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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

Let’s Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees

If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society.

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Let's Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees
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After two decades of the neoliberal gutting down of Kenyan universities, Kenya’s president has now gone for universities’ jugular. He has cut off the university as as a route for social advancement among the non-elite class. The slicing of the jugular came with the recent university admissions when the government announced that more than a half of them would be turned into technical programmes and institutions. At first, the government announced this move as a choice of the students themselves, but later on, it became evident that many students were caught by surprise.

Kenyan universities have maintained a semblance of independence from direct patronage by Kenya’s aristocracy. As long as universities have existed in Kenya, and especially after the expansion of university education by Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, a child from a village had a shot in the Kenyan imagination of becoming next in line to the presidency. (For the moment, the integrity of the process is not considered here.) Now that President Uhuru Kenyatta has ditched his deputy, he has got his bureaucratic robots to slice the jugular of Kenya’s schooling system and let it bleed to death.

As is to be expected, the Kenyan media has celebrated the event, thus becoming the conduit for fairly unbelievable stories that clothed Kenya’s feudal politics in the parlance of employment and The Market (as opposed to the regular markets that we all love). Like clockwork, the media published headlines such as “Are degrees no longer hot?”, wrote op-eds justifying technical and vocational education and training (TVET) as a better alternative to a regular university degree, or held town hall meetings that gave a semblance of public participation by fielding questions from youth who had clearly not understood that they are pawns in a system that just does not care about them. This move will not surprise anyone with knowledge of the aristocratic class system in Kenya and the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. It has been a long time coming.

Missionaries, colonial settlers and the colonial state

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil, dubbing, for example, herbal medicine as “witchcraft,” and all the while shipping indigenous knowledge and crafts to London.

When formal British education was introduced to Kenya, there was tension between the competing interests of the missionaries, the colonial settlers and the colonial state. The missionaries were primarily interested in converts, and so reading was essential to their education. The settlers, however, were interested only in manual labour, and were frustrated that the colonial government was not forcing Africans to work on the huge tracts of land that had been dispossessed from Africans. They were therefore hostile to schooling beyond trade schools, and accepted formal education for Africans only on the promise that the inclusion of Christian religious education would ensure that Africans remained compliant with the colonial interests.

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil…

It is from the colonial settlers that Kenya inherited the narrative that education would make Africans unable to do manual work (or what today is called “useful” or “relevant to the market”), because all the African would acquire from education is big ideas and a desire for the status of the Europeans. And, from a certain perspective, the settlers were not wrong. In a stratified system such as colonial society, being at the bottom of the hierarchy, as Africans were, meant a cruel life of dispossession, forced labour and taxes. Africans could not be enticed to go to school if there was no carrot in the form of exemption from this oppressive life. And once that door was opened, it would only be a matter of time before Africans demanded, as Frantz Fanon famously said in The Wretched of the Earth, “to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible.”

There was a second element of truth to the settlers’ fears. The settlers were familiar with the fact that even in the belly of the empire, aristocratic education had the effect of paralysing one’s thoughts and sense of reality. In Victorian England, the industrialists complained that aristocratic education from prestigious public schools and Oxbridge had rendered their children incapable of running the companies their parents expected the children to inherit.

The settlers did not need to point to London to see the truth of this: the bulk of the colonial administration was made up of graduates of elite British schools, and even the settlers called their own colonial administration stifling and suffocating. The list of complaints by the British settlers are depressingly similar to the complaints that a Kenyan today would make: the government borrowing loans at high interest rates, failing to address the economic depression, moribund, “dependent on an uninstructed electorate situated 6000 miles away, and characterised by a continuous epidemic of public meetings, which produce much eloquence, heady talk and little practical benefit to the [white settler] community as a whole”.

The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst.

The aristocratic values which the settlers were wary of would return to Kenya in the 1980s when the World Bank proposed to African Vice-Chancellors to eliminate universities, since African countries needed basic education, not higher education. The audacity of the proposal notwithstanding, it is hardly surprising that the university administrators would not comply and phase themselves out of a job. But later, as Ayesha Imam and Amina Mama report in their book chapter, “The role of intellectuals in limiting and expanding academic freedom”, the World Bank got their wish by starving African universities of money and going to the extreme of demanding that purchases of books and journals be first approved by the Bank.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To see that the complaint of “useless” and elitist graduates has not changed a century later gives us food for thought. But it is not as disturbing as the fact that Kenyan citizens today are strange bedfellows with colonial settlers and British industrialists, sharing the same complaints about the Kenyan ex-colonial state and its aristocratic schooling system. When communities of different geographies, cultures and political inclinations have the same complaint about university graduates, it is time for academics to abandon the old strategy of accusing society of not understanding what university education is for. We need to either concede that society is right, or we explain the truth.

I choose the latter.

Justifying why Kenyans don’t need university education

To explain the mess of the system that is now receiving its last kick from the president, I will address three justifications for the bizarre turn of events in university education:

  1. People shouldn’t get degrees because there is no employment.
  2. Degrees make graduates become employment seekers rather than employers.
  3. Degrees do not give Kenyans skills which are “useful” or “relevant” to The Market, such as entrepreneurial skills for business or technical skills for building infrastructure.

The lack of employment justification

This justification should be fairly easy to explain by pointing out that the availability of employment is an economic, rather than an educational, function. In Kenya, however, this argument routinely falls on deaf ears for psychological and ideological reasons.

Psychologically, tackling the economy is too daunting for simple minds fed on the Anglo-American logic of easy and instant solutions to complex and long-term problems. It would require addressing the political economy, being an active citizen and making certain demands politically.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In contrast, blaming schools for unemployment is comforting. The majority of the school population is made up of minors who cannot speak back, and of teachers who are fairly powerless in terms of employment conditions and even the syllabus, especially in these neoliberal times when teaching has been transformed into slavery by managerial and regulatory regimes of accountability.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market. Unfortunately, the trade union movement has been too paralysed to come up with an effective counter-argument, and those who are still in permanent employment have failed to establish worker solidarity with their colleagues suffering on gig terms.

In any case, there is an argument to be made against using educational accomplishment for employment. The reliance of employers on academic certificates is a form of discrimination, since those who are employed will always be those with the resources to get an education. Reliance on academic achievement also makes the school system subsidise employers by sparing them the cost of equipping their employees with the requisite skills.

Any country that has a backbone should tell businesses to shut up and train their own employees at their own cost. But in this era of state capture, that is unlikely to happen.

The education for employment justification

It is important to clarify that employment was never the immediate goal of the British-oriented university education system that Kenya inherited. In Victorian England, university education and admission through the examination system were primarily a tool of assimilation for the rising middle classes into the aristocracy. It was through the university system that members of the middle class gained access to the social and symbolic power of European aristocracy, which remains the source of cultural legitimation in today’s world. In turn, the middle classes were offered an opportunity to become part of the burgeoning British Empire. As a consequence, most of the colonial administrators were graduates of public schools and Oxbridge, and even now, the rising inequality in Britain has been attributed to the fact that this same cohort still dominates British politics and institutions.

Similarly, university education in Kenya was an opportunity to be assimilated into the colonial state. The first university graduates were the children of Chief Koinange, a colonial collaborator. One of his children, Mbiyu, received education from elite schools in three continents: Alliance High School in Kenya, London School of Economics in the UK and Columbia University in the US. He was also a Rhodes scholar at the University of Cambridge. He later became the brother-in-law of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and was in the president’s core cabinet for most of his life in independent Kenya.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market.

With the outbreak of the Mau Mau war in the 1950s, and with the rise of the United States as a global power, the British government jacked up the availability of university education to raise a Kikuyu middle class that would provide the civil servants for the colonial state. After independence, the first president saw the university as fulfilling precisely the same role, and as Mwenda Kithinji argues in his brilliant book, The State and the University Experience in East Africa: Colonial Foundations and Postcolonial Transformations in Kenya, the first president had no intention to expand university education since he had the Kikuyu elites that he needed. The second president, a member of a minority ethnic group, then expanded university education in order to widen the Kenyan middle class to include people from other ethnic groups. It is therefore wishful thinking, if not delusion, for Kenyans to believe that the government schooling system was ever about employment. The schools have always been about class status and power.

However, the popular belief in education for employment is understandable, because the expansion of the control of the (ex)colonial state and global capital by the British and Kenyan elite was experienced by ordinary Kenyans as employment.

But almost 60 years after independence, there is no longer a need for the Kenyan elite to provide Kenyans with university education. In the 1960s, when there were not enough British-educated Kenyans to run the civil service, the Kenyan elites were the first generation in their families to go to British schools. . Today, however, there are enough British-educated Kenyans to run the ex-colonial state. The children of the elite are in power, and they also have children and grandchildren whom they want to ascend to power. Moreover, the inequality in Kenya’s education system necessarily means that those who perform well are children of middle-class parents who can afford private school education and can take over the bureaucracy and civil service through patronage, rather than through academic achievement.

The elites of Kenya, whom the current education system serves, have enough of their children and relatives to work in government, and enough of second-generation middle-class children to do their work. With families of a minimum of four wives and dozens of children, the elites have enough personnel.

Moreover, the elites cannot afford an educated Kenyan population outside of government. The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst. The goal of the government education system in Kenya has never been employment. Employment was simply a side effect. And employment seekers were not supposed to be ordinary Kenyans; they were supposed to be the elites entering top government posts through family ties and club networks.

The “useful” and “relevant” skills justification

Given this history of the imperial education system, it is almost laughable that university scholars have sought to justify themselves as providing skills that are useful for graduates in The Market. That said, it is a lie to which I dedicated a significant part of my career, until I realised that studying the arts can never be “marketable” in an anti-human economic and political system.

That aside, the fantasy of making university education appear “relevant” has been a public relations exercise in which even the British academy was engaged in the 19th century after industrialists complained that universities were not training their sons to take over the family industries from their fathers. In fact, John Brown argued in 1970 that the British elite university could not find a strong enough argument to defend the imperial education based on the Roman and Greek classics. However, it won over the industrialists by what he calls “the parlance of advertising” and an “imaginative sales effort”. Rather than argue for university education on its own merit, the universities assimilated the critique about their lack of “practical skills”, and claimed that elite class manners were a skill in and of themselves.

To put it simply, the universities told the business elite that they needed knowledge and habits of aristocrats for them to be “successful”. It was not enough to make money; one had to be sophisticated and convincing, able to talk across cultures and social class.

Before my road to Damascus conversion, I made this same laughable argument myself. Now when I think of it, this defence of university education belongs to the same whatsapp group as the products of business coaches and motivational speakers who promise “soft skills”, like how to speak convincingly, how to make an elevator pitch, how to dress to look presentable, and all other forms of self-improvement for The Market. We academics making those arguments are no different from those who give tutorials on how to have English “afternoon tea the correct way”.

We should do away with universities – as they are now

If universities, as they currently stand, are useful only to the elites, it should come as no surprise that the elites are now destroying them. After all, the universities are theirs.

But rather than fight for universities to remain public institutions in their current form, we the people need to fight for them to become truly public by removing degree programmes and turning them into a space for knowledge and culture. We should break down the walls of admissions and examinations. We should diversify and increase opportunities for people to learn through cultural centres, festivals and public libraries. We should make public engagement, like dialogues under a tree, and visits to what Odero Oruka called “sage philosophers” a part of formal education. For skills training, we could resort to apprenticeships as a way to enter a profession and facilitate peer review as a way to improve services.

Two things must definitely be removed from the university as an institution: 1) certification; and 2) the interference and regulation in university education by the state. Both have reduced university education to a cynical process of gaining papers to access elite status and titles, and of measuring outcomes and indicators like a balance sheet.

Most of all, we must remove the institution of the imperial elite, which is made up of people who gain wealth and power through their manipulation and control of the commons – land, natural resources, labour and knowledge.

​Africa may not always have offered degrees, but it has had universities for millennia. We can do away with degrees and retain universities. If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society. Right now, universities are hardly different from members-only clubs for those who survive the hazing ritual of examinations and gain the right to become snobs who undermine democracy and social justice for the rest of their lives.

​But to scuttle such fundamental and dynamic reforms to education, the economy and politics, the president has now sacrificed the dreams of an entire generation of Kenyan youth – however contradictory those dreams may be – in order to sustain the exploitative social status of his family and the ruling elite. This situation is not only unjust; it is also untenable.

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Reimagining Home in a Time of COVID

COVID-19 has compelled us to think about the home as an enclosed political economy. The pandemic has placed an additional strain on the caregiving role and labour of women, who have been disproportionally affected by domestic and other forms of violence. What might a just home in a post-COVID future look like?

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One of the contradictions of the past few weeks is that while we have become isolated within our own borders, neighbourhoods and homes, we have also become joined globally in the incantation of new words: social distancing; lockdown; quarantine; curfew; shielding. To this list of what the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams might call our COVID keywords, we must also insist on adding evictions, demolitions, and forced internal migrations, all of which have unfolded before our eyes in the first pandemic to occur in the age of social media.

At a recent webinar on Africa and the Pandemic, ROAPE’s Heike Becker described African governments as being more intent on flattening houses than on flattening the curve. I was provoked by this to revisit the literature on domicide, a word used to describe the deliberate destruction of homes and the suffering of those who dwell in them. In this pandemic, there has been an under-theorisation of the meaning of home. Instrumentally, instructions to stay at home were not made on the basis of careful knowledge of how homes function as what Kathleen Lynch, John Baker and Maureen Lyons have described as enclosed places or political economies.

Feminists have long argued that affective relations and the conditions under which reproductive labour is provided are neglected and under-researched. This failure risks making the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 not just instrumentally unworkable but also unjust.

Olu Timehin Adegbeye has written that the World Health Organization (WHO) is “promoting social distancing as an essential response to this pandemic, forgetting that there are many parts of the world where this single solution is contextually inadequate or even dangerous”. As Tshepo Mdlingozi pointed out when he wrote in relation to South Africa, “spatial colonialism makes it impossible and inhumane to enforce a lockdown in shack settlements”.

COVID has also thrown up critical existential questions about what we talk about when we talk about home. David Ndii has written that the Kenya authorities have an assumption that everyone has a true rural home. This has meant that working people and the urban poor are treated as temporary residents of the city who have no rights to the city – an assumption with deep colonial roots. In India, the authorities announced a lockdown that Arundhati Roy has described as “towns and megacities…extrud[ing] their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual”. (In contrast, India’s repatriation by air of its overseas citizens has been meticulously organised.)

Feminists have long argued that affective relations and the conditions under which reproductive labour is provided are neglected and under-researched. This failure risks making the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 not just instrumentally unworkable but also unjust.

When the stay-at-home orders were made, little thought was given to what it means to ask poor families to educate children from home in overcrowded conditions at a time when care work is itself risky, disproportionately exposing women to greater risks of the disease.

Our failure to imagine the homes of others is all the more striking because for those with access to technology, we are able to look into the homes of others for the first time. Virtual meetings challenge the notion of home as enclosed, private spaces.

Similarly, some of us have spoken frankly and sometimes for the first time about our family commitments and how our jobs are built on an unencumbered male breadwinner model now thrown into disarray. The instruction by our employers to “work from home” was striking: what do we imagine has been going on in homes other than work?

The pandemic has made responsibilities for care work more visible while increasing its quantity as women try to do their jobs whilst simultaneously looking after those in their home. The under-theorisation of what takes place in the home was evident in other ways, from the neglect of a shadow pandemic of domestic violence to the lack of awareness about the ways of life of multigenerational homes where shielding the elderly is not practical or where older people have long established roles in relation to care, quarantine and the dying.

Our failure to imagine the homes of others is all the more striking because for those with access to technology, we are able to look into the homes of others for the first time. Virtual meetings challenge the notion of home as enclosed, private spaces.

The pandemic should compel us to think more clearly about the home as a political economy. It has made visible and at the same time put under additional strain the work of social reproduction, that is, the socially necessary labour expended to provide food, clothing, and shelter. That little value is attached to this caregiving role is not natural but the outcome of political choices.

Caregiving and emotional labour are unequally distributed. They fall disproportionately on women and most of all on minority women, the poorly paid and the precarious. They subordinate women in society.

Women have, of course, struggled against that subordination. This is, for instance, richly evoked in Luise White’s study of early Nairobi, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, which showed how women provided care labour for men in return for pay “in imitation of marriage” and then went on to use the proceeds of that labour to become independent property owners in a growing city. As one woman quoted in the book stated, “I built this house on my back.”

The gulf between the homes of the rich and the poor in the cities of the Global South has meant that whilst many cocoon at home in safety, with adequate food and access to plentiful resources, (purchases of luxury cars in Kenya have shot up since the beginning of the pandemic: the car too functions as enclosed space), in other parts of the city, women are caring for people without pay, taking care of loved ones, “provisioning supplies, and finding ways to offset the enormous economic and social burdens of this time’”.

At the same time, women have borne the brunt of the violence directed towards their homes. The pandemic has confirmed Patrick McAuslan assertion that the bulldozer is often “the principal tool of planning’”. Evictions in Kenya have taken place in defiance of court orders.

The militarisation of cities such as Nairobi and Johannesburg has led to an increase in rape and sexual violence. Women are safe neither from intimate partners nor from strangers in the form of police prowling the streets during curfews.

Central to a just response to COVID must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home. Foremost amongst these is an economy that recognises, redistributes and compensates the labour that is essential to sustaining us. A better understanding of the labour needed to reproduce a home and ensure its survival during a pandemic must be carried forward into the future to ensure that the home thrives. A starting point is to recognise the differential impact of violence, repression, precarity, sickness and domicide on women in a time of COVID.

Central to a just response to COVID must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home. Foremost amongst these is an economy that recognises, redistributes and compensates the labour that is essential to sustaining us.

Recovery should not mean a return to normal but should entail thinking about the ways in which the normal of others has been invisible to us, as Hannah Cross and Leo Zeilig remind us by asking: “Is not the experience of life with the Covid-19 outbreak, now being felt for the first time in many generations in the Global North, the common experience of life and death in the South?”

The Hawai’i state commission on the status of women, presenting its proposals for a feminist economic recovery from COVID-19, argues that we must speak “not only about response and recovery, but also of repair and revival: repair of historic harms and intergenerational trauma playing out as male domination, gender-based violence, economic insecurity, poor health and mass incarceration”.

What might a just home in a post-COVID future look like?

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy journal

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past. One outcome of this has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs. In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs.

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship
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In the last three decades, scholarly interest on entrepreneurship has exploded outside the traditional quantitative disciplines of economics and business studies. This is traceable to the global ascent of neoliberal capitalism, which has drawn remote corners of the world into global webs of capital and substituted self-help entrepreneurship with state-directed ameliorative economic projects. Humanists and qualitative social scientists have brought much-needed critical perspectives to bear on the study of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.

One of the legacies of this humanisation of entrepreneurship studies is the extension of the observational and analytical lens to the Global South, a region of the world simultaneously regarded as a place dominated by a poverty-incubating pre-capitalist economic ethos and as a fertile ground for recruiting new entrepreneurs. The emphasis on producing indigenous entrepreneurs emanates from an assumption that Africa lacks capitalism and capitalist relations of production, an assumption that Horman Chitonge debunks. There is also a need to deconstruct paradigmatic understandings of not just capitalism but also of entrepreneurship, the supposed means to capitalism in Africa.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty. The escalation of poverty in Africa from the 1980s, itself partly a product of neoliberal reforms, ironically opened the door to the neoliberal veneration of entrepreneurship as a remedy for mass poverty. Many anti-poverty interventions in Africa today seek to remake Africans into rural and urban entrepreneurs through instruments such as microfinance, revolving credit, and cooperative lending.

Economic messiahs

The proliferation of entrepreneurial projects in Africa in the neoliberal moment inspired unprecedented Africanist scholarly interest in entrepreneurship, enterprise, innovation, African capitalism (or Africapitalism) and the culture of self-help. As new groups of entrepreneurs emerged on the continent and engaged in a variety of capitalist, wealth-creating activities, Africanist scholars from a variety of fields began to develop new vocabularies and concepts to explain this entrepreneurial wave. This scholarly corpus has been illuminating, but it has also been plagued by conceptual imprecision and confusion.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty.

The problem, as I want to show in this reflection, was that the Africanist entrepreneurial perspective that emerged had blind spots imposed by dominant formulations developed to understand entrepreneurial cultures in Euro-American contexts. There are two other inter-related problems. One is a failure to develop an analytical toolkit that accommodates the capacious and amorphous entrepreneurial lives of Africans who were pigeonholed into the new neoliberal category of the entrepreneur. The second is a failure to adequately critique the exuberant, self-assured discourse of entrepreneurs as economic messiahs and replacements for the economic responsibilities of the dysfunctional African state.

The first problem turns on the deployment of notions and definitions derived from the dominant Schumpeterian perspective on entrepreneurship. Joseph Schumpeter’s major contribution to the study of entrepreneurship lies in going beyond understanding the entrepreneur as one who had the skill to “combine the factors of production” and situating the entrepreneur in a more ambitious project of disrupting the process of value-creation. Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not just in personal terms but also in terms of corporate agency, of the aggregate transformative impact of multiple, simultaneous, or successive entrepreneurial initiatives. Unlike other theorists, Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not as a manager but as a catalyst, an innovator. Clearly, the empirical setting of Schumpeter’s theorisation is a European industrial one, giving his postulations a decidedly Eurocentric flavour.

The Schumpeterian paradigm applies to the innovatively disruptive capacities of some contemporary African industrial entrepreneurs. However, this explanatory model is problematic when called upon to illuminate the activities and priorities of other African entrepreneurs outside the capitalist industrial matrix. The Schumpeterian explanation does not know what to do with Africans whose enterprise consists not of the familiar portfolios of our modern capitalist imagination but rather of an eclectic corpus of holdings embracing the social, political, artisanal, and economic realms.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result. Our love of neat, hard categories and vocational identifiers have stifled our ability to appreciate the full range of African entrepreneurship. As a historian, my frame of reference is the African past and that is where I’d like to go to develop this contention.

Entrepreneurship in precolonial Africa

In precolonial Africa, entrepreneurship was not a narrow, bounded vocation. Instead, entrepreneurship manifested in particular ways of doing things, and in any organised activity that promised personal or communal rewards. In this capacious definitional universe, enterprising warriors were entrepreneurs. They transformed the art of warfare from a regimented, sporadic activity to one with its own routines and protocols. Historian Uyilawa Usualele’s chapter in my edited volume, Entrepreneurship in Africa, rightly argues for a recognition of the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Benin warlords, spiritual consultants, priests, and religious purveyors whose repertoire included the professionalisation and deft organisation of multiple social vocations. Their sophisticated endeavour, as Uyilawa demonstrates, entailed the adoption of business management principles that we today associate with entrepreneurs.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result.

Warrior guilds, whether in precolonial Ibadan, Asante, Dahomey, Buganda or Zulu, were sites of entrepreneurship. When systematised and conceptualised as a professional business venture, as it was in many precolonial African kingdoms, warring involved planning, management, delegation, tasks, goals, deliverables, compensation, the creation of value in the form of war spoils, the distribution of dividends, and reinvestment in processes that improved war making.

War making entailed post-operational accounting, the calculation of profits, and periodic stocktaking — in other words, elaborate formal and informal bookkeeping. It was a business, and the guilds, warrior cults, and military training programmes of precolonial African kingdoms were business schools of sorts. Many of today’s warlords are also conflict entrepreneurs, leveraging war as opportunities for profit.

I have chosen this unlikely example to illustrate my point that in Africa entrepreneurial pursuits were not and are still not wholly shaped by the narrow permutations of combining the forces of production — capital, labour, and knowledge — to produce a profit. The profit motive is not always central to entrepreneurial pursuits in the African context, although profit is an expected outcome of entrepreneurial acts. Furthermore, where present and clearly discernible as the primary catalyst in an enterprise, profit is articulated in less narrow terms than is posited in the economistic definitions of classical and neoliberal economic thought.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

Given this reality of multiple entrepreneurial trajectories and entwinements, it is perhaps more productive to speak of “entrepreneurial Africans” than of “African entrepreneurs”, a formulation at odds with the restrictive definitional criteria in normative capitalist thought. The term African entrepreneurs assumes a consistent, permanent occupational identity of people whose lives were consumed and defined solely by their entrepreneurial engagements. Entrepreneurial Africans advances a premise of entrepreneurial possibilities in multiple endeavours and professions.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

This complex picture is further compounded by the existence of several “non-capitalist” systems of production, as well as the prevalence of hybrid practices in which self-interested capitalist rationalities coexisted with an ethos of value and reward. If the Schumpeterian model and its derivatives are applied uncritically to African entrepreneurial formations, they raise the question of whether, for instance, entrepreneurs could emerge and thrive outside capitalist relations in a communal African economic setting and, if so, whether the relationship between capitalism and entrepreneurship, which we have long taken for granted, can be sustained in the African context. This question is important because it alerts Africanist scholars of personal and group economies to what they might lose, what analytical opportunities they might miss, and what complexities and realities they might occlude or misread when they accord overarching analytical finality to concepts developed in other places and circumstances and deployed to explain African conditions. Elisio Macamo insightfully makes a similar argument in regard to the concept of capitalism and its conceptual work in African social science scholarship.

The entrepreneurial independence that, even if only rhetorically, marked the evolution of capitalism in Europe, defined the Euro-American industrial experience, and catalysed the emergence of a distinct entrepreneurial class in that context contrasts with the African entrepreneurial historical landscape. In precolonial times, African entrepreneurs operated at the intersection of profit and power, commerce and culture. Profitmaking was coextensive with social obligations. Entrepreneurs were mindful of societal expectations on them. Society, in turn, recognised that entrepreneurs had special gifts that had to be nurtured and liberated from the sociopolitical routines of daily life. Entrepreneurial pursuits were for-profit endeavours for the most part but profits and service to society were coterminous, as chapters by Gloria ChukuMarta MussoMartin Shanguhyia, and Chambi Chachage in the aforementioned Entrepreneurship in Africa volume demonstrate.

Political power holders cultivated entrepreneurs and were entrepreneurs in their own right. Entrepreneurs, on their part, accessed the protective, logistical, and spiritual resources deposited in the political realm. Ultimately, the idea that individual profitmaking could and should coexist with the provision of societal benefit and that entrepreneurial projects should catalyse society’s economic potentials was an unwritten but well understood rule of commerce. Entrepreneurship, which was mobile and malleable, was the defining character of precolonial African political economy.

To speak of a political economy of entrepreneurship or an entrepreneurial political economy is to signal a uniquely African iteration of entrepreneurship in which the political and mercantile realms were and are in conversation and cooperation. The case of the precolonial Wangara mercantile network in West Africa is an example of the entwinement of value creation and political power. There is clearly a contemporary continuity to this reality. The most consequential and successful African entrepreneurs of today, such as Aliko Dangote, Strive Masiyiwa, Patrice Motsepe, Tony Elumelu, and others have direct or indirect tentacles in the realm of power and politics. Their business empires relate with host governments and political formations in ways that would offend contrived, self-righteous, and hypocritical business sensibilities in the West. Text-bookish neoliberal Western formulations proclaim the autonomies of the business and political spheres, but these autonomous zones do not exist in the West, as many corporate and political corruption scandals have revealed. Although open to perversion and corruption, in their most productive manifestations, African entrepreneurial cultures that recognise the field of play between economics and politics stand in distinction from the neoliberal obsession with the idea of separating business and politics or protecting entrepreneurs from the alleged meddling and market distortions of political actors.

African scholars, businesspeople, and policymakers in search of an African business ethos will do well to consider this African historical partnership between profit and people.

Globalised capital that empowers and privileges

My second point concerns the limit of entrepreneurship, which needs to be stressed to counterbalance the narrative of multipurpose amelioration that has developed around African entrepreneurship. We live in a neoliberal moment in which entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs are celebrated as potent economic agents and catalysts for poverty reduction and economic growth. Whether entrepreneurs deserve this outsized reputation in our interconnected and interdependent economic ecosystem is a legitimate question. When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others. We are ignoring the ways that global capitalist configurations undercut and complicate entrepreneurial possibilities and opportunities in Africa.

The conceptual impact of Africa’s long encounter with neoliberalism on discourses of African entrepreneurship is profound. The nexus of neoliberalism and entrepreneurship is not far-fetched. The neoliberal economic regime imposed on African economies by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s and 1990s dictated an economic paradigm shift for African countries, one that redefined the relationships, obligations, and responsibilities between states and their citizens. One of the most remarkable outcomes of this shift has been the increasing dominance of the figure of the entrepreneur. A corollary development has been the substitution of entrepreneurial self-help for redistributive, reconstructive, and structural economic reforms.

When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others.

This lionisation of the entrepreneur is a symptom of a deeper rhetorical, philosophical, and policy gesture in the direction of producing citizen-entrepreneurs who pursue thrift and profits, creatively take charge of their own welfare, innovatively add value to the economy, and thus relieving the state of financial obligations. Neoliberal attempts to engineer into existence ideal entrepreneurial citizens that are self-reliant and removed from the nodes of state obligation were authorised by a new fetish of personal economic responsibility. These interventions absolved the African state of its developmental responsibilities, demanding that poor Africans pull themselves out of poverty by their own entrepreneurial bootstraps.

Neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past as one in which Africans were pampered by states and as a result ceased to create value through entrepreneurial activity. In truth, there was never such a cessation of entrepreneurial ingenuity in African communities. Nor did states, despite their paternalistic rhetoric and claims, provide robust welfare protections to citizens. Neoliberal entrepreneurial initiatives were cast against a foundational ignorance of the fact that value creation in most African societies is an organic social endeavor and not the intensely individualised enterprise intelligible to neoclassical and neoliberal frames of analysis. Birthed in this original misunderstanding of Africa, the political economy of neoliberalism has entrenched the entrepreneurial figure venerated by International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policy documents as the discursive referent in studies of African economic revival. One outcome has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs and to withhold that designation from others.

The damage done by the neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship is both discursive and practical. Important as entrepreneurs are to the present and future of Africa, all Africans cannot become entrepreneurs, at least not in the neoliberal sense of the word. This sober recognition, which is missing from most external economic reform prescriptions, ought to be a serious preoccupation of Africanist scholars of entrepreneurship. It is the task of Africanists who study capitalism, business, and entrepreneurship in Africa to modulate and critique the exaggerated instrumentalities of African entrepreneurship. This task is necessary to balance the analytical books because we have created a zero sum analytical calculus in which talking more about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial catalysts results in less talk about structural inequalities inherent in the global capitalist system into which Africans, to varying degrees, have long been integrated.

I want to conclude this reflection with a proposal wrapped in a critique. There is a need to develop a new mode of African scholarship on business and enterprise. This proposed new field of qualitative African business and entrepreneurial studies must necessarily adopt a relaxed analytical framework capable of exploring complex economic lives in ways that traditional scholarship in African economic history – with its neat dichotomies between worker and merchant, king and commoner, bourgeoisie and peasant – is incapable of doing. This kind of study should be able to analyse African entrepreneurial lives that cross class divides and socioeconomic categories.

Traditional debates in the field of African economic history have rarely acknowledged, let alone theorised, the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Africans in a sustained way and in terms independent of other categories of analysis. This erasure is particularly common in the field of colonial economic history. Neoclassical and neoliberal scholars of modern African economic history overstate the instrumental agency of African entrepreneurs. On the opposite side, neo-Marxist and dependency theorists shun or dismiss entrepreneurs as a petit bourgeoisie class undermining the revolutionary struggles of workers and peasants. By lionising or diminishing the figure of the African entrepreneur, the dominant schools of African economic history orphaned the African entrepreneur into a strange category where s/he is either overburdened with the task of saving dysfunctional economies or tossed aside as an economic saboteur.

In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs. What is lacking are stories of African entrepreneurship told by entrepreneurs themselves. We need African entrepreneurial stories curated by the entrepreneurs themselves or at least informed by their perspectives, their self-representation, and their understanding of their own struggles, aspirations, and visions. These stories have to go beyond “How I Made It” memoirs and autobiographies of entrepreneurial success and hagiographic scholarly narratives of problem-solving, self-redeeming African entrepreneurs.

Finally, the question of how we are telling the African entrepreneurship story is as important as who is telling it. The current triumphalist and hyperbolic tone of the conversation has produced a restrictive exercise in navel-gazing. It has also led to an explosion of self-validating, self-fulfilling rhetoric, in which the concept of entrepreneurship is not only advanced as a fail-safe substitute for the idea of the African developmental state posited compellingly by the late Thandika Mkandawire and others but is also used as a stand-in for more substantive debates about external and internal structural constraints on African development.

This article was first published by Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).

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