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Why Bother to Vote? Why Elections Are Losing Their Lustre

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A couple of years ago, there was a contentious debate in academic and policy circles about the perceived decline in global democracy. Through all the talk about how to define democracy and measure its growth and reversal, one thing remained certain: the sanctity of elections. Regardless of whether or not democracy is advancing, elections retain their position at the center of any legitimate democratic system. Problematic though they might be, elections represent the height of political progress.

When there is public outcry over an election, is usually revolves around a particular aspect of the electoral process: the merits and/or drawbacks of election technology, controversy around how votes are counted, the source of campaign money; the list goes on. This has especially been the case in the last year, as people reacted in shock to -and looked for flaws in- the electoral process after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump won the American presidential election.

But how do we know that elections themselves are still a broadly accepted and publicly legitimate way to select leaders? And given that even dictatorial leaders are often happy to hold elections, what is their real value in advancing democracy around the world?

The Erosion of Electoral Credibility

It turns out that people around the world are wondering the same thing. In fact, more than ever before, citizens from across the globe report that elections are not necessarily a defining part of a democratic system. In the 2010-2014 wave of the World Values Survey, for instance, less than half of all respondents (41.5 percent) agreed with the view that elections are an essential characteristic of democracy. This represents a significant drop from the previous round of the survey (2005-2009), when more than half of the respondents (52.3 percent) expressed that elections are an essential part of democratic systems. This drop goes hand in hand with a sinking faith in democracy overall. From 2005-2009 to 2010-2014, there was a 7.1 percentage drop in the proportion of people around the world who felt that democracy is “absolutely important.”

It isn’t difficult to see that elections are losing their lustre. But why? In representative democracies, elections empower citizens to stand in judgment of their (prospective) leaders. Even if only for a short while, elections shine a spotlight on ordinary voters, providing a platform for them to debate, reflect and ultimately assess their choices. Voters hold ultimate power in elections…or do they?

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy. As a result, the rules that govern elections often do not uphold the principles of democracy, and ordinary voters do not hold the reigns of power in elections anymore.

Electoral Systems

In some ways, it all starts with the electoral system. Although the design of a country’s electoral system — involving calculations of district sizes and populations, determinations of boundaries and vote to seat ratios — may seem like a purely technical process, the choice has serious political implications. At their core, after all, electoral systems determine how votes get counted and translated into seats; they determine who has a chance of a seat at the table. Electoral systems are thus at the heart of democratic design.

Since the choice of electoral system design impacts many later phases of the electoral cycle – especially party and coalition formation and campaign strategy – it is a stage setter, providing the framework and incentive structure for electoral stakeholders’ behavior. A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory. In so much of the world, these types of winner-take-all electoral systems risk creating a tyranny of the majority. They also often produce governments that are seen to be “unfair” in the sense that the number of seats a party wins can often be highly disproportionate to the number of votes that party garnered. Parties who do not manage to win a majority of votes but who still capture a substantial amount of support are left with absolutely no access to decision-making power. In 2015, the controversy surrounding first past the post was brought to the fore in the United Kingdom. There, the Conservatives won 37 percent of the vote and 51 percent of parliamentary seats. The party therefore received a parliamentary majority with less than half of the electorate’s support.

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy.

Of course, other electoral systems – even ones that seek to produce more “fair,” proportional results – have their problems. Proportional representation may give more parties a seat at the table, but it can also bestow striking amounts of power to the smallest and most ideologically extreme parties, who become “kingmakers” in the kinds of coalition governments that PR systems produce. In Israel, for example, hard-line members of ruling coalitions have routinely blocked potential agreements related to the conflict with Palestinians over “any slight movement perceived as anti-settler.”

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts. In the United States, Donald Trump won the presidential election without winning the majority of Americans’ votes. In fact, Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more popular votes than Trump, which represented the most votes ever won by a losing candidate in American history. Since it is the votes of the American electoral college, made up of elite party insiders, that ultimately decide the victor, the popular vote can end up determining nothing.

It is easy to see why such systems provide real disincentives to popular participation, especially for non-mainstream voters. Indeed, a post-election poll in the United States revealed that a mere 30 percent of surveyed Americans felt the electoral system was functional. 70 percent said that it was broken.

Money in Politics

Of course, electoral system design is just the tip of the iceberg. The electoral playing field is also heavily skewed by the growing role of money – both legal and illicit – in electoral contests. Without regulations that limit donations and expenditures, require regular and full disclosure of funding sources, and that incentivize close interaction with voters, it is all too easy for politicians to fall prey to a small group of wealthy donors who can and do influence policy formulation in the years between elections. In this situation, ordinary voters must fight to be heard, and even when they are they must struggle to compete with affluent elites. This kind of situation is also self-perpetuating. Once elected, leaders will think about how to retain their positions; the quest for campaign contributions and the subsequent quid pro quo may go on for the entirety of elites’ electoral careers.

This type of election is hardly voter-centered. Indeed, the Kofi Annan-led Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security listed uncontrolled, undisclosed and opaque political finance as a “grave threat” to the credibility of elections. “In an era of explosive growth in campaign expenditure across older democracies, citizens lose faith in the electoral process. They suspect that wealthier citizens and corporations have greater influence in public affairs…Poorly regulated campaign finance in turn leads to lower participation in the democratic process, tainted electoral integrity and impaired democracy.”

Examples of these situations abound. In India, where the election commission has set fundraising and expenditure limits, politicians resort to “black money” from the criminal underworld. Politicians have been forthcoming about the reality of the situation. In fact, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is often cited for saying that “every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.” In 2012, parliamentarians discussed spending as much as $3.3 million on campaigns, despite expenditure limits of $26,000. To put this in perspective, the average Indian person earned $1,480 at that time, roughly 6 percent of the official limit and .04 percent of the maximum $3.3 million quoted by politicians. In Kenya, where parliament refused to pass a campaign finance regulatory bill into law, candidates have spent millions even before the official beginning of the campaign period. In the run up to the primary elections in April, for instance, aspirants in the North Rift region of the country spent approximately Sh850 million ($8.2 million) on their campaigns. In the Uasin Gishu region, the leading opposition party’s top two gubernatorial aspirants each spent Sh100 million ($967,000) in the primary contest.

Given the dangers, it is surprising how little regulation there is around these issues. In fact, around the world, only about a quarter of all countries in a global study banned corporate donations to political parties, less than half prohibited donations from corporations with government contracts to political parties, and just 4 in 10 outlawed anonymous donations to candidates. Rules about disclosure aren’t much better. Just 50 percent of countries require political parties to submit financial reports in relation to election campaigns.

In such contexts, it comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

Media and Elections

Voters also greatly depend on the media during elections. Indeed, as the conduit of information to the public, the media play a pivotal role in electoral processes. Voters rely on the media to learn about candidates’ and parties’ platforms, to debate with other voters on the current issues, and to find the practical information necessary to cast ballots. Furthermore, the media act as watchdogs, safeguarding the transparency of the process. Without credible information, voters stand little chance of making informed decisions at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, however, media around the world are in crisis. In its most recent report, the Electoral Integrity Project lists media as one of the two (the other was campaign finance) most serious obstacles to a level electoral playing field. There are many challenges to free and independent media today, but some of the most critical election-related problems include:

Freedom of the Media: Media cannot fulfill its duties to society in a politically restricted environment. It is thus worrying that the 2017 edition of the World Press Freedom Index lists only fifteen countries (out of 180) in its most free category (“good situation”). Of these, twelve are located in northern and western Europe. In other countries, media outlets and journalists face high-profile bashing – increasingly from elites, financial restrictions, threats, physical abuse and violence, and an oppressive legal environment. Notably, the Index singles out the African continent for the recent spate of internet shutdowns during elections.

The 2017 Index warns of a “tipping point” in the state of media freedom, especially in democracies. The report states that media freedom “has never been so threatened,” and documents a 14 percent rise in the overall level of media constraints and violations over a five year period as well as how an “obsession” with surveillance and the death of respect for confidential sources have contributed to the decline of many consolidated democracies.

Consolidation: The vast majority of media outlets are owned by an increasingly smaller number of people and firms. In Australia, for instance, the News Corporation and associated Rupert Murdoch companies own 57.5 percent of the country’s newspapers. In Chile, El Mercurio SAP owns 54.9 percent of that country’s newspaper market. The concentration of media ownership means that there is less diversity of opinion in the public domain. Without multiple, diverging viewpoints and feisty public debate, voters are less informed and thus less able to make independent and free choices on election day.

A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory.

Access to Media: Media become especially critical during election campaigns, when candidates and parties rely on television, radio, newspapers and the internet to communicate with the public. Without regulation of some sort, smaller, less affluent contenders will struggle to access the media and therefore to reach voters. In 67.2 percent of cases, countries provide subsidized access to media for political parties, but in many of those cases that subsidy is based on the party’s share of the vote/number of seats in the previous election, or even on the number of candidates running. Newer and smaller parties are thus at an extreme disadvantage. In cases where there is no subsidy for media access, the costs can be prohibitive. In the United States, for instance, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spent approximately $227 million on media. That was 58 percent of her total expenditures for the campaign. Donald Trump spent less in actual dollars, but it still amounted to 59 percent of his campaign’s total expenditures.

Without the freedom to report honestly and in safety and without a balanced playing field, characterized by equal access to media, voters are at a distinct disadvantage, simply because they do not have the opportunity to freely and easily obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about their choices on election day as well as about the legitimacy of their electoral processes. This is even more true as global threats to internet freedom grow.

These problems threaten media’s connection to the public around the world. They also serve to perpetuate elite dominance in the electoral arena, undermining the rights to information and the freedoms of expression and speech that are fundamental to democracy.

Electoral Manipulation

As if the issues outlined above were not enough, old-fashioned rigging continues to be a problem in elections around the world. Despite the advent of electoral technology, which is perceived by some as a way to prevent many polling station-level crimes, in many parts of the world, elections are still susceptible to ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, underage voting, and voter bribery.

These types of incidents are regular occurrences, happening all over the world. Egypt provides an exemplary case in point. In 2010, observers cited the removal of opposition candidates’ names from ballots, blocking opposition agents from entering polling stations, premature closing of polling stations and ballot box stuffing. Evidence in the public record included photos and videos of voter intimidation and election officials filling in blank ballots. In 2014, turnout was so low during the scheduled two days of voting that the election commission took the step of adding a third day. International observers called this a “needless irregularity.” On the night before this additional day, the opposition candidate withdrew his monitors because security forces were abusing them. In 2015, Egyptian elections were marked by widespread vote-buying and violence. In fact, the situation was so extreme that some candidates dropped out of the race.

The same issues can be seen in many other parts of the world. Recent analysis cites allegations of electoral fraud in Russia, election related violence and the theft of vote counting machines in the Philippines, and irregular figures from results sheets in Gabon. In Nigeria, accusations of double voter registration are threatening the legitimacy of a sitting governor and a British MP is on trial for 14 counts of electoral fraud.

Allegations of rigging are also occurring in relation to election technology. The United States 2016 election is perhaps one of the best known recent examples of polls tainted by such accusations, but the vulnerability of election technology is well known in other parts of the world. In 2016, Andrés Sepúlveda revealed how, beginning in 2005, he manipulated elections for a variety of clients across the South American continent, ultimately having a hand in nine different countries. Just before the 2016 election in the Philippines, hackers attacked the country’s election commission website and compromised personal data of approximately 70 million people.

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts

And this isn’t all. The drawing of electoral boundaries, the drafting and amending of laws, access to voter registration, electoral dispute resolution and many other aspects of the electoral process can all be skewed to serve private rather than public interests. In recent years, much of the conversation and rhetoric around elections has focused on trying to determine how many problems, or exactly what problems, constitute a fraudulent election. This is a difficult question – after all, the manipulation of even one part of the electoral process can impact a number of stages later on. If it is clear that private interests have trumped public interests in even one phase of elections, shouldn’t that be enough?

Are polls passé?

For some, issues such as the ones raised above call the very legitimacy of elections into question. For these critics, the solution does not lie in bolstering the electoral process; it rests in upending reliance on elections altogether.

Indeed, one argument is that elections are outdated, relatively undemocratic and far from the best way to channel people’s thoughts and opinions.

Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?… Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

The argument has its merits. Although elections are processes, made up of multiple phases and activities, each of which has its individual purpose and impact on the final result, the majority of attention, money and work is – more often than not — focused on election day and the counting and announcement of votes. Practically, then, an election is about individual decisions at the ballot box. One tick and it’s all over.

There is also the argument that electoral democracy is a particularly western conception, designed for particular social systems that are organized quite differently from social structures and systems in other parts of the world. Thomas Koelble and Edward LiPuma contend, for example, that “the real measure of democracy is the extent to which governance conforms to the visions of democracy worked out by the governed.” Elections, at least the way they are currently practiced, may not factor into all visions of democracy.

In this reality, what are the other options? Should the focus be – as it has been for the last two decades – on improving electoral processes? Or is there another way altogether? Is it time to reconsider elections as the preferred mode of choosing political leaders?

That may already be happening.

In many places around the world, new political movements – many of which have sprung from waves of popular protests against the corruption, greed, and self-serving mindsets of politicians, are working to create innovative structures through which citizens and voters can easily and directly participate in governance. While these movements do not necessarily reject the concept of elections, they place as much – if not more – importance on internal democracy and consensus. As a result, they approach elections from a position that has grown much more directly from constituents’ and members’ input and decisions than those of traditional parties.

It comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

By placing ordinary people at the center, these movements are defining new modes of direct democracy. Indeed, the Podemos party in Spain makes use of digital platforms like Loomio and Reddit, which allow citizens to take part in policy discussions, vote on senior party positions and come to consensus on issues under debate. Similarly new movements in India and Italy make efforts to grow from the local level upwards, prioritizing grassroots issues.

Another possibility is sortition, or drafting by lot. In this system, a random sample of the population comes together to learn about selected topics, hear from experts, debate with each other and make decisions. In this way, everyone does not vote on a range of issues that few understand. Instead, a randomly selected group of people takes the time to comprehensively understand a set of questions and make well-informed decisions. This body could then interact with elected representatives to draft legislation. Proponents argue that sortition reduces corruption and promotes attention to the common good. Sortition is not new. It was used in ancient Athens, and it has been and/or is being used in Bolivia, Australia, Canada, China, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United States.

The new political movements and the concept of sortition demand much more of people than mainstream elections. This makes sense; it takes significant effort and time to weigh the policy choices facing society. Elected representatives, regardless of their experience and expertise, can only do so much on their own; citizens and voters must be active participants, providing their leaders with the information they require to make informed decisions and constantly demanding accountability.

It may be that if elections are to regain and maintain legitimacy, they, too, will have to ask more of voters. And voters should demand more of their elections, if it’s not already too late.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

Ideas

Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.

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In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.

Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.

Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.

But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.

When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.

Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.

For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”

The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.

Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.

In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.

Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.

The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.

Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.

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

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Ideas

Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

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“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”

Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.

When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?

Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.

It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.

And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.

Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role  in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.

So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.

Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.

And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?

Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.

The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.

And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement

The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
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Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.

What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.

In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.

Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.

Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.

This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.

The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.

Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”

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