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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

Boda Boda Justice

Local and national institutions should move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders and instead leverage their capacity to contribute towards grassroots processes of protection and justice.

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Boda Boda Justice
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We are all familiar with the idea that we, as people, plan, but those plans can be quickly altered by the animate and ever-moving process of life. On October 5th, I had a pretty straightforward plan for the day, and having an accident that could have taken my life was certainly not part of it. I was jogging along my regular route when, ahead of me, I saw a car turning into a wide driveway at great speed. I instinctively slowed down to allow the car to turn, only to be hit from behind by a motorcycle that had veered off the road.

Thrown into a ditch but fully conscious, I touched my head and felt it to be completely drenched. Before I looked at my hand, I readied myself for the eventuality that it was blood I was feeling, and that this could be my last day alive. To my relief, it was just mud. I slowly moved each part of my body, to find that I had no severe injuries. I picked up my glasses, stood up, and processed that I was, indeed, alive. A crowd quickly grew around me, with people asking me who to call, or whether I wanted go to hospital immediately. Through tears, full of adrenaline and in a state of shock, I insisted that I wanted to go home; I hadn’t jogged far. I got onto one of the many boda bodas that had gathered at the scene, and home I went.

Some 20 minutes later, as I was getting into a car with a family friend to be taken to the hospital, still in a state of shock and disarray, a boda boda rider approached me. He is a rider in the local area, so we were familiar with each other. He happened to have seen me leave for my jog before the accident, and was at the same place as I was being brought back, covered in mud and crying, some ten minutes later. He explained that he had been told what had happened, that he knew who had hit me and that he was willing to participate in a justice process. I won’t go into what I went through both physically and emotional here except to say that I had avoided a neck fracture and wore a brace for a few days to allow a slight injury at the back of my neck to heal. The shock took a few days to wear off, and I remain very aware of the fact that October 5th could have gone very differently.

However, what I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level, which the local boda boda rider wanted deployed. The episode highlighted the social, political and economic consequences of the way in which this working-class community is perceived by the wider society, and how Kenyan society could change for the better if these broad-brush and often negative societal perspectives were abandoned.

Several months before the incident, a group of boda boda riders had been recorded violently physically and sexually assaulting a woman whose car had hit one of them along Forest Road. The ensuing aggressive and outraged discourse across social media targeted the boda boda community and its collective culture. Given the nature of the injustice faced by that woman—an incident that I can only imagine would leave a person emotionally impacted long after the assault itself—the uproar, indignation, and anger of Kenyans was not misplaced.

What I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level

However, even with my limited experience of the country, I felt uneasy about the state’s knee-jerk reaction which was to take all boda bodas off the road in response to the incident. Firstly, I think that the culture of women being subjected to sexual violence as a result of men, or society in general, experiencing emotions like anger towards who they are and what they do has less to do with who boda boda riders are as people, and more to do with what patriarchy has normalized regarding how women should suffer the consequences when men get emotional.

Secondly, the dogmatic nature of the car drivers vs boda boda riders conversation on Twitter felt unfair. Months before the Forest Road incident, I had been part of a small group of people that had spent hours trying to help a boda boda rider that had been hit and badly injured by a car that had then fled the scene. Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Thirdly, I just couldn’t see where the post-Forest Road social media discourse was going and I was nervous to wade in with what, in the face of the national outrage, felt like a fickle personal opinion of a guest in the country naively suggesting “not all boda boda riders are…” I kept quietly to myself the thought that this just wasn’t who I had experienced the boda boda community to be. Not being a Swahili speaker, one of the ways in which I navigate new parts of Nairobi, and the country generally, is by locating the nearest boda boda stage if I need to ask for directions or for any other help. I have come to know boda boda riders in a way that the capitalist culture doesn’t allow you to get to know the service providers you engage with on a daily basis. But it would have seemed tone-deaf to contribute this experiences to the discourse at the time, although I was reminded of them again following of the October 5th accident.

Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Victor* the boda boda rider that approached me on my way to the hospital, is the security officer of the local boda boda riders committee. This is why, when he saw that I had been injured and learned that it was as a result of being hit by a boda boda rider, he made it his personal responsibility to advocate for me in a dialogue involving the police, the owner of the bike, the local boda boda community and the person who had hit me. This process lasted a week before I decided to stop pursuing the case because of the intimidation that Victor was facing from boda boda riders in the area. As the week unfolded, I was not only struck by Victor’s commitment to ensure that I obtained justice, but I was struck by his belief in the system that he was a part of and within which he was a leader, a system that I think many Kenyans don’t know exists, or if they do, aren’t sure of its purpose or its effectiveness. Even though in my case the effectiveness of this system was compromised because of the power relations between the owner of the bike and others in the local area, it has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

A few days after we stopped pursuing the case, Victor and I sat down for an interview. Victor, who is 26 years old, has been a rider in the area for just over two years. Prior to that, Victor had been working in personal and housing security. In his words, it’s because of that experience that he was encouraged to take on the role of security officer and was elected by an overwhelming majority. “First of all, you have to understand, when you see a boda boda rider, you need to know that he is not only standing there for the money. We are keeping an eye on our surroundings in order to keep it secure,” was how Victor began his response to my question about the specifics of his role as a security officer. He went on to explain that “When anything happens regarding boda bodas, a security officer is the first person that is asked, ‘What happened?’ It doesn’t matter if it is 1 am or 3 am in the morning; if there is an incident, I have to wake up and attend to the situation, to understand what happened, who was involved, and what process is required moving forward. If you consider my area, it is part of my job to know every corner of it and be aware of every person operating in my constituency.” Victor explains that each boda boda committee that exists per constituency has a chairperson, security officer, treasurer, and secretary. “As committees, we are known by the NTSA [National Transport and Safety Authority], local police, and local community elders,” he says. People can serve in these positions until they move on, there is no term limit, and, he adds, one does not earn more for taking a leadership position. Sometimes, a person who has received help from a boda boda rider or from the committee will offer compensation in the form of materials such as boots or jackets, or cash. “We also support people financially. If a driver needs to repair his bike because of a hit, or if he needs to pay for damages caused and can’t afford it, we can organize amongst ourselves to support the person affected and be repaid slowly,” Victor explains.

It has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

I asked Victor whether the level of organization that he was describing was present before the Forest Road incident. “After [that incident], measures got much stricter when it comes to registering with the NTSA. It used to be easy. You could talk to someone at any stage and you can start driving. Now it’s much more organized. There was the president’s order that this is the case, but even us, it is something that we took very seriously. You know, it causes you shame when someone from your community harms others.” When I asked Victor why he does this work, and why he pursued my case so vigorously, he shared the following moving reflections: “I didn’t study security or go past Form 2, but this comes from inside of me. I feel very good when I know that everybody in my surroundings is safe and secure. The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.” Interestingly, towards the end of our discussion, Victor also described a brief encounter he had had with the recently elected Governor of Nairobi, Johnson Sakaja. “I told him that we need to know each other; he needs to know us guys and we need to know them.”

As an Oromo who is actively engaged in the liberation struggle going on in Ethiopia today, I cannot help but feel a connection between the way Oromo grassroots cultural and political processes and institutions interested in the administration of justice have been misrepresented by the political and economic elites (of all ethnicities), and the way the reality of the boda boda community’s collective life has been similarly unjustly misinterpreted. If local and national institutions could move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders in order to keep them at the margins of society and use them as political scapegoats when convenient, they could play a productive role in empowering and resourcing this community’s capacity to organise for grassroots justice and projection.

“The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.”

Speaking off the record (but giving permission to use this information on the record), Victor told me about a domestic violence dispute that he was able to safely intervene in because of the work he does as a security officer. The victim in question was over 30kms away from Victor’s station, but because he could identify her as a member of his local community whose safety he feels personally responsible for, he took effective action to protect the woman. Even if—like in any institution where power and people are involved—the security institution within the boda boda community is not perfect, it is one of the many ways through which grassroots processes of protection and justice can have a transformative impact where more formalized institutional processes fall short. There is great scope for the latter to be empowered by the former in order to achieve that which I think we all want: to live safely and freely.

*Name has been changed to protect the rider

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Ideas

Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy

In his book Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience Kai Kresse examines the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya and the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

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Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy
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Indisputably, the Kenyan intellectual tradition is rich, varied and influential. Furthermore, much more is known about its modern intellectual practices than its ancient discursive traditions. Perhaps this is due to the widespread popularity of its contemporary literary artists and public intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s foremost novelist and public intellectual exerts an arresting presence over most issues deemed distinctly Kenyan. And this is understandably so, given his remarkable productivity, range and resilience as an author. Ultimately, perhaps much less can be said of his late compatriot, Binyavanga Wainaina, who was an equally influential essayist, unconventional journalist and famed memoirist. Wainaina’s lauded memoir, One day I will write about this place is a lambent, often lushly written but also arguably frustrating personal account of modern-day Kenya. Wainaina was concerned with the transitional or even fragmented phases of the contemporary moment and his confessional role as a self-appointed spokesman on the larger national canvas. He wrote enticingly about the Kenyan urban lingo intriguingly called Sheng but failed to explore momentous historical events such as the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion or paradigmatic precolonial life worlds suppressed by the colonial intrusion.

Wainaina also implicitly advanced the view that the contemporary moment was all that counts, that all we needed to know about an undoubtedly complex nation such as Kenya was enshrined in the present. But of course, Kenya has far more to offer intellectually and culturally and this is why accounts such as Kai Kresse’s Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience (2019) paint a deeper and more nuanced picture of the Kenyan intellectual tradition. Kresse, a German, ZMO Berlin-based anthropologist specializing in East African intellectual and philosophical traditions employs self-reflexive discursive strategies to complicate his positionality and the overall project of anthropology as a discipline. This makes his writings unusually refreshing and intellectually stimulating.

Kresse’s research into Kenyan intellectual formations spans three decades beginning with a work on sage philosophy published in 1997 and continuing to a monograph on philosophizing in Mombasa. In addition, his training as an anthropologist grants him perspectives and insights an ordinary philosopher would not only miss but perhaps would also not fully appreciate.

Kresse’s book is not just a close and intimate examination of the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya but also speaks to the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

The Kenyan coastals, marginalized by centuries of external rule either by the Portuguese, the British or by Kenyan upcountry domination, classify their current status as “double periphery”. The coastals claim they are marginalized within the broader Kenyan nation space and also within the specific Muslim configuration of their geographic location.

As such, they are forced to endure a form of silence. This silence and the accompanying encroaching sense of marginality speak volumes when compared, for instance, with the political dominance of the northern Islamic elites in Nigeria, or in the cases of Senegal and Somalia.

In Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy has dominated the country since independence and its overbearing presence is often considered an inevitability or a fait accompli. Minorities such as the Ogoni, Ijaw, Tiv, Nupe and so many other ethnic groups in both southern and northern Nigeria have had to contend with Hausa/Fulani hegemony. From a Nigerian and Senegalese point of view, it is difficult to imagine an Islamic minority in an African context agitating for its own political expression or survival when Islam is considered to be the religious faith of political and military elites. Unfortunately, in Kenya, Muslims constitute a minority and once again, such sociopolitical complexities attest to the hybridized dynamics of postcoloniality in contemporary Africa.

In Kenya, works advocating self-determination such as Regionalism: True Freedom to Save the Coastal People, penned and self-published by an anonymous former education officer, bring to mind the plight of the Ogoni under the inspiring leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa or the Igbo under Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu during the Biafran/Nigerian crisis between 1967 and 1970.  The sometimes violent contestations between ethnic minorities and majorities to gain political freedom or control are also inflected by a religious coloration. The shifts and eruptions caused by political power are never exactly definitive but move instead like swings of a pendulum according to the imperatives of circumstance and history.

Kresse argues that Swahili Muslim intellectual culture in Kenya is rather well developed. Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The concept and broad understanding of humanness are key to fostering relations of mutuality, therefore affirming the essence and significance of the human. The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance. Rather than being an isolated being, or even more radically, a frank social fact, the human, in fact, is a being-in-social process, reinforced and re-enacted in a continuum of social acts and affirmations that lead to mutual recognition, validation and reinforcement. Thus the ultimate goal of the human in existence and by extension, within the community, is to seek the good within oneself, re-living it in everyday life and tangibly creating sociality through a continual implementation of its values.

Kresse eloquently explores the philosophical basis of Swahili Muslim understanding of the human and then delves into the specificities of the intellectual culture  it produced which turns out to be intricate, well-developed and ultimately, profoundly humanizing. It is a pity that continentally or globally, very little is known about this astounding intellectual culture. This culture also bears elements of political subversion, social discontent and self-determination which are expressed in narratives and counter-narratives of poetry (utendi) and radical political commentary.

The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance.

Kresse’s latest book, Rethinking Sage Philosophy: Interdisciplinary perspectives on and beyond H. Odera Oruka, co-edited with Oriare Nyarwath (2022), continues his focused exploration of Kenyan historic intellectual formations, this time, the discourse of sage philosophy, a form of re-configured folk philosophy popularized by the late pivotal modern-day Kenyan philosopher,  Henry Odera Oruka. Under the philosophical school known as sage philosophy, a presumably western trained philosopher identifies the invariably illiterate elders of a rural, ethnic community and attempts to collate the folk wisdom and critical reflections of that community regarding life, knowledge and metaphysics, which are then translated and rendered in a metropolitan medium. Perhaps what needs to be tracked are the conceptual and linguistic transitions inherent in these renditions and how they might be contributing to the (un)making of a new philosophical language. Gathering an impressive pool of Kenyan and international scholars, the Kresse co-edited book places sage philosophy at the centre of postcolonial philosophical thought while seeking to eschew the essentializing and frequently polarizing overtones of coloniality.

Once again, a tripartite epistemological structure becomes evident. Ali Mazrui had argued that Africa, and Kenya in particular, is defined by a triple heritage comprising an indigenous African tradition, a Muslim/Mediterranean influence and a Christian/western inheritance. In Kresse’s work, so far, another kind of tripartite discursive formation reveals itself; one marked by an Islamic intellectual history, an indigenous/endogenous philosophical system known as sage philosophy and then a western philosophical idiom and canon through which a folk system of thought is articulated and elaborated. Either consciously or unwittingly, Kresse’s project traces the contours of Kenyan social thought as they unfold within the often overlapping matrixes of Islam, indigeneity and westernity with evident conceptual continuity and singularity.

Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The current trajectory of Kresse’s work tends to shadow contemporary European thinkers such as the late German philosopher, Heinz Kimmerle and Dutch anthropologist/philosopher, Wim van Binsbergen who interrogate questions of interculturality, otherness and marginality—often from a multiplicity of positionalities and perspectives—while also seeking to unbundle the inheritances of their North Atlantic intellectual pedigree.

Kresse’s interest in the philosophical and intellectual traditions of Muslims in Kenya, has succeeded in unearthing systems of thought, social activism and instances of political resistance that complicate Kenya’s supposedly unitary Christian construct of itself.  And then his earlier work on sage philosophy, a largely Kenyan-spawned modern—perhaps Christian-based—philosophy tradition further complicates an already multi-layered national intellectual history and identity.

At the political level, there are also real existential entanglements to consider. Kenya, like any other colonial creation, ought to be viewed as a political and geographical aberration formed on the basis of a largely irrational colonial diktat. But like other postcolonial territorial anomalies-turned-miracles in Africa, it has managed to finesse its numerous irreconcilable differences into the improbable semblance of a nation.

The universe presented in Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience invariably yields a philosophical and intellectual tradition that has been virtually ignored in current African philosophical discourse. And then, in investigating the ramifications of sage philosophy, Kresse’s work further highlights the significance and impact of a dominant Kenyan philosophical formation. Arguably, Kresse’s attempt to bridge a fundamental epistemological schism by amalgamating a minority Muslim discourse (Swahili intellectual practices) with sage philosophy is certainly a kind of epistemic project a Kenyan would ordinarily find impossible to execute. This is due to the ingrained and perhaps often insurmountable separations caused by fractious internal politics and differences. There is also an implicit epistemic holism in this project of intellectual reconstruction. But how much it serves Kenyans from a practical point of view is another matter entirely.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa

An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
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The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.

In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.

After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.

Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.

In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.

While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.

The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.

On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.

Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.

Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.

Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.

The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.

Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.

Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.

Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.

While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.

Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.

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