seems to get asked?

There is a memory hole. One can trace the evolution of radical thinkers such as Ngugi from the days of the December 12 Movement, right up to a certain point, then everything seems to go dark. Why?

A promising beginning

One key factor in Ngugi’s global appeal was the way in which he wove the Kenyan story into the fabric of wider and older struggles for social justice, if not outright revolution.

To South American intellectuals, his analyses of the meaning and impact of settler colonist culture resonated strongly with their own centuries of Portuguese and Spanish settler presences.

He must easily be the first, and possibly only, English language-rooted African writer I have come across who could reference and cite a whole host of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking South American writers and thinkers at will, and even draw parallels with them.

To African diaspora thinkers in the Caribbean, the United States and Europe, especially England, his specific focus on the linguistic and ethnic workings of anti-African racism struck a similar chord.

This did present problems. To match his narrative with theirs, he had to present Kenya as one country.

The 500-year Iberian dominance of South America had produced a political culture that expressed itself in Iberian languages, and framed its vision from within what was considered the most advanced stages of all the European thinking birthed by the Enlightenment: Marxism. A certain homogeneity of direction emerged there. Even Catholic priests in the region espoused a “liberation theology” rooted in Marxist ideology.

Other strands existed. The one of particular significance would be the voices of the indigenous people still present in the South American continent. Sometimes small, often marginalized, these varied communities somehow managed to get through a nearly complete genocide, with memories and critically, language, somewhat intact.

It was Ngugi’s on-the-ground activism that cemented this global reputation. His writing, fiction first, then a series of accompanying essays bedded in some form of critical theory, had given life to his ideas. The fiction often located itself in the politico-cultural experience Ngugi’s own Kikuyu people underwent during the late colonial period in Kenya, and just after, particularly, the impact the eight-year war waged against freedom fighters had on him as a young man from a family caught up in the conflict.

He began by applying his thinking to his place of work, the University of Nairobi. What he did can now be seen as a template for even the “decolonize education” movement in South Africa today. Three things happened: the Department of English Literature became the Department of Literature; the course content began to reach systematically far beyond the original staple of European/English classics; and Ngugi became a marked man.

His next major initiative was the Community Theatre initiative, through a couple of productions featuring peasant folk (a process that began to cement in his mind the question of language: In what language had struggle been taking place? What was to be the language of the new revolution?)

In insisting on the development of a literature in (in his case) Gikuyu, he spoke the language of indigenousness while advancing the politics of the progressive imagining of the European-planted states. With the historical ignoring of the surviving Native Americans in South America, all revolutions could comfortably converse in Spanish or Portuguese. In Africa, the natives, and their languages, sit in the mainstream. So, while the aforementioned homogeneity of language and, therefore possibly also, thought, could comfortably emerge among South American revolutionaries, Africa was to be a different matter. This was a contradiction waiting for explanation, and one that Ngugi’s intellectual critics (state-sponsored or not) seized upon: was he proposing a revolutionary Tower of Babel, or would certain languages acquire a preeminence in the lexicon of revolution?

Nevertheless, such was the giant who landed among the Black and African diaspora of London in the early 1980s. A writer, a teacher, an activist, former political prisoner, and exile.

Modesty on the part of many Kenyan activists in London at the time often leads them to downplay the significance of their presence – with Ngugi at its centre – among the people they went on to work with. Modesty, maybe, or perhaps as a way of drawing a veil on the journey of Kenyan politics from that point, to this, where citizens killed one another, and where poverty and destitution remain national characteristics.

The template for the exile part of their movement seems to have been the long- established anti-apartheid movement, kicking off with the formation of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya.

This I suppose, was a good start. And it seems a decision was made that what the movement did not otherwise have in order to build support in Europe, it was going to have to create. The mining of the anti-colonial, anti-settler narrative was a logical place to start. South Africa had settlers, so had Kenya.

Don’t get me wrong; it must have taken a special kind of courage to decide to take on any Kenyan regime during the Cold War. Many an otherwise safe middle class career was being sacrificed by becoming associated with rebellion; they were taking on one of the (then) better organised police states on the continent, with an unbroken praxis in the matter of breaking rebels, reaching back into the 1950s; they were also standing up to a regime that in the dynamic of the global US vs. USSR confrontation, was seen by Western interests as a critical bulwark.

This was not small thing to be doing.

Exile dementia

I was in a position to observe how Ngugi, and the cluster of well-entrenched black activist networks that received him, went on to unfurl the public face of Kenyan resistance to the Daniel arap Moi regime and to imperialism among the diaspora.

It was also an exercise in comparisons. As a diaspora activist on Uganda issues, I was keen to see where our concerns may intersect, and what each learned from similar experiences.

Three things emerged quite distinctly.

First, an antipathy towards engaged debate. This was evidenced in an inability to address the question mentioned already, which was legitimate in itself, but also became a reliable propaganda tool for the Moi regime due to the revolutionaries’ unwillingness to address it.

Specifically: what was the 1951-1958 conflict in Kenya? Was it a war for Kenyan independence? Was it a civil war among the Kikuyu nation between those “in”, and those “out” of colonial favour? Was it a Kikuyu cultural uprising for the reclamation of their land? Would parsing such distinctions matter anyway?

This came out strongly in the way the Kenya Liberation story was presented. As an early activity, a broad group of pan-Africanist youth, from places as far flung as the Caribbean, Ghana, Senegal and, of course Kenya, staged Ngugi and Micere Mugo’s play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.

Something remained with me from that time.

One particular passage in the staging (and I cannot recall whether it was part of the original text or not) had the actor explain how “the white man came to Kenya and promoted divisions among the people by teaching them that ‘You are Girama, and you Samburu, and you Kamba…’, or words close to that. The point being made was that Kenyans were one people, and that if they stood together as one nation, victory was assured.

But this, and other lines like it, would then be followed by enthusiastic bursts of singing of songs someone had clearly researched well from the era of the Mau Mau uprising, just about all of which were in Gikuyu, not surprisingly.

So (the ahistoricity aside) another question came to mind: was the struggle about liberating a pre-existing nation called Kenya, or about creating one through such a struggle?

But where there was such an aversion to debate, no answers seemed available.

Second, there was a fascination with things military, and particularly the associated secretiveness. Statements like “armed struggle is the highest expression of a peoples’ culture” were often made, but not quite explained. This also expressed itself in an unwillingness to clinically describe and analyse the Mau Mau war with anything like the vigour it would be presented in drama. Outstanding questions like:

How did the war end? Did the insurgents win? If so, why is there still a need for “liberation”? If not, why did the fighting stop?

Third, a woeful naivety about how people managed to remain in State Houses in our region. I recall expressions of genuine surprise among some of these comrades, as well as among the “vague leftists” of the Abdul Rahman Babu variety, about the way the then government of Julius Nyerere had returned to the Moi government the Kenya Air Force officers who had fled to Tanzania after their abortive 1981 coup attempt.

After his efficient inveigling, then swallowing up, of the Zanzibar revolution at the Americans’ behest in the early 1960s, any attentive observer of our region should have known where President Nyerere stood on Empire questions once the chips were really down. And if you get into the business of organising rebellion against a Western-backed regime, you would be well-advised to become a very attentive observer.

For revolutions, failures of theory lead to failures of practice. And bouts of brisk physical activity can often be used to cover up those gaps, or deflect scrutiny from them.

This was the opportunity and circumstance created by the roughly one-year period (1985-1986) during which the National Resistance Army morphed from a rebel organisation into the internationally recognised government of Uganda.

During the greatly under-reported proceedings of the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, a number of interesting puzzle-pieces came to light that certainly help explain a few things about the sudden disappearance of a whole revolutionary movement.

There had emerged a certain mesmerisation, to put it very mildly, at least among the Mwakenya activists I knew, with the NRA, and its ascension to power.

No less than three Kenyan resistance groups received material support in military training and information from the early NRA regime. To ask what happened next, is to stand at the mouth of the memory hole.

Contradictions and their silences

Nowhere does this seem to come through in the politics of the NRA assuming power in Uganda. And nobody seemed less willing to see the NRA for what is was than many among the movers and shakers of the Kenyan resistance.

This led to complications for us in the exile discourse spaces that exile politics caused us to share, as well as raised serious questions about the Kenyan resistance’s actual commitment to human rights, democracy and, in a few cases, simple logic.

Of course, nothing was usually said explicitly in public spaces – that would only encourage a debate – but it was clear that the crop of Kenyan resisters we knew were in awe of the NRM, and clearly lacked an intellectual or political interest in any analysis before that.

The starkest, and in a way worrying, example I saw of this was the sight of one prominent exile activist literally dancing with joy at a remark made by the then very new President Yoweri Museveni who had come to make his first address to the large UK Ugandan community at the Commonwealth Institute headquarters in 1987. This person is now a prominent political personality in Kenya.

The remark itself had been a hackneyed rehash of Kwame Nkrumah’s “we are pro-Africa” declaration of non-alignment. On being asked by a member of the largely star-struck gathering if NRA was “pro-East, or pro-West”, the president had responded, “We are pro-Uganda”. The audience applauded, and the Kenyan danced.

There was more to come.

How come they were happy to defend the then NRA practice of open-air queue voting while condemning the Moi regime when it sought to implement the exact same practice during Kenya elections?

Why did they condemn the Moi-KANU regime as a one-party state, while ignoring the NRA’s 1986 Legal Notice No. 1 that banned all other political party activity?

Why was the near-permanent presence of British soldiers in Kenya a thing to be condemned, while nothing was to be said of the accreditation of the British military attaché to the UK Nairobi embassy, as “advisor” to the NRA delegation at the 1985 Nairobi Peace Talks?

If the NRA was indeed an anti-imperialist organisation, then how should we explain the generous praise heaped upon it by the UK media? Or were they accepting the idea that the UK media were not tied to the task of promoting British interests? If so, what had happened to all the critical theory about race, and representation, and about the media space as a battleground over hidden and open narratives? When the African mind was being “colonised”, did the Western media play no role in this? Is it, in other words, to now be taken as “neutral”?

There were never answers given to these questions, only silence and dismissals. This thinking seemed to stem from an earlier failure to address intellectual contradictions.

The practical effect for anyone else fishing in the same waters was to find oneself permanently doubted by the leaders of black diaspora organisations, and a few white socialist ones as well. “If you are interested in the Ugandan revolution”, they would ask, “why don’t you simply go and join hands with the revolutionaries that have just taken power, instead of trying to fight them?”

Why should they believe your words against a whole, ANC-type organisation peopled by the cream of the Kenyan Left intellectuals?

It became important, therefore, to settle the question of black diaspora views of the emerging and triumphant NRA. And the first step to this would have been to settle the matter with the go-to voice on matters East African in the UK: the Kenyan anti-Moi resistance.

This was not possible, as they showed no inclination towards a principled political stand. I vividly recall one experience where one of their senior cadres, who also worked in a senior post at the good old Africa Centre, simply blocked the proposal that activist groups from the Uganda exile community also participate in the holding of the upcoming Africa Day celebrations, which were to focus on Uganda that year. Instead, an agenda of the festivities to be led by the (now (NRA/NRM-run) Ugandan embassy in the UK was very rudely imposed on the organising committee.

Get it clearly: a political refugee was defending the right of a sitting government to lock other political refugees out of a discourse regarding their own country.

But here’s the thing. The tragedy was not so much that the Kenyan revolution sold the myth of an NRA “liberation” to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora; it was that they also sold the same myth to themselves. My submission is that the subsequent strategic decisions made on the basis of that miscalculation led eventually to the absence of a viable “Left” voice, or even a simple legacy, in Kenyan politics today. Hence the endless Bonfire of the Vanities, aka, election time.

Footnotes to a lingering silence

However, a few years prior to that, I had had my own experience, while I was still active in London. I chance encountered the same prominent member of the anti-Moi resistance, right on the steps of the Africa Centre.

His tune, to which he was not dancing, had changed significantly. Having just come back from a trip to Uganda, he gave me a wholly unexpected response to my polite query as to how his trip had gone.

He had not one kind word to say about the entire NRA project or its leaders. His rant was long and excoriating, as well as very accurate.

This, coming from the same person I had witnessed pirouette with joy at a Ugandan presidential witticism, stunned me into silence. What could possibly have happened?

This is where the silence begins.

I will not speculate. I know of only two things. One, I read in a newspaper, of the Ugandan government’s decision to remove a certain key figure of the Kenyan armed resistance from Ugandan soil to Sweden. This was in the early 1990s.

I read also of a development years later when a small article and photograph showed members of what was being called the February Eighth Revolutionary Army (FERA) being repatriated back to Kenya after standing down, having been isolated in training camps in Uganda for nearly a decade.

It is back to the Kenya War of Independence riddle: How did Uganda’s relationship with the Kenyan revolution end, and for what reasons?

I asked a Kenyan writer, who had been tweeting a running commentary on new Moi-era Nyayo House revelations by former Mwakenya activists who had survived the torture chambers, if any information was coming out from them about how and why their relationship with the Uganda “revolutionaries” ended up? After promising to check and get back to me, I have not heard from her since on the matter. Has she too lapsed into the Kenyan language of silence?

I have lived with this issue for over thirty years, it turns out. I had to become knowledgeable about it because of the extent to which it was damaging our own political work. Now, I want to stop.

Reflecting on it a few years ago for an essay, I had emailed a response to someone I had known to be in the anti-Moi resistance regarding mail he had sent to me about some recent outrageous behaviour by his former friends now running Uganda. Basically, I asked if he was willing to accept his share of the blame in selling this outfit to the global Left, and what the hell had happened to him anyway, to disappear just like that?

 “Many factors, global, local and internal to our movements ensured that we failed,” he wrote back.  “Lack of discipline, knowledge, greed, dictatorship, sexual violence, lack of proper organisational accountability and so much else.  Many young Kenyans perished because of what I think we can call ‘left bourgeois apathy’ and a lack of real political commitment.  (Bourgeois envy of the rich was the driver of the ‘revolution’ and once achieved then the revolution for them had arrived).  Thereafter, people must continue to justify their existence so they must continue shouting to at least assuage their ‘left consciousness’.”

 There can be no doubt that conventional Kenyan politics, like the structure of the Kenya economy itself, cannot provide solutions to the deep-seated structural problems that Ngugi wa Thiong’o so ably began to describe and analyse over 40 years ago.

 It is as if time has opted to stand still where the critical issues, like land reclamation, war reparations and workers’ rights, are concerned.

And there can be no doubt that if nothing useful is done, things will only get worse.

If there ever was a need for clarity of discourse, perhaps it is now, and if there was ever a place in need of it, perhaps it is Kenya. Instead, the country remains swamped in the politics of personality and inconsequence, and the very name “MwaKenya”, ends up reduced to a schoolyard slang for exam cheat-notes. An apt tribute, perhaps, to an organisation with too many leaders with a penchant for subterfuge and cutting intellectual corners.

Meanwhile, the last time I checked, a progressive diaspora space known as the Third World Book Press remains listed as the Uganda Chicago Consulate’s contact point for the Ugandan Diplomatic Mission to the United States.

Thanks, comrades.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

Ideas

Haiti: Symbolism and Scapegoating in the Americas

11 min read. French colonialism, economic embargoes and authoritarian leadership, coupled with natural disasters, have turned Haiti into the basket case of the Western hemisphere. But what the world doesn’t recognise about this former slave colony is that it gave birth to a revolution whose roots are “numerous and deep”.

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Haiti: Symbolism and Scapegoating in the Americas
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What is happening in Haiti right now?

Another president. More allegations of corruption at the highest levels. More riots in the streets. More foreigners wringing their hands publicly as they privately feed on the carcass of this once (and potentially future) prosperous part of the world. Haiti is still – as it has been for most of the last 215 years – the cliché summed up in a unitary phrase typically used to describe it in news reports: the-poorest-country-in-the-Western-hemisphere.

A recent episode of Al Jazeera’s news and social media show The Stream took up the question of whether change is possible, whether Haiti might have a future that is better than its past. One of the commentators on this question observed that the popular protests against Haiti’s current president, Jovenel Moïse, had been peaceful for the previous eighteen months and had only now turned violent. The discussion went on to note that violence is a way for people to make their voices heard, echoing the injunction attributed to American president John F. Kennedy that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”.

For long-time watchers of the nation’s politics, it is clear that what is happening in Haiti now is a consequence of the fact that the voices of the Haitian people have never been listened to, never been taken seriously, by those who have the power to clear away the obstacles that prevent people from making their lives better.

Following the current events and politics of this troubled nation easily breeds despair in those of us who watch from afar. The names change, but the misery remains a constant reality. The impulse to turn away is understandable. It is also wrong, and misguided, for at least two reasons. First, because turning away from suffering is immoral, inhumane. Second, because Haiti is not a singular case; it is an illustration of the dangers and difficulties that must be faced by any nation wishing to chart a free and independent future for itself and its people.

Vulture capitalists

Once upon a time, Haiti was a French colony known as Saint Domingue. It produced the sugar and coffee wealth that propped up the pre-Revolution ancien régime. Back then, too, foreigners flooded in to enrich themselves, but in those days the adventurers some now call “vulture capitalists” fed on a body that had plenty of meat on its bones.

That unchallenged feeding frenzy ended when news of the French Revolution and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen passed by a new republican parliament in France arrived in the colony. This declaration asserted, among other things, that all Frenchmen had a right to liberty, and was a harbinger of the 1794 abolition of slavery in France. Inspired by the declaration’s guarantees, the Africans of Saint Domingue, who had been kidnapped from their homes and sold at auctions to be viciously and ruthlessly worked to death as they produced France’s sugar and coffee wealth, became the world’s first and only example of slaves who rose up and freed themselves.

For long-time watchers of the nation’s politics, it is clear that what is happening in Haiti now is a consequence of the fact that the voices of the Haitian people have never been listened to, never been taken seriously, by those who have the power to clear away the obstacles that prevent people from making their lives better.

The path to liberty and the transformation of Saint Domingue into the new nation of Haiti was neither easy nor entirely successful. It is this “not entirely realised” nature of Haiti’s revolution that provides the instructive lesson for all decolonising polities.

The birth of this new nation – an inspiration to all those who have followed in the long struggle to break the shackles of colonialism – was marked by failures to fully achieve both political and economic sovereignty. The economic consequences of the brutal 13-year-long war the former slaves fought against one of the great military powers of Europe were devastated infrastructure and the collapse of their sugar and coffee exports. Politically, the initial decades were characterised by diplomatic isolation, largely due to European belief that Haiti’s independence was an aberration, and that France would eventually reassert control over its wayward colony.

France had acquired from Spain, and at that time still held, the eastern side of the island of Hispaniola (the territory that is today the neighbouring nation of the Dominican Republic) so re-invasion by French forces was a real threat faced by the emergent nation. By 1825, however, the restored French crown was manoeuvring for monetary compensation and indemnity, for their “lost assets” – the land, and the slaves who had freed themselves—rather than reconquest.

Haiti agreed to the indemnity and the bank loans to finance the indemnity payments in the hope that French recognition would translate into diplomatic relations and economic opportunity – a move that drained the country’s coffers of precious tax revenues and foreign currency reserves all the way through until the final payment on related loans was made in 1947. These payments amounted to 122 years of economic parasitism that are valued in current US dollars at approximately $21 billion.

A toxic political tradition

The men who emerged as the revolution’s generals and leaders, first, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and then, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, were both committed to continuing the plantation economy required for the former colony’s sugar production despite overwhelming support of the population for a “cultivateur” economy of small-scale coffee farms and other self-sustaining agricultural operations.

In the waning days of the revolution, as independence was increasingly seen as possible, then likely, Toussaint declared himself Governor-General for Life, inaugurating a toxic political tradition of authoritarian rule that continues to plague Haiti. Dessalines, the general who inherited his leadership mantle after Toussaint was captured and imprisoned by the French, continued to rule as a military dictator, first declaring himself Governor-General (following Toussaint’s example), then Emperor of Haiti (in a move thought to be modelled on Napoleon Bonaparte’s example in France).

Dessalines was the leader who proclaimed both the initial declaration of Haitian independence and its remarkable Imperial Constitution of Haiti, 1805, but his growing unpopularity led to his defeat almost immediately after independence, upon which the nation was divided into a northern kingdom and a southern republic for most of the first two decades of its existence.

In the northern Kingdom of Haiti, Henri Christophe continued the Toussaint-Dessalines policy of trying to impose an authoritarian military regime and an export-based plantation economy. His rival in the southern Republic of Haiti, Alexandre Pétion, only partially cut against this orthodoxy. Trying to develop a new economic model, Pétion broke up the large plantations into smaller parcels and instituted a “sharecropping” system, while simultaneously reforming taxation policy to collect revenues from imports and exports rather than internal economic transactions. However, he also embraced political authoritarianism.

Haiti agreed to the indemnity and the bank loans to finance the indemnity payments in the hope that French recognition would translate into diplomatic relations and economic opportunity – a move that drained the country’s coffers of precious tax revenues and foreign currency reserves all the way through until the final payment on related loans was made in 1947.

The nation was reunified after Christophe’s death in 1820 by Pétion’s successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer, but the model for Haitian governance for most of its subsequent history was set: authoritarian rule that ranged from being unresponsive to the population’s needs to being openly and brutally corrupt.

It was not until 1874 that Haiti had a leader, Jean-Nicolas Nissage Saget, who served his term as president and then retired voluntarily. Nissage Saget, however, had come into office as the result of a coup, so the first truly successful transfer of power from one popularly elected president to another would have to wait until 2001 when René Préval handed the office over to Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The destructive role of Haiti’s powerful neighbour

While all of this external exploitation and internal mismanagement (political and economic) was taking place, Haiti’s most powerful neighbour, the United States, was jockeying for geopolitical advantage. Happy to trade with the colony and with the emerging nation in its early days, the United States nonetheless wanted to discourage further European expansion in the Americas (a position that later became known as the Monroe Doctrine) even as it sought opportunities to acquire territorial possessions from France and Spain.

One manifestation of this was the economic embargo on Haiti by the US from 1806 on, in collusion with France and Spain. Haiti’s American neighbour had in fact profited handsomely from the French defeat in the Haitian Revolution; in financially desperate circumstances partly attributable to the revolution, France negotiated the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, a transfer of lands around the Gulf of Mexico which, at the time, doubled the territory of the young United States.

American antipathy towards Haiti was not just about doing business with the Europeans – for example, currying further favour with the French in order to gain control over Florida; it was also driven by racist pro-slavery factions who could not tolerate the idea of a nation of self-liberated former slaves next door. For all of these reasons, the United States gave Haiti no diplomatic recognition until 1862, halfway through the US Civil War (when the Southern racists, having formed their own break-away government, were no longer in the national legislature).

Since this recognition, however, the United States has militarily occupied Haiti (from 1915 to 1934), propped up brutal dictatorships (supporting the vicious Duvaliers, for instance, as a bulwark against Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba), and colluded in removing popularly-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power (twice). It is almost too obvious and too inadequate to make the same point about Haiti that former Mexican leader Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915) made of his own country: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States!”

Unapologetic blackness: Haiti’s “new man”

The remarkable 1805 Imperial Constitution of Haiti that I alluded to above is an example of the promise that Haiti is still struggling to realise. Dessalines promulgated Haiti’s independence on January 1, 1804, calling on all “native citizens: men, women, girls and children” to defend and take pride in the country of “our birth”. He backed up that declaration with a radical re-thinking of racial hierarchy in the 1805 constitution. Article 14 of the Imperial Constitution of Haiti reads: “[a]ll distinctions of color will by necessity disappear…[and] Haitians shall be known from now on by the generic denomination of blacks..”

It is, I think, worth noting that the basis on which attempts have been made to build solidarity has changed over the years; the post-Duvalier 1987 constitution (that in fact re-constitutes Haiti as a democratic state) attempts to unite Haitians through designating Creole as the country’s common language rather than through assignment of a political “race.”. But, in a hostile and racist world, the 1805 claim that Haitian national identity would be synonymous with blackness can be read as a fundamental (hence, radical) challenge – a compelling attempt to decolonise the mind – and stands as one of the most crucial contributions that the Haitian Revolution has made to progressive struggles around rhetoric and representation.

American antipathy towards Haiti was not just about doing business with the Europeans; it was also driven by racist pro-slavery factions who could not tolerate the idea of a nation of self-liberated former slaves next door.

Arguably, it is a precursor to the non-racial conception of Algerian nationhood that Frantz Fanon celebrated in A Dying Colonialism (published in French as L’An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne, 1959). Where the Algerian conception of national unity (“Every individual living in Algeria is an Algerian”) was empowering because it recognised citizenship and national belonging as a matter of nominal membership in a category (one chooses to name oneself as belonging, therefore one belongs) and a matter of personal choice, rather than postulating some definitive essence that one must possess in order to qualify as a citizen of the new nation, the first Haitian constitution of 1805 sought national unity through disruption of racial categories and hierarchies. The bold declaration of what today we would call “unapologetic blackness” put Haiti at the forefront of the movement towards human liberation.

So is Haiti where we find the “patient zero” of Frantz Fanon’s new man? Perhaps. Fanon tells us – principally and most directly in The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnées de la Terre, 1961) but implicitly in all his writings – that it is decolonisation that brings forth his new man, the liberated, agentic human being who recognises the moral value of all human lives and does not allow others to compromise or restrict his (or her) ability to live fully and freely in this world that is his (or her) birthright.

We can certainly see approximations of this ideal in some of the more stirring actions and rhetoric of those we now remember as the architects of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint and Dessalines, in particular. It is the voice of Fanon’s new man that promulgates the radical rejection of racial hierarchy in the 1805 constitution, and it is the new man who was speaking when Toussaint reproached as futile his capture by the French. “In overthrowing me, only the trunk of the tree of liberty has been cut down,” he is reported to have said. “Its branches will shoot up again, for its roots are numerous and deep.”

Yet another story in anti-war activist Stan Goff’s post ‘The Haitian Intifada’ on his now defunct blog The Feral Scholar, presents Dessalines in the guise of Fanon’s new man. Goff tells the story of Dessalines’s response to French demands that he surrender: Dessalines replied to them that the Haitian people “would turn the island to ashes before they would accept the reimposition of slavery” and, to show that he meant what he said, he reportedly picked up a torch and set fire to his own house. (American podcaster Mike Duncan tells a version of this story that attributes the uncompromising response and the house-burning to Henri Christophe, not to Dessalines, but the point remains.)

But Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe were, as I have noted, all committed to continuing the plantation economy of the former colony. This required authoritarian, hierarchical rule, and forced labour for the masses, arguably a betrayal of the ideals for which the self-liberated people of Haiti had proven themselves to be willing to live and die by. I would argue that Haiti’s first leaders only fitfully embodied Fanon’s new man; he (she) was born in the masses and struggles still to survive.

Duncan, who produces a fascinating podcast series (10 seasons and counting) about political revolutions that have shaped the modern world, devotes season four to the Haitian Revolution. Despite mangling (by his own admission) many of the French and Haitian names of the people and places involved in this revolution, he pulls off the impressive task of telling a reasonably balanced history of the birth and fitful life of this nation that he styles “the avengers of the new world.”. He concludes the 19-episode season by observing:

Today, Haiti is, as everyone is contractually obligated to point out when talking about Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. They got there through the mix of the world screwing them over a lot, their own political and economic mistakes, and then environmental catastrophes caused both by God and their own hands. But they will never not be the country that was born from the only successful slave uprising in the history of the world … they had been created by a group of men and women who would not be slaves anymore, who beat back every major world power who tried to come in and tell them how it was going to be. The history of Haiti is not pretty, and Haiti is not in great shape right now. But I’m proud to know them, proud to know their history.

There is yet another story worth knowing in order to assess what respect and what honour we owe to the people of Haiti. In the colony of Saint Domingue, one French delicacy of choice at fine dinners was said to be pumpkin soup, a delicate strained velouté. One of the decolonising moves of the Haitian people was to create their own pumpkin soup that they now call joumou. Joumou is not the refined, decadent delicacy the French colonisers sipped; it is a hearty meal full of chunks of meat, bones for flavour, pumpkin, gourd, and any other vegetables one has on hand – anything one can think of to put in a soup will find its way into someone’s joumou. It is an everyday soup, and an improvisatory one. Many cooks have their own jealously-guarded special recipes and it is a standard – even obligatory – feature on the menu of Haitian restaurants.

But Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe were, as I have noted, all committed to continuing the plantation economy of the former colony. This required authoritarian, hierarchical rule, and forced labour for the masses, arguably a betrayal of the ideals for which the self-liberated people of Haiti had proven themselves to be willing to live and die by.

But joumou has a deep traditional significance when it is eaten on January 1, the first day of the new year and the anniversary of the day in 1804 that Haiti declared itself a free, independent black republic. On this anniversary, joumou is cooked to be shared with family and neighbours in a ritual of hope and solidarity. In Haitian diasporic communities like the one found in Montréal, Haitian restaurants open early in the morning on New Year’s Day so that members of the diaspora who do not have the time or cooking facilities to make their own soup (often migrant workers) can eat joumou as their own first meal of the year.

As we celebrate another year and all the promise it holds, spare a thought for all the Haitians, at home and in these diasporic communities around the world, who are sharing their joumou with each other in the enduring hope that they will find a path to the full realisation of their revolution that reshaped our world.

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Unlearning Fear: The Mystery of Creativity

11 min read. When we challenge idiocy and cowardice, we liberate the courage of fellow human beings. When we shake off fear, we discover that the emperor’s power was always contingent upon our complicity. This is the lesson of Kenya’s history that is activated by creative education.

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Unlearning Fear: The Mystery of Creativity
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Counter-intelligence analyst Gregory Treverton once described two kinds of problems: puzzles and mysteries.

Puzzles are problems that have definite answers, such as: What is the capital city of Kenya? or How many kiosks in Nairobi sell unga? It might be difficult to pin down an exact number, but the answer can be estimated provided you define what a kiosk is. Puzzles can vary in complexity, but they all share the fact that they have definite answers. Crossword puzzles may be frustrating, but the solver at least has the satisfaction of knowing that the correct answer for the blank boxes exists. This is also the exact kind of problem most of our institutions are optimised to solve.

A mystery, on the other hand, is a problem with no definite answer because the answer depends on a future interaction of an unknown number of factors. For example, will there be kiosks in Nairobi in three years? If yes, how many? Who is going to supply them unga then? The answers are contingent on architecture, policy, or economics, and if you are an aspiring unga trader, they are also contingent on your choices today. This is an unsolvable problem because it contains too much information. To treat this mystery the same way as a puzzle would be akin to trying to thread a needle with water.

Our journey toward urbanisation has been one of using our puzzle-solving abilities to expand our sphere of certainty within an infinitely dark ocean of uncertainties. Our sphere of certainty up until now has included statements such as: “If I go to school and study hard, I will get a nice job and be able to afford to buy unga not only for myself, but for my family as well.” “The unga I buy from the kiosk is healthy.” “There is a hospital to go to in case the unga I ate is not healthy.”

As the answers to these questions become more unclear for many Kenyans in our unstable economy, we are beginning to question the puzzle bias of our education system and seeking to unlearn the current education model and replace it with a creative education model better suited to framing the mysteries of our time.

Unlearning the puzzle bias

The puzzle bias of our education system is reflected in the fortress-like security at the gates of the offices of the Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC). Tragically, as youth unemployment figures steadily rise, the message that has arrived late is that the armed infantry units at the gates of KNEC may be guarding an empty house.

Perfect examination scores are increasingly less correlated to career success. Adaptive intelligence that comes from creative education is becoming a much more reliable predictor of success. This is something that should be shared with exam candidates, many of whom have committed suicide because they perceived exam failure to be the end of their world.

We are in the process of entering an electronically mediated world in which all puzzle problems are being delegated to computer programmes that are more intelligent than our best performing human actuaries. Universities are quickly ceding their role as centres of knowledge creation and distribution to decentralised and distributed networks of creative ecosystems powered by technology. Those universities that survive and thrive will be those that are effective platforms for a creative student body. The shift required is analogous to the shift from “monoculture” farming of pupils that privileges puzzle-solving to a “permaculture” approach to education in which creative ecosystems allow students to creatively collaborate with their peers in solving mysteries in unique ways.

Perfect examination scores are increasingly less correlated to career success. Adaptive intelligence that comes from creative education is becoming a much more reliable predictor of success.

My most recent book, Art of Unlearning, uses the radically powerful medium of comics to literally draw a map of how to get out of our puzzle-minded school fortresses and into creative ecosystems. Unlearning, we inevitably discover, requires profound humility, as recovering addicts already understand.

The map begins from the foundation that all infants are born without a culture – naked, hungry and intensely curious. The principal role of parents is to take this uncultured, naked, hungry and intensely curious being and persuade it, cajole it, and terrorise it until one way or another it is convinced that the way we do things in this tribe is the natural way ordained by God. Anything that you feel like doing that doesn’t fit into tribal customs is considered to be a bad idea. Adults who are thoroughly conditioned in a culture may be genuinely horrified to discover that their children were not born with their taboos already installed. This horror is intensifying so much that the youth and elders might be considered to be inhabiting increasingly separate islands of reality that speak different languages.

An authoritarian framework is the worst possible way to engage with such a dynamic information environment. It has been my observed experience that the self-appointed cultural managers, such as Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) and many county culture ministries, have absolutely no idea what is happening in the information ecosystem that lies beyond their own Twitter feeds. Their perspective is limited to one of traditional rent-seeking from artists in whose creations they have made no investment. The role of investment has been largely abandoned to foreign cultural agencies and embassies.

As the rate of information exchange in our society accelerates, all tribes are beginning to communicate electronically, bringing the conflicts in our agendas to resolution. So, for example, the musician King Kaka is now a much more powerful bridge-builder than the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) ever was.

Now that Kenyans are literally going beyond the limits of marathon times and limited leaders with limited visions, a new locus of understanding must be framed that can address our most pressing challenges: ecological destruction, food insecurity, ending political dynasties, and most of all, educating our children for an exponential world.

Who will frame our mysteries?

The choice to deliver this message in the form of a comic book (or graphic novel to be precise) was crucial. Because if one is going to opine on a vision for creative education in Kenya, one must demonstrate creative experience. We demand no less of our dentists or doctors and we should demand no less of our educators.

Illustration and visual storytelling are a domain in which I have had the most experience over the past ten years and they are well suited to taking difficult conversations out of the academy and onto the street. We must end our unconstitutional limits on creative expression such as Cap 222 (Films and Stage Plays Act). This idea of openness to new information will be unfamiliar and uncomfortable to our conservative culture, but so is all growth.

My best explanation of this point comes without words in an illustration titled “Education Factory”. In it you see in one moment gleeful children entering an education factory on one end only to emerge into a wasteland on the other end, stupefied and drained of creativity. Art of Unlearning contains dozens of such moments of understanding that I believe are critical in a society that has been so violently divided by the differences in our tongues and in words. This moment of understanding is a moment that requires no permission from a “higher authority”. It is a moment that cannot come too soon. Comics are in my view the ultimate mystery-framing tool. Let’s get started!

Unlearning fear

Play is nature’s antidote to the debilitating fear of change. All mammals spend their early life playing constantly to learn their limits. My ten-month-old son is so dangerously unafraid that I cannot take my eyes off him lest he plunge head first from the bed to the floor. At this crucial stage, the extent to which children are allowed to explore their limits imprints a lifelong attitude toward new experiences.

Now that Kenyans are literally going beyond the limits of marathon times and limited leaders with limited visions, a new locus of understanding must be framed that can address our most pressing challenges: ecological destruction, food insecurity, ending political dynasties, and most of all, educating our children for an exponential world.

If as children our guardians allowed us to explore our limits safely, we will likely adopt this posture for the rest of our lives, with all the risks and rewards that this entails. But if, on the other hand – as is too often the case in our Kenyan context – the response to exploration is violence, shaming and exorcism prayers, you are likely to avoid the memory of violence by avoiding conflict or eye contact with strangers and shying away from new experiences.

Our history of extreme political violence and repression remains unacknowledged to this very day by the political dynasties that have ruled this country. They cannot be expected to hold themselves or any initiative they table accountable.

Violence was the foundation of the colonial economy and remains the foundation of our economy to this day. Creative natives were a natural threat to an architecture of exploitation and so they have been made the human refuse of our education system. With the internet, this human refuse (please excuse the slur) of creative natives is set to inherit the world and now is the time to pay attention to what they have to teach us.

What we call artists are people who consistently respond to their encounters with novelty in beautiful ways, such as sculpture, painting, literature and song. They teach us that fear is physical and its transcendance is also physical in the form of the creative human expression. This is why art is so essential to the work of healing from trauma. Art represents the proudest monument of our humanhood and is the first potentiality to be sacrificed at the altar of violence. It is very difficult to recite poetry with a gun pointed at your head.

The metaphorical gun that is currently pointed at the heads of artists in Kenya today is much more economic than it is political. The Kenyan artist fears starvation, anonymity and suicide more than she does Ezekiel Mutua’s censorship crusade that is targeted only at the most visibly successful of Kenyan films, such as Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki. Kenyans have correctly challenged the idea that one unelected bureaucrat’s colonial prejudices should not be allowed to deny mature audiences an opportunity to evaluate works of art for themselves.

Not coincidentally, human survival on this planet, now more than ever before, depends upon our courage to share our creative ideas, as so many of my favourite writers, such as Dr. Wandia Njoya and Dr. David Ndii frequently do in this publication. When we exercise courage and challenge idiocy and cowardice, we have the compounding effect of liberating the courage of fellow human beings, which is expressed creatively in works such as King Kaka’s Wajinga Nyinyi. When we shake off fear, we discover to our amazement that the so-called emperor is wearing no clothes and that his power was always contingent upon our complicity. This is the lesson of our history that is activated by creative education.

Losing your fear is also good business and not merely a political stance. Walk down any average supermarket aisle and notice how many different brands are competing to sell the same product. Uniqueness is the best differentiator. Similarly, creative education allows young people to seek out unique opportunities to thrive in a jobless and degree-saturated economy. This is an insoluble dilemma for a dynastic oligarchy such as ours whose existence depends on the unquestioning obedience and tribal subservience of its citizenry – while at the same time needing a tax base to finance its exorbitant salaries.

Corporal punishment and other fear-based persuasion of children must become a thing of the past. We must discard antiquated notions such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” and with them the idea that all our conduct needs to be governed by a self-appointed priesthood. We cannot continue to studiously trace movements of biblical tribes while we remain ignorant about the migration history of our own ancestors here in East Africa.

The time has come to unburden our minds and bodies from fear and fear-mongering institutions. I believe that democratising creative education for all Kenyan children is the first and most critical step in this direction. Using “creativity and innovation” as a buzzword on the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) website is simply not enough.

Unlearning comparison

From the day a student enrolls in the Kenyan education system, he or she is subjected to examinations. Examination scores are then compared against those of other students in a zero-sum competition organised by KNEC. This zero-sum competitive mindset continues into later life in our workplaces and in traffic jams. It also sits at odds with our natural human tendency to solve problems collaboratively so that the collective can benefit from as many different viewpoints as possible.

We all benefit from culinary, cultural and cosmological diversity. This is why monotheism’s history of violence is so much more bloody than that of polytheistic cultures that tolerated a diversity of cosmologies.

Whatever one’s particular religion, it should be clear that the internet is a platform that is much more stimulating of unique ideas than any medium before it. In an attention-deficient media landscape with numerous options for viewers, the only way to hold sustained attention is by being significantly different.

Luckily, one does not have to try too hard to be different because we already are. Nature does not create duplicates. One simply has to unlearn the habit of comparison that obscures our unique and innate aspirations. We must unlearn the shaming of those we call wajuaji or arrogant for straying away from tribal orthodoxy. The approval of the herd is thin soup compared to the thick gravy that is self-discovery. In Kenya, this means unlearning the habit of borrowing beauty standards, borrowing political frameworks, borrowing religions and borrowing Chinese loans without the consent of the people. Conformity is for sheep, and sheep are led to slaughter — a consistent lesson of Kenya’s experiment in democracy for those old enough to remember. Let us try instead to foster and export our uniqueness.

The time has come to unburden our minds and bodies from fear and fear-mongering institutions. I believe that democratising creative education for all Kenyan children is the first and most critical step in this direction.

In unlearning comparison by embracing uniqueness, one of my most impactful teachers has been the late martial artist Bruce Lee. Bruce was a unique figure with no peers because he was a rare combination of fighter, actor and philosopher. Bruce’s example urges us to seek out precisely those behaviours that set us apart and to develop them.

In my case, graduating with an LLB degree a year after our devastating post-election violence in 2008 was my nudge in the direction of a more unique career. With uninspiring job prospects all round and glaring evidence that my profession was impotent to prevent catastrophe, I began to explore alternatives that would have in previous times been considered unthinkable. Ergo, my current profession of drawing comics and animations. I found my voice in comics and the expression of all the latent abilities that were deemed economically useless.

It is my hope that the sacrifices of my generation in the early blossoming of digital content in Kenya will lead to thriving creative ecosystems. As Muthoni Drummer Queen so eloquently stated in her TED Talk, creativity builds nations. Nation-building can never be done by rent-seeking governments and certainly not by rent-seeking governments as deficient in legitimacy as Kenya’s political dynasties that are desperately trying to remain relevant today. Creative education is a tide that will lift all boats by applying digital technologies to demonetise, dematerialise and democratise knowledge sharing. Creative education challenges our feudal economic structure by placing a value on intellectual property.

In the age of exponential technologies, it has become impossible for even the most highly trained “white collar workers”, such as dermatologists, to rest on their laurels. There are no safe jobs. A deep learning algorithm has the power to recognise millions of skin diseases in a second, whereas the human dermatologist will require multiple lifetimes to approach that number.

The risk of obsolescence becomes more acute the more puzzle-oriented a profession gets. The extent to which Kenyan youth will be able to complement the rise of data science is directly dependent on the investment that we are willing to make in innovation and creativity today. If my experiences as an artist living in Kenya are anything to go by, this investment is only being made by individual parents and foreign cultural agencies, such as the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi.

Unlearning belief systems

The most important three words for someone to become creative are “I don’t know”. Concealing ignorance with inherited assumptions and prejudices that are outside your experience is not an effective strategy for becoming creative. If you are going to do something original, “I don’t know” is the optimal stance to begin from. Those who do things that have never been done before were by definition unqualified to do them the moment before they did. Are we confident enough as a continent to question the Middle Eastern religions that dominate Africa?

The most important three words for someone to become creative are “I don’t know”. Concealing ignorance with inherited assumptions and prejudices that are outside your experience is not an effective strategy for becoming creative.

Original thinkers never believe fully in anyone else’s BS (belief systems), least of all their own. Their only confidence is in their own capacity for keen investigation with the help of books such as Art of Unlearning to frame life’s mysteries creatively. Any belief system we have right now is provisional before it is revised and updated to incorporate new events and perspectives. Only this way can we imagine Africa differently than its colonisers and missionaries did. This, incidentally. is the natural functioning of the human brain and the way children’s minds work before they are distorted by intimidation from the education system.

Unlearning belief systems is as difficult as a right-hander learning to write with his left hand. Human perception was not evolved to see the truth, but rather to see only that which was optimal for survival. But what is optimal for our survival has changed while we were sleeping. 

I do not know the shape of the society we are going to forge, but I do know that I am compelled by a passion for freehand movement to face this mystery creatively.

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Experimental Neoliberalism and Refugee Survival in Kenya

7 min read. ALI BHAGAT situates refugees as a new population for neoliberal experimentation as refugee camps are transformed into spaces of untapped profit.

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Experimental Neoliberalism and Refugee Survival in Kenya
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Refugee survival in Kenya is inseparable from the dynamics of inequality, finance, and debt embedded in capitalism. This article draws much inspiration from Kevin Sieff’s excellent article in The Washington Post that looks at how debt-ridden refugees are being forced to return to a war zone in Somalia.

I am most interested in the ways that capital – in its money form – supercedes, intervenes, and invades the humanitarian sector. At the site of the refugee camps and in cities like Nairobi, capital claims to free the refugee from the passivity of shelter and assistance through entrepreneurialism. This article explores neoliberal experimentation in the context of refugee survival in Kenya. I argue that refugees represent an experimental population. Their various sites of survival are opened up to financial penetration – a last ditch and piecemeal market-led solution to alleviate poverty.

Kenya hosts approximately half a million refugees in its camps and urban areas and has done this for nearly three decades. Dadaab and Kakuma, two of the world’s largest refugee camps, have become sites of increased xenophobia and structural violence where the Kenyan government continues to threaten their closure in the face of diminished global aid.

Contrastingly, these camps are also sites of finance, debt, and neoliberal-led forms of experimentation. Neoliberalism – the ideological and material power of private interest through the dismantling of state-led solutions for welfare – is highlighted here as a way to understand a global stance and policy focus on self-reliance. In so doing, I situate refugees as a new population for experimentation.

Experimentation is a market-oriented solution to alleviate refugee poverty. It is hinged on self-reliance and propagates the financial interests of the private sector. The intentions of capital accumulation are hidden under the guise of choice and liberty where refugees can use credit to escape poverty and transform themselves into entrepreneurs. Self-reliance is a façade.

Mastercard and the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a public-private coalition to transform refugee settlements into digital communities in 2018. This strategy seeks to “bring together technology, solutions, and experience from multiple sectors to transform refugee settlements into digitally-connected communities’, thereby providing infrastructure-based innovations in terms of mobile phone and internet access vis-à-vis key dimensions of survival such as safety, food, shelter, and water”.

Experimentation is a market-oriented solution to alleviate refugee poverty. It is hinged on self-reliance and propagates the financial interests of the private sector.

Mastercard, along with Western Union, announced a new digital infrastructure model hinged on mobile money, digital vouchers, and card-based solutions that promote refugee “self-reliance”Digitising the refugee camp, and thereby transforming it from an arena of passive aid and shelter to a marketplace allows refugees to access formal financial services. This form of neoliberal experimentation also transforms the refugee camp – previously understood in the logic of the development industry as a forgotten barren space – into one of untapped profit.

For example, as the Mastercard and Western Union report states: “…refugees are responsible for payment…For example, children can go to school, but the family must pay for uniforms and books. It becomes vital to access convenient, easy-to-use financial services. Foreign and domestic remittances received via Western Union or hawalas [a remittance channel that takes place outside of the banking system] are a major source of income.”

Interestingly, the logic of empowerment described in this report is equated to providing a wider array of financial service access – not actually addressing the fact that refugees have to pay for some essential survival services such as healthcare and basic goods.

Actors like Mastercard and Western Union, by diversifying access to financial services, are able to capitalise on financial transactions by providing cheaper rates for remittances in the name of “smart city” development. The same report goes on to highlight that Equity Bank holds 15,000 refugee accounts in their Kakuma branch and most remittances are either received through Western Union or hawala agents—needless to say, there is profit to be made if so-called passive aid recipients are transformed into entrepreneurs who are self-reliant actors.

The transformation of refugees into self-reliant entrepreneurs relies on the logic that these people are complex economic actors who need more diverse financial choices. Missing from this reasoning is the recognition that refugees receive little global attention and constantly face reductions in essential services, which pushes them to precarious forms of income-generation in order to survive.

Interventions by private sector actors fall into age-old neoliberal adages of efficiency, accountability, and freedom of choice. State and international human rights actors, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Kenyan government, in the face of global austerity, are more than happy to have private actors step in and take over responsibility for refugee survival.

The transformation of refugees into self-reliant entrepreneurs relies on the logic that these people are complex economic actors who need more diverse financial choices.

In contrast, the threats of closure of the camps by the Kenyan government, particularly in Dadaab, have not disappeared, and the camp sizes are slowly shrinking. In 2011, at the height of the famine in Somalia, Dadaab’s population rose to 421,000. This number had been reduced to 230,000 in 2018, partly because some refugees went back home voluntarily while others were encouraged to return to Somalia, as per a repatriation agreement between the Government of Kenya and UNHCR.

While Kakuma represents an experimental avenue for profit, Dadaab – home to predominantly Somali refugees – is framed by the Kenyan government as an unaffordable space both in terms of the security threat and the financial burden. The Kenyan government – which has often scapegoated Somali refugees as terrorists and the Dadaab camp as a safe haven for Al Shabaab – justifies the return of refugees by arguing that it will quell social disruption. 36.8 per cent of Kenya’s population lives on $1.90 a day, placing Kenya 8th on the list of top 10 African countries experiencing extreme poverty.

There are apparent tensions regarding refugee hosting. Many of the participants interviewed for my research suggest that the Kenyan government supports encampment because it absolves itself from welfare responsibilities. Looking at this more broadly, it was the forces of structural adjustment in the 1990s that coincided with refugee encampment that prevented the Kenyan state from developing long-term welfare capabilities in the first place.

Nevertheless, the new Comprehensive Refugee Programme (CRP) highlights that refugees should have adequate avenues for job creation, entrepreneurship, and integration in camps and urban settlements. This is a key divergence from previous strategies of encampment – refugees are now a new experimental population who must harness the forces of the market.

While self-reliance is the policy du jour, the militaristic arm of the state that seeks to prevent migration is also alive and well. Biometric Identity Management (BIM) through fingerprinting and iris scans are surveillance technologies indicative of state organisations (along with UNHCR) seeking to prevent new or circulatory migrants. For example, Somalis who are “voluntarily” repatriated, as Sieff points out, just to relieve their own state of indebtedness in Dadaab, seek return to Kenya as Somalia remains unstable. BIM prevents this from occurring thus attempting to make repatriation permanent.

Indeed, as one interview participant noted, if UNHCR and the government are claiming that refugees are able to return to Somalia, then – within this flawed logic – they should no longer accept Somali refugees. If they do, then they accept that Somalia is not a safe country for return. So both international and national actors are complicit in the violence that Somalis face in their struggle for survival.

Much attention is given to refugee survival in camps; however, with the constant threat of their closure, many refugees are permanently relocating to Nairobi and its environs – a move that is illegal without a permit. Since welfare programmes for urban refugees are virtually non-existent, these groups must rely on piecemeal forms of assistance from NGOs and their own communities in the form of cash grants, entrepreneurial training, and microfinance within the ambit of experimentation and self-reliance.

Self-reliance as a solution for assistance is hindered by xenophobia too. For example, many Somali refugees relocate to Eastleigh, which has become an area targeted by the police in light of terrorist attacks in Nairobi. Somalis are unfairly rounded up and sent back to camps or deported while other non-Somali refugees are left to survive in Nairobi in the informal sector. A participant from a government department noted in my research that, “If a refugee wants to stay in Nairobi then they can fend for themselves…the camps are equipped to care for them so if they are in Nairobi it is by choice and they ideally should have a transit permit from the government.” Self-reliance is thus inherent in the national attitude towards refugees, which simultaneously ignores the circumstances of violence, health issues, and poverty in refugee camps.

Much attention is given to refugee survival in camps; however, with the constant threat of their closure, many refugees are permanently relocating to Nairobi and its environs – a move that is illegal without a permit.

Since no welfare support systems exist, many NGOs offer some sort of business training and loan assistance programmes – another example of “disciplinary entrepreneurialism”. In order to access these loans or grants, refugees must go through a training programme where they learn the necessary business skills to set up shop. They must learn how to make a profit so that they can repay the loan, because these loans, in fact, are frequently used for other refugees in the context of shrinking services. NGOs also recognise that refugees are a flight risk for loans because the cash in hand is used for basic consumption needs – a key issue identified in the literature on microfinance.

In short, the use of loans under the spirit of entrepreneurialism dovetails with the security maximisation arm of the state that prevents refugees from entering its territory. These strategies coincide with two central aspects of neoliberalism – austerity and accumulation.

As the story goes, the Kenyan government, along with international actors, prevents refugees from entering the country. These refugees are framed as threats to state security and an unaffordable risk. In turn, refugees that already exist in camps are either sent back to their country of origin or transformed into entrepreneurs where the camp becomes a space of experimentation.

In short, the use of loans under the spirit of entrepreneurialism dovetails with the security maximisation arm of the state that prevents refugees from entering its territory.

Refugees in urban areas are also meant to become entrepreneurs in order to survive without any state-led assistance. Importantly, these strategies have little to no empirical evidence, further pointing to the experimental nature of entrepreneurialism as a key strategy for survival upon relocation (for a greater exploration of these themes see my article here).

The Kenyan case reveals that exclusion and violence continue to facilitate capital accumulation while also preventing long-term refugee survival. The notion of experimentation, briefly sketched here, allows us to frame neoliberalism as an ambivalent process. Capital permeates these spaces of poverty and the logics of entrepreneurialism facilitate some form of accumulation either through debt or through micro-transactions in the form of remittances. Importantly, refugees in the development of so-called smart communities also produce data and this data can be used for the purposes of capital accumulation in other contexts.

Editors Note: This article was first posted in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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