Kenya is today truly in the grip of election fever. Political temperatures are rising, the economy is at a standstill as votes are counted and tallied. Politicians bicker over announced results and shenanigans at the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission are causing severe headaches and divisive and online hate is still inducing nausea.
It begs the question of why we voluntarily put ourselves through this every five years. And whether the experience needs to be as terrible as it usually is.
And let’s not kid ourselves. Elections have historically been traumatic events for Kenya. They are largely responsible for the fact that since independence, the country’s economy has never had more than five years of consecutive growth above five percent. This trend has been particularly evident since the return of competitive, multi-party politics in 1992.
Although the 2013 election was considered to be peaceful, nonetheless over 150 people died in violence in the months before the poll, the vast majority in raids in Tana River which some blamed on politicians seeking office.
Further, the worst cases of communal violence always happen around polling day, from the infamous “land clashes” that preceded the 1992 to the fighting in Likoni and elsewhere prior the 1997 polls, to the post-election violence of 2008. Between 1991 and 1997, election-related violence killed at least 2,000 people and displaced 400,000 more. A further at least 1300 were killed and 600,000 displaced by the 2008 violence.
Although the 2013 election was considered to be peaceful, nonetheless over 150 people died in violence in the months before the poll, the vast majority in raids in Tana River which some blamed on politicians seeking office. On voting day, 13 people, including 6 policemen and an election official, were killed in attacks at the coast and at least another 5 died in protests following the Supreme Court ruling that bequeathed Uhuru Kenyatta the Presidency.
Basically, sortition is the way democracy was run over 3,000 years ago when the Athenians invented it
So why do we do this? What is the value of elections? Across the world, many are losing faith in elections as a system of selecting leaders. In an article in The Elephant, Dr Seema Shah writes that governing elites have so gerrymandered the rules governing elections that power has effectively been transferred from voters to candidates. This has “gradually distanced electoral processes from the people, and … created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy.” It is thus no accident that in one of the global studies she cites, less than half of respondents think elections are an essential characteristic of democracy. Others see elections as an aristocratic device meant to stop rather than enhance democracy. One such is Flemish historian and writer David Van Reybrouck who asserts that “the person who casts his or her vote, casts it away”. They propose doing away with elections and career politicians and simply regularly and randomly selecting citizens to run government. It is called sortition and is not as loony as it may at first sound.
Basically, sortition is the way democracy was run over 3,000 years ago when the Athenians invented it (It wasn’t an idea peculiar to democracies. In the Bible’s Old Testament, various offices and functions in the temple were also determined by casting lots). The ancient Greeks saw elections as an aristocratic device, one designed to limit rather than enable democracy. In Politics, Aristotle states: “it is thought to be democratic for the offices [of constitutional government] to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic”. According to a paper by Bret Hennig of the Sortition Foundation, “it was well understood thousands of years ago that elections are aristocratic devices; ‘elite’ and ‘elect’, after all, share the same etymological root.”
But if our representatives should be people who are like us, then elections are a really bad way to go about choosing them. “It is impossible by elections to choose normal people,” Yoram Gat, an Israeli software engineer told The Daily Beast.
At the heart of sortition is a deep question regarding representation, which is the engine of representative democracy. Since it would be impossible to find a table big enough to sit 20 million adult Kenyans, and also because many of us have a life, it makes sense to select representatives to articulate our positions in forums like Parliament.
But if our representatives should be people who are like us, then elections are a really bad way to go about choosing them. “It is impossible by elections to choose normal people,” Yoram Gat, an Israeli software engineer told The Daily Beast. “Normal people are kind of anonymous.” Professional politicians, on the other hand, are anything but anonymous or normal. Just look at the characters in the Kenyan Parliament.
In fact, across the world, political representatives are nothing like the people they are meant to represent. They tend to be richer and better educated. Parliaments almost never reflect the ethnic, gender and other characteristics of the societies that elected them. Further, elections tend to reinforce and reproduce social hierarchies -and generate ruling classes. They are today mainly contestations between and about elites. And since, even when well-run, they are easily gamed by the rich and influential, they give rise to hereditary political dynasties. Thus elections can both legitimize and facilitate the concentration of political power within and among a small group of families across several generations.
Sortition presents few such problems. Random sampling will, on average, produce parliaments that are pretty accurate reflections of society. It is why, in countries like the US where they have a jury system, jury members are essentially picked by lot to represent the judgement of society. Further, chance being inherently incorruptible, it matters not how much money is spent on campaigns. In fact, there would be no point in campaigning except to influence, not who is picked, but the issues they would prioritize in their tenure.
It is, of course, no panacea to political problems (such as ensuring, for example, that smaller groupings within society do not get ignored) but sorting has the added advantage of getting rid of career politicians -which, I’m sure, few would mourn. It would also eliminate dynastic politics of the sort we in Kenya have been historically treated to.
However, for the foreseeable future at least, elections -problematic as they may be- will remain a crucial component of democracy. They will continue to offer citizens symbolic occasions to renew and legitimize their governance system, to hold public officials to account, to debate differing visions of the future and review options for the deployment of their collective resources. However, a major problem is that in much of the world -and Kenya is a prime example of this- elections have become the only opportunity for citizens to do any of this.
Every five years, we are harangued into registering for the vote and into casting our ballots on voting day. Many commentators go so far as to declare your vote to be your voice and that a failure to vote is an abdication of the right to complain about government policy. In fact, President Kenyatta was fond of telling opposition supporters to stop complaining about his government and to wait for elections where they could do something about it. “You had your chance to lead. Now it’s our turn,” his deputy, William Ruto, said in response to sustained criticism from opposition leader, Raila Odinga. “Let us do our jobs. Help us, but give us room to do what we were elected to do. In a few years there’ll be another election.” In this formulation, there is the idea that in order to “do what it was elected to do” the government must be spared criticism.
Voting is just one of the many mechanisms democracy should afford the people to partake in governance. In fact, it is not the casting of a ballot once every five years that is the crucial characteristic of democracy; many authoritarian systems feature elections.
It is all hogwash. Voting is just one of the many mechanisms democracy should afford the people to partake in governance. In fact, it is not the casting of a ballot once every five years that is the crucial characteristic of democracy; many authoritarian systems feature elections. Rather, it is popular participation in everyday governance -in enforcing accountability and influencing the decisions government makes in between elections- that marks a system out as a democracy.
Elections only gain life and death importance when all other paths to accountability and participation are blocked. And given the way their rules have been fixed, electoral contests have become more about legitimizing elite ambitions rather than solving the people’s problems. Campaign manifestos illustrate this, focused as they are on highfalutin visions rather than fixing mundane, everyday problems.
This sets us up for a horrible cycle. Because there is no accountability and minimal participation of the voting public in governance after the election, politicians will promise anything knowing they do not need to deliver it. Voters, also knowing this, will prioritize what they can get during campaigns since there is no way of guaranteeing that you will get anything after. Thus voter bribery and improbable manifesto promises.
It also incentivizes corruption. For the candidates, there are incentives to spend huge amounts of money getting elected because it opens the gates to a world of looting and self-enrichment through corrupt contracting. And the more one can steal, the more largess one has to bribe the public at the next election, and so on.
Further, regardless of the nature of the system, there is little recognition of the fact that not voting remains a legitimate choice. One may either not wish to legitimize the outcome of an obviously flawed process or may prefer to participate in other ways. Just as voting should not be construed as the end of democratic participation, not voting should not be seen as surrendering all rights to other forms of democratic participation including complaining about the way leaders elected by others govern.
Instead of a ballot box fetish, our focus should be on participation after the vote. We should examine the many ways our system makes it difficult for ordinary people to participate in lawmaking or express their opinions and easy for the government to ignore them when they do. We should be concerned when peaceful protesters are beaten down, or online activism is disparaged and when MPs, under the pretense of giving effect to the constitutional right of recall, pass a law that makes it well-nigh impossible for their constituents to recall them.
In what is perhaps the most memorable phrase in his famous address at Gettysburg in the aftermath of the US Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. A democratic government is not about replacing the people with rulers. But rather about enabling citizens to participate in their own governance and that means it is always accountable to them.
A democratic government is not about replacing the people with rulers. But rather about enabling citizens to participate in their own governance and that means it is always accountable to them.
Which raises another set of fundamental questions that we need to grapple with. Are the people who are elected representatives or delegates? Are they there to faithfully reflect the wishes of their constituents or are they essentially given the authority to implement their own particular views?
During election campaigns, competing candidates and parties try to sell their solutions to the problems they identify. Those who are then elected can thereafter claim a mandate to implement those solutions. However, it goes beyond that. They will obviously, in their tenures, face issues and challenges that were not in their manifestos. How should they address them?
This creates a dilemma. Given that most citizens have neither the resources nor the inclination to delve into the intricacies of policy making, it is not at all clear whether it would be altogether effective or desirable to subject every decision to a referendum or opinion poll. So whoever is elected must have some latitude to make decisions while still being ultimately accountable for them. But on what basis would a presumably uninformed electorate hold elected officials to account?
Resolving this dilemma is critical to ensuring electoral choices do not simply become forums for inaugurating unaccountable governments. There is simply no escape from the burden of citizenship. The expectation of good government must be accompanied with a determination to participate, to understand and try and influence policy decisions.
If this becomes the case in Kenya, then elections need not make us sick.
Black Skins White Masks Revisited: Why I Am No Longer Talking to Nigerians About Race
If Nigerians want to be the true Giants of Africa and, indeed, the world, they must walk it with the empathy and humility befitting of a true politics of black and pan-Africanist solidarity.
I had been a lazy author. I was so absorbed in my excitement for my first visit to Nigeria, that I didn’t bother to look through Aké Arts and Book Festival’s draft program in time to communicate any adjustments I had before it had to be finalized. When I did finally look through the program days before the 2016 edition I discovered a curiously titled panel: “The Irony of Black Lives Matter in Africa.” I was concerned for two reasons. First, I felt there was no “irony.” Second, there was only representation from West Africa: moderator, Nigerian Patrick Okigbo, Nigerian novelist Helon Habila and Ghanaian-Kenyan Kinna Likimani. As soon I saw this I pestered Lola Shoneyin, the festival founder and organizer, to add me onto the panel. I was sure that the experience of living between two African countries that suffered white minority, settler-rule late into the 20th century—by virtue of my having been born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa—would lead me to have a different response to the two Nigerians and Ghanaian-Kenyan on the panel.
Months earlier, my first visit to Uganda for the 2016 Writivism Literary Festival had given me my first real encounter with the “experience gap” between black people on the continent. During the day Uganda National Museum, Writivism’s venue, is a hive of schoolchildren. I was struck by the appearance of a particular group of girls from Gayaza High School. They had the most beautiful school uniform I have ever seen: an assortment of red, yellow, green, orange, pink, purple and blue short sleeve dresses that sung against the girls’ dark skin. More than that, their heads crowned in a variety of beautiful natural shapes and styles—short, medium sized, buns, round, square. A product of the South African “Rainbow Nation’s” schools that insisted on unflattering uniforms (including my high school’s kilt-inspired skirt) and hair very intimate with sodium hydroxide, I found myself staring, and, overcome with emotion. When it came time to introduce myself during the Festival’s schools outreach, I tried to express how happy I was to see the girls: You look so beautiful. Can I take a picture to take home? The other African writers and the girls themselves didn’t get it. That every girl had natural hair was nothing to talk or write home about, let alone take pictures. What else would I have them do with their hair?
They couldn’t understand why I was making such a fuss, because that to them, was the default. With some help from Nigerian-Barbadian-South African writer Yewande Omotoso, I tried to explain why it would be noteworthy that they had hair the way they did. I was unsuccessful. Not for a lack of words, but a lack of context.
All of these different attacks on black bodies—whether on African soil or outside of it—is not unrelated to white racial capitalism and coloniality which is sophisticated enough not to need the presence of white bodies to function. This is after all why, for example, African countries remain one of the world’s largest markets for skin lightening creams.
If I had visited the Gayaza Girls just a week later, I would have given them the example of their South African age mates at Pretoria Girls’ High School who, on the very day that I returned from Uganda, were protesting against bans on afros and other racist practices at their historically white school. This incident would have helped me explain how the absence of visible racialized markers—namely white teachers and white classmates with hair “that falls” and is the acceptable standard of feminine “neatness” in school codes of conduct—meant that the Gayaza Girls were spared the same kind of explicitly racial pathological relationship to self and body. The girls were avid readers, and so, if I had had better presence of mind I might have given them a black girlhood reading list: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey!, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut or even their own country woman, Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish. Without these examples, the Gayaza Girls and I fumbled our way to some of sort of understanding about this hair issue. The girls thought it a strange experience, but as readers who had developed enough empathy and curiosity to learn of the experiences of far off lands, they smiled and nodded as I shared anecdotes from my years as a black girl aspiring to and failing the standards of “hair that falls.” I was at first a little frustrated that I had to explain, but I quickly reminded myself that this was how it should be. This was the beauty of a childhood in which your imagination is fully formed before encountering the daily delusion that is whiteness.
I had something of this regional “experience gap” in mind when I gate crashed the Aké panel, which began as I expected: How can we as Africans be concerned about Black Lives Matter in the United States when we were not looking after our own in our countries? What are African Americans saying about the Chibok girls? While some of these rhetorical questions contained valid concerns, they were undermined by the generally dismissive and flippant tone towards the subject of race and blackness that I’ve come to expect from many Africans who did not grow up in “former” settler colonies. Fortunately, Kinna Likamini, who had also lived in Zimbabwe and the United States, was able to make the global and historical links of black people within the context of global white supremacy.
All of us are suffering coloniality, it’s just that the significant presence of white bodies in South Africa and the United States make it easier to visualize
I complemented her by offering examples of the specific experiences of “former” settler colonial South Africa where, under black governments protecting white property interests, black lives have clearly been shown not to matter. The first was the example of Marikana massacre, where 37 black mine workers demanding decent wages were killed after orders from then-Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a shareholder board member of the company, for the police to take “concomitant action.” The second was closer to home. It was my experience as a student in the “Fallist” movement that effectively debunked the myth of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation ever having existed. It began when shit literally hit the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) statue of Cecil John Rhodes’ and students demanded its removal, part of a call to decolonize Eurocentric symbolism, curricula and staff demographics of historically white university campuses such as UCT and Wits University, where I was studying at the time. It then took on a more “bread and butter” focus with the #FeesMustFall protests driven by black students’ demand for a “free, quality decolonized” education. I related how the movement often used the bodies of white students as human shields when encountering police because we knew that they would not let a bullet pierce white skin. And more importantly, we knew and understood that Black bodies, or indeed life do not matter.
The sophisticatedness of white supremacy means that even with the visuality and presence of whiteness in one location and its invisibility and absence in another, both spaces continue to suffer similar kinds of psychic, material and discursive impact.
Together, Kinna and I argued that the indifference to the missing Chibok girls in Nigeria, the country with the largest black population on the planet, is as much linked to the unpunished police shootings of unarmed black people in America as it is linked to the murder of black mine workers demanding better wages in South Africa as it is to extra-judicial killings in Kenya. All of these different attacks on black bodies—whether on African soil or outside of it—is not unrelated to white racial capitalism and coloniality which is sophisticated enough not to need the presence of white bodies to function. This is after all why, for example, African countries remain one of the world’s largest markets for skin lightening creams. It is why Africans still prize white intellectual labor and cultural output as supreme (whether we admit it or not). It is why a fluency in the colonizing languages of English, French, German, Portuguese, instead of our own indigenous languages, remains the true marker of not only of educatedness but sophistication and worldliness across the continent. It is why in times of emergency our governments will often choose to address foreign press before they address us, their people. It is why a black person in position of authority or wealth might be called “oyinbo,” “muzungu,” “umlungu,” “murungu” or “ obroni” depending on where you are on the continent. All of us are suffering coloniality, it’s just that the significant presence of white bodies in South Africa and the United States make it easier to visualize. The sophisticatedness of white supremacy means that even with the visuality and presence of whiteness in one location and its invisibility and absence in another, both spaces continue to suffer similar kinds of psychic, material and discursive impact.
As we spoke, it wasn’t lost on me that this debate over the “irony” of having to state that “black lives matter” in Africa was taking place in Abẹ́òkuta, or Aké, the storied hometown of Wole Soyinka who had been so unimpressed and impatient with the Negritude movement spearheaded by the Francophone writers of African descent that he famously dismissed them at the 1962 African Writers Conference held at Makerere University, quipping: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” At a conference in Berlin two years later, Soyinka elaborated this: “a tiger does not stand in the forest and say: ‘I am a tiger.’ When you pass where the tiger has walked before, you see the skeleton of the duiker, you know that some tigritude has been emanated there.”
It’s not that Soyinka was the only one to critique the Negritude movement. It was just that he was the loudest, and perhaps the most flippant, in his response. For years I puzzled over what it was that might have made Soyinka so dismissive of his Negritude counterparts. After all, the tiger can only be free to pounce on the poor duiker if his environment is free. Just what kind of environment might have induced Soyinka to pounce on his fellow Africans in the way that he did? The view of Aké from its highest point, Olúmọ Rock, provided me with part of the answer.
After a brisk hike up the Olúmọ Rock stairway, a careful negotiation around the Ifá divination shrines (and their devotees), I turned to an unwitting Nigerian writer: “My brother, this, you call a mountain? Come and visit Zimbabwe, the Great House of Stone. You will see boulders and granite mountains so large they make the villages below them look like toy houses. You will see Olúmọ Rocks in everybody’s backyard and then you will never waste visitors’ time again with this.” My Nigerian brother could only offer an apologetic laugh. This time the “giants of Africa” did carry last. Standing out of earshot, I allowed myself to admit that there was something that did impress me at Olúmọ Rock: the view of Abẹ́òkuta, the “refuge among rocks,” the nearly two centuries old African town unmarked by the generational trauma of apartheid era bulldozers and trucks that segregated people into “European” towns and farms and “non-European” “townships” and “homelands” and instead etched with a history that preceded colonialism and succeeded it through its very own idiom, that made the sprawling, undulating terrain of Soyinka’s childhood appear to me as luminous and magical as it appears in his 1981 memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood.
In his introduction to In My Father’s House, Ghanaian-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah uses Soyinka’s Aké childhood to explain why it is that what race meant to the “New Africans”—the generation of African intellectuals of the 1960s educated in the West such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere—was different to what race meant to “educated blacks in the New World” such as African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Black British people. Appiah argues that, unlike their counterparts who grew up facing the crudest forms of racial and colonial discrimination in the West and the Francophone subcontinent, the likes of Soyinka were “children who were extracted from the traditional culture of their parents and grandparents and thrust into the colonial school [but] nevertheless fully enmeshed in a primary experience of their own traditions” in cultures where black people were both in the majority and their cultural lives continued to be largely controlled by indigenous moral conceptions.
Unlike Soyinka, whose homeland had known a total of 60 years of indirect rule beginning in 1900, his South African contemporary Es’kia Mphahlele, whose country had suffered settler rule since 1652, could relate to the “double consciousness” that black people in the West, Africa’s settler colonies and the Francophone subcontinent know only too well. And so, Mphahlele’s apartheid upbringing led him to criticize the Negritude movement for reasons both more sophisticated and different to Soyinka. Mphahlele’ criticized the “evolue” class of Francophone writers for their “black romanticism” and pointed to Senegalese poet-president Leopold Senghor as a “classic representation” of the movement’s “unholy alliance” with Africa’s emergent national bourgeoisie. In other words, Mphahlele, like many other black South Africans felt that negritude was not radical enough in its challenge to colonial logic.
South Africa’s late poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, who had been exiled to the United States in the early 60s and worked closely with members of the Black Arts movement, persistently argued against Negritude on the grounds that it was a purely cultural or aesthetic approach to black self-determination, that in itself was too dependent on white aesthetics, and so offered a vision of black liberation limited by its concern with justifying itself to a white audience. Disappointed by the First World Festival of Negro Arts hosted by Senghor in Dakar, Kgositsile wrote in his 1968 essay, “I Have Had Enough,” that Negritude is a type of “an academic masturbation or deviation, a kind of mannerism—fornicating with the white eye and then emerging on some stage with Western arguments for the validity and glory of a black Virginity.”
Kgositsile’s critique of negritude’s dependence on white aesthetics and approval was informed by his involvement in the Black Consciousness movement, South Africa’s answer to Black Power and Negritude formed by political leaders such as Bantu Steve Biko, cultural figures such as poets Mongane Wally Serote and Kgositsile and jazz saxophonist Winston Monwabisi “Mankunku” Ngozi. Through it, they defined Blackness beyond simply being oppressed as a “non-white” but as a positive state of mind. For the likes of Mphahlele who grew to adulthood in apartheid South Africa where their existence was officially defined in the negative as “non-European” and “non-white,” there was no irony in positively declaring their “capital-B” Blackness or to demand that the curriculum be decolonized. They were dehumanized as “non-whites” on African soil, and so it was necessary to proclaim their Blackness in order to reclaim their humanity, a feat that was both incontrovertible and incomprehensible to the likes of Soyinka. Mphahlele himself would eventually become the champion of what he called “African humanism,” a philosophy that attempts to undo the kind of psychic damage wrought by apartheid and so poignantly illustrated in his classic 1959 childhood autobiography Down Second Avenue.
Even with the creep of British indirect rule, Soyinka’s Aké was not Mphahlele’s Marabastad. If Soyinka’s Aké is enlivened by the strong wafts of the market women’s deep fried akara that “jostled for attention with the tang of roasting coconut slices within farina cakes which we called kasada; with the hard-fried lean meat of tinko; the ‘high,’ rotted-cheese smell of ogiri; roasting corn, fresh vegetables or gbegiri” and his mother’s akara, ogi, moin-moin and agidi, apartheid impoverishes little “Es’kia’s Second Avenue kitchen table so much that it rarely offered more than coffee and bread (with butter when there were visitors) for breakfast and porridge served with meat (or fried tomatoes when there was no money) and on, a Sunday, vegetables too, for supper. Where four year old Wo̩lé could lose himself in pursuit of a police band across the horizon of Aké’s parsonage only to be returned home on the crossbar of a Hausa policeman’s bicycle, Es’kia’s” movements are boxed in by the baton and the open palms of the white and African policemen who patrol their township.
A lack of a direct experience of another’s pain is not the basis for dismissal, it is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and, more importantly, solidarity
As an adult, Mphahlele is compelled to leave South Africa for Nigeria in 1957, not only for himself, but for the sake of his two small children and soon to arrive third born. He despairs watching the way his four-year-old Motswiri clings to you tightly when he sees a constable walk up or down the road and says Ntate, is the policeman going to arrest me is he going to take you is he going to take Mamma? You hold the frightened kid close to you and think of Second Avenue the long long great divide. Another time Motswiri comes to you with imitation handcuffs crudely made of wire and shouts “Bring your hands here, where’s your pass? I’ll teach you not to be naughty again.” Now he wants a torch and a baton and a big broad belt and a badge, how agonizing!”
Once in Nigeria, the “new air of freedom” is initially bewildering to Mpahlele, but in time he and his wife Rebecca are relieved that their children are visibly happier and “will be able to learn something worthwhile, something that is fit for all mankind, not for slaves.” Mphahlele eventually ends his autobiography during his time teaching at CMS Grammar School, Nigeria’s oldest secondary school, where he observes that his Nigerian schoolboys are “worlds apart” from his South African boys. For Mphahlele, there is a “complacency” within CMS’s “placid” atmosphere, whereas he and his South African schoolboys “were both hungering for many things and getting little, which in turn sharpened the edge of our longings. I responded to every throb of pain and restlessness in them, and I think they responded to my yearnings.”
Empathy outside your mother’s house
In Mpahlele’s sentiments about the differences between his South African and Nigerian schoolchildren lies the question at the crux of this essay: If it is true that we of African descent have grown up in different households, that shape our experiences of the world differently, how do we respond to the pain and yearnings of our sisters? What happens when that pain that is unfamiliar to us because it is pain particular to their households but foreign to ours? If our sisters say there is a fire in their house, do we deny it because there is no fire in ours? Do we shout over their shouts for help because our house is not burning? What if we have never encountered a fire before? Do we criticize the way our sisters try to fan out the flames before we have learnt the nature of fire?
How can we have any meaningful pan-African, and indeed any other kind of, solidarity if we lack empathy for those whose experiences we do not share? Where would the world be if sharing a common experience was the first requirement for supporting another’s struggle?
This is exactly what Soyinka did when he pounced on the Negritude writers and proclaimed his own Tigritude. Nigerians who dismiss our understandings of race often use their lack of experience of racial discrimination as the reason for their positions. This is unconvincing. What I find missing in my interactions with many Nigerians who dismiss our experiences of race is this: a profound lack of empathy that takes the form of unwillingness to understand and share the pain of another, as well as a willful refusal to self-examine the tacit, but powerful presence of the racialized politics that already operates in their own society.
A lack of a direct experience of another’s pain is not the basis for dismissal, it is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and, more importantly, solidarity. How can we have any meaningful pan-African, and indeed any other kind of, solidarity if we lack empathy for those whose experiences we do not share? Where would the world be if sharing a common experience was the first requirement for supporting another’s struggle? The irony which seems to be lost on Nigerians who choose to dismiss the struggles of their black sisters is that their country has a long tradition of supporting the struggle for liberation in Southern Africa’s minority white settler regimes. Just as Nigeria was preparing itself for independence in October 1960, the 21 March Sharpeville Massacre of 59 black South Africans protesting pass laws led the Nigerian public to pressure what would become Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s government to condemn the apartheid regime. Two years later when Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela clandestinely traveled to Nigeria to get support for the armed struggle, he received it. The next year Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa declared, “We in Nigeria are prepared to do anything towards the liberation of all African countries.” Nigerians kept their word. By 1976, Nigerians paid from their pockets to support the liberation struggle through the monthly “Mandela Tax” on civil servant salaries paid into the Southern African Relief Fund (SARF). Young Nigerians, who had been moved by the plight of their South African age mates who had been killed in the 1976 Soweto Uprising formed anti-apartheid clubs such as the Youths United in Solidarity for Southern Africa (YUSSA) and the Nigerian African National Congress Friendship and Cultural Association (ANCFCA), voluntarily contributed to the SARF too. For twenty years Nigeria chaired the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid until South Africa finally achieved its democracy in 1994. By then, Nigeria had contributed an estimated US $61 billion towards the anti-apartheid effort.
When we talk of solidarity politics we must ask ourselves: What happens when we find ourselves as visitors to the houses of our brothers and sisters? What if we find ourselves permanent adoptees in their homes? How do we behave in our adoptive homes? How then do we respond to the fire in our sisters’ homes? When we do criticize our sisters do we do so out of love or out of contempt? A deep sense of empathy or superior dismissiveness?
The answer is critical.
Of late I think much about these questions, questions of racial and political solidarity, because I’ve recently moved to America and often have to remind myself that this is not my mother’s house. There are things I do not quite understand and must learn about this country. This is despite the fact that it’s a country I’ve always felt quite familiar and comfortable with as I shared in the long-held kinship and solidarity ties between black South Africans and African Americans. From Charlotte Maxeke and WEB Du Bois; Pixley ka Isaka Seme and Alain Locke; Es’kia Mphahlele and Langston Hughes; Miriam Makeba and Sarah Vaughan; Hugh Masekela and Miles Davis; Lewis Nkosi and James Baldwin to Keorapetse Kgositsile and Gwendolyn Brooks; Bessie Head and Toni Morrison; and Ellen Kuzwayo and Audre Lorde, black South Africans and African Americans have always had a way of understanding each other and helping each other through it despite coming up in different homes. When I was a teen developing my political consciousness, Biko’s I Write What I Like I read alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Matlwa’s Coconut alongside Angelous’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions with Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Unlike many Africans Coming to America, I have been black for as long as I can remember. I was black long before I came here. I did not need America to know that I am black. For this reason I often feel I relate far more easily to African-Americans than I do to my African sisters. Indeed, I’ve long stopped reading a certain type of African immigrant essay. It usually begins with, or includes the assertion that, “the first time I knew I was black was when I arrived in [insert Western country]”. It’s a favorite essay topic for liberal publications interviewing non-American black people. This essay “genre” would be useful if it were an entry point into a deconstruction of the fallacy of race as biological fact, but all too often all this simply ends in an exposition of what will become life-long indignation that the author could possibly be degraded to the status of black and rarely leads them to develop a broader politics of racial solidarity.
What is perhaps most frustrating about these Africans writing of their sudden awakening to the fact of their blackness is that they rarely fail to reflect on the crucial fact that their racialization as black people did not occur in the moment of (varying degrees of) voluntary migration to the West in the last few decades but centuries ago when the first Africans were forcibly taken to the New World as enslaved people. If we were, for example, to return to Soyinka’s Aké and look more closely at the landscape, we would be confronted with the fact that, while it may be unmarked by the tracks of segregating bulldozers, the terrain does bear scars of the many settlements and displacements wrought by the transatlantic slave trade’s destructive path. A closer examination of history would reveal that Ẹ̀gbá peoples founded Abẹ́òkuta amongst the protective rocky outcrops in the early 19th century as they sought a place of refuge from warring enemies, including the slave raiding kingdom of Dahomey who unsuccessfully invaded them in the mid 1800s.
It is also true that that very same landscape bears the marks of many other complex settlements and displacements, conquests and defeats which over time has defined how Nigerians might imagine themselves. Long before the British, Nigeria suffered its first wave of colonialism by Arabs who wiped out cultures and instituted the Arabic way of life chiefly in Northern Nigeria. Within the arbitrary border drawn up by the British, the Nigeria of today contains multitudes. Be it in total number – more than180 million people. Or sheer ethnic diversity – more than 250 ethnic groups. The largely middle class Nigerian writers, students and artists I have read and spoken with over the years about the race issue do not represent the full and highly complex picture of larger Nigerian identit(ies) and histories. Indeed, for many, Nigerian identity in and of itself is still up for debate. For many Nigerians, their first consciousness might be as Yorùbá, Igbo, Hausa or any of the other ethnic groups. Aspects such as religion, class and gender further shape the contours of this consciousness. In the end, the tensions between the many Nigerian national consciousnesses are the reason behind conflicts most tragically exemplified in the Biafran War. In a highly unequal society, class wars between the ruling, middle and working classes would also shape much of the Nigerian identity writers bring to bear when they Come to [insert Western country]. How an undocumented working class Nigerian will approach American race relations will likely be different to how a multiple passported middle class Nigerian will do. As a friend told me of his own experience as a working class Nigerian poet in America, those working class Nigerians, particularly with no papers, long accustomed to the experience of operating at the margins of society even in their home countries, would not only likely find it easier than their middle class counterparts to grapple with the kind of marginalization blackness confers in the West but, find it easier to empathize with and stand in solidarity with the racial struggles of their hosts. (We get something of the impact of class difference in recent African immigrant fiction, where for example, the Princeton-going Ifemelu of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and the Ivy League family of Taiye Selasie’s Ghana Must Go (who would very easily fit Selaisie’s Afropolitan tag) take on American racial politics in ways very different to the asylum seeking limousine driving Jende Jonga of Mbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers and Darling, the undocumented preteen of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.)
This complexity of identity is true of many other African countries also suffering the consequences of arbitrary colonial borders, nonetheless, it’s still troubling that the African writers making claims about blackness as only “discoverable” in the West are speaking as though the racialized understanding can only come as a result of experience. More than ever, before we can only no longer say we are unaffected by racial consideration no matter where we may be located because its shapes and contours are beamed to us daily through our screens (and, long before that, if we cared to really read each other, that is, with a deep sense of empathy, we would know the pain of our sisters’ homes intimately). It seems a disingenuous claim. It’s one thing to say they may not have experienced it directly but to say they are not aware of racial subjectivity and subjection is willful ignorance and a lack of emotional and political imagination. These are writers after all: does that mean that everything they write about they have experienced or have familiarity with it? The question is what is the political purchase or utility of making such a declaration? Why are so many of these writers seemingly so apolitical around race politics and deliberately refuse to understand these basic ethics of solidarity and instead bask in the glory of individuated reward of model minority?
For all my familiarity and ease with American racial politics, I constantly have to remind myself that this is not my mother’s house. What I mean by that is that I am a newly arrived “cousin-sister” to the house built by my African American sisters and currently occupied by white Americans. For all the similarities black South Africans and African Americans share, there are important differences between a white-dominated white majority country and a white-dominated black majority country, and so, perhaps for some time, I should keep quiet and observe how and why things are done as they are in the house before I begin to pounce with my declarations on how best to do things.
Long before I moved to America, my years as a Zimbabwean born African living in South Africa since I was three years old taught me something of the political ethics involved in making a home of my sisters’ house. (To be clear, I claim both South Africa and Zimbabwe as my homes). Among them is to understand that the cardinal rule for white nations is that everybody always loves somebody else’s n*gger. It is why the French will welcome African Americans in France, while shunning Francophone Africans and Arabs. It is why white Americans will welcome (documented) Africans while shunning African Americans. It is why white Australians will welcome Africans while shunning Aboriginal Australians. In response to this, the foundational rule is that wherever you find yourself in the world, in whosever house you find yourself, it is your duty to align yourself with the struggle of the oppressed in that country and actively resist being used to undermine that struggle. Abiding by this duty is made possible by having the humility to understand that if it weren’t for the very struggle you might feel inclined to dismiss (because you have yet to understand it), you would not be able to make a successful life in your adoptive country in the first place. Likewise, it is your duty to actively seek an understanding of the historical context of your sisters’ historical and current struggle, so that you aren’t liable to the popular ahistorical and decontextualized myths about their conditions you will encounter outside of your mother’s house.
During my brief stint in corporate South Africa, I once had a lunch with my (non-black) boss who praised me as a model black as he bemoaned the (black) South Africans workplace performance by throwing around statements that are not uncommonly used by the Zimbabwean community in South Africa: “[Black] South Africans are uneducated, they don’t like school.” Too often I’ve heard fellow Zimbabweans, who take pride in our supposed status as Africa’s most educated population, glibly agree with white South Africans that black South Africans “don’t like school” and are “uneducated.” When we do this, we dismiss history and we dismiss context. Despite my growing political consciousness, I hadn’t developed a politics of solidarity that could grapple with the anti-black roots of the South African xenophobia (as I’ve since done here and here) that myself and many foreign-born nationals experienced and so I didn’t use my knowledge of the country’s history to rebut my boss’s claims about black South Africans as I should have. I should’ve told him that while black Zimbabweans also suffered a colonial education system, it did not reach the degradations of the apartheid government’s Bantu Education system which not only tribalized education and destroyed the mission education system that had produced the earliest generation of nationalist leaders such as Mandela and Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, but was explicitly designed to teach black students to be, in the words of the grand architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd, “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. I should have told him about black South Africans who demonstrated that they “don’t like school” by, for example, getting banned from teaching Es’kia Mphahlele as did a result of his activism and losing their lives, as hundreds of Black Consciousness Movement inspired high school students did during the 1976 Soweto Uprisings against the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. If I had a sufficiently developed politics of black solidarity at that time I would have told my boss not to use my example as a second–generation university graduate, (curtsey of post-independence state sponsored loans and bursaries that made it possible for mission educated black Zimbabweans like my parents to have a tertiary education) to perpetuate falsehoods about black South Africans’ educational achievement.
Had I been more knowledgeable, I might have taken something from the example of the late Nigerian-American anthropologist John Ogbu who actively sought to disprove racist myths about the academic achievement gap between racial minorities in the United States, where Nigerians are the most educated population group in the country, often held up as a “model minority”. Ogbu’s seminal research demonstrated that cultural differences alone cannot account for differences in achievement, arguing that in the American context, one of the key reasons “voluntary minorities” such as Nigerian-Americans tend to outperform “involuntary” or “caste-like” minorities such as African Americans is because they lack the “historical baggage” that leads them to develop to an oppositional position to the dominant white American culture. This lack of “historical baggage” puzzlingly leads to an ahistorical attitude among highly educated African immigrants who bemoan the “laziness” of their African-American counterparts and seem unable to acknowledge the important history of black struggles for the very education they enjoy. The ahistorical attitude sees them unable to acknowledge the contribution of historically black colleges and universities to African American advancement, the tireless campaigns that pushed through Brown vs Education Board, or the brave black children who faced jeers, spit and death threats from children and adults alike to desegregate the very institutions they now excel in.
Ogbu’s example is a useful counterpoint to the kind of anti-black falsehoods contained in the late African Sun Times publisher Chika Onyeani’s 2000 best-seller Capitalist Nigger: The Road to Success, a Spider-Web Doctrine. Onyeani’s book did the rounds in the South Africa of my teenagehood, a time when much of white South Africa began to kick up a fuss about the emerging black middle class and then President Thabo Mbeki’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policies – not because they were truly invested in a leftist or black radical critique of BEE’s neoliberal “trickle down economics” that have not addressed the fundamental questions of post-apartheid economic justice and redistribution, but because it was money in undeserving black hands. In this contested climate, Capitalist Nigger spurred much debate for its central argument that black people are an unproductive consumer race who must mimic Asians and adopt what he calls a “spider-web doctrine. Long before the debates about colonialism set off by Things Fall Apart (shockingly, our first set work by a black African writer) in our final year of high school, the national debate set off by Onyeani’s book found its way into a discussion between my white schoolmates and I. Without the tools to meaningfully engage the subject many of us teens eagerly parroted the book’s many pseudo self-reliance arguments such as this: “Blacks are economic slaves. We are owned lock stock and barrel by people of European-origin … I am tired of hearing Blacks always blaming others for their lack of progress in this world; I am tired of the whining and victim-mentality. I am tired of listening to the same complaint, day in day out – racism this, racism that. It’s getting us nowhere.”
Aside from the many inaccuracies Onyeani relied on to make his arguments, he leaned heavily on tired racial myths and stereotypes. As the infamous keynote speaker at a Black Management Forum (BMF) conference held in Johannesburg in October 2005, Onyeani drew on stereotypes of “lazy blacks” and “successful and entrepreneurial Indians” to infamously “critique” the state of black economic transformation eleven years after the end of apartheid saying: “The black middle class in South Africa must study what has happened in the 52 African states and also in India. You are not only middle class but also black intellectual class. The African renaissance demands that we purge ourselves of this parasite. You don’t have to be parasitic on the rest of society because you feel you are entitled. I don’t want us to mortgage the future of our children for a quick-fix economic solution.”
Ironically, the conference session was chaired by Xolela Mangcu, a South African scholar and biographer of Steve Biko and his politics of black self-determination. Mangcu, a long-time critic of Onyeani’s economic gospel, reminded Onyeani that India’s success in the world economy, particularly in the United States, was the result of generations of the wealthy class preserving and passing their wealth on. Importantly, in the US where people of Indian descent have the highest per capita income, this had nothing to do with India achieving independence in 1947. Within India itself, he went on to point out, there is a huge wealth divide that leaves the majority dirt poor. After Mangcu cited several academic sources to support his claims, Onyeani retorted: “Our intellectual class likes putting forward ideas which other people have written.”
We could all too easily dismiss Onyeani’s “original ideas” if there weren’t the likes of US-based Nigerian Booker Prize shortlistee Chigozie Obioma to take on the mantle of bootstrap race “analysis” in a more sophisticated manner. A few months before the 2016 Aké Festival Black Lives Matter panel, Obioma saw it fit to make his intervention into the debate as the wave of protests over the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in July 2016 engulfed the United States. The thesis of Obioma’s Foreign Policy op-ed titled “There Are No Successful Black Nations” is that “the core reason why black people have remained synonymous with the denigrating experience of racism. It is, I dare say, because of the worldwide indignity of the black race.” This argument is tolerable enough until Obioma pulls an Onyeani by insisting that “Black elites and activists across the world have adopted a culture of verbal tyranny in which they shut down any effort to reason or criticize us or black-majority nations by labelling such attempts as ‘racism’ or ‘hate speech’.” To bolster his argument, Obioma makes a familiar appeal to “[g]reat men like Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X” who understood that “the future of their race could not be advanced by endless protests or marches of “equality” or “justice.”
After dismissing the necessity of protest in struggle, Obioma goes on to hold up his country of birth Nigeria as an example of an African state on the brink of collapse because of a “culture of incompetence, endemic corruption, dignified ineptitude, and, chief among all, destructive selfishness and greed.” While these are undeniable contributing factors, Obioma’s argument remains shallow as he fails to nuance it by speaking, for example, to the continent’s historic underdevelopment (see, for example, Walter Rodney), nor the history of Western nations undermining democracy by intervening and propping up the very dictators he bemoans (see, for example, the CIA’s declassified documents). The net effect is an argument with an unfortunate lack of analysis of power, political economy and history echoing Onyeani’s, that black people should shut up about their oppressions and simply pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
This Soyinka-esque impulse to wade in and pounce on debates on the racial struggles of their sisters is as baffling as it is laughable. If it is that the impulse comes from the sense of superiority derived from having “never experienced racism”, you would think that our Ethiopian sisters, the only ones amongst us all to have never been colonized, would be pouncing all over race debates too? Surely they would be the loudest and most biting in their dismissal of the protests of their colonized sistren? Much in the same way that I do not expect white people to have well developed racial politics, I do not expect Nigerians I come across to have well developed racial politics. It is, quite frankly, guilty until proven innocent.
I borrow this essay’s title from British-Nigerian journalist Renni Eddo-Lodge’s best-selling Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race because I do believe that my Nigerian sisters have the ability to engage racial politics meaningfully. It’s just that a significant number choose not to. And when they choose not to engage meaningfully they usually choose to do it loudly. In response, I choose to engage “Africa’s Giants” at their level by borrowing from the famously combative style of the (Black Arts Movement) inspired Bolekaja intellectual tradition championed by the notorious troika of Chinweizcu Ibekwe, Ihechukwu Madubuike and Onwuchekwa Jemie. Since you will not be quiet my Nigerian brothers and sisters, Giants of Africa, bolekaja! Come down from your glass house and let’s fight! Come down and let’s fight about this thing we call race.
Redeeming Nigerian Tigritude
Just before I traveled to the 2016 Aké Festival, my first experience of Nigerian “Tigritude” took place within the Johannesburg consulate in which the low-grade international diplomacy war between South Africa and Nigeria plays out. It was there that I first encountered the decidedly abrasive and confrontational manner that is an adjustment for many of us in Southern Africa who tend to be more indirect and polite (although we can never match the “Pole, Pole” of Zanzibaris).
As I sat waiting for my turn for my visa to be processed, a white man turned up. He demanded to speak to the manager. With the arrogance typical of white South Africans in their dealings with black South African civil servants, the white man rolled out his best “Where is your manager routine?”. The Nigerian civil servant he was shouting at to look up from his desk and reply calmly, “I am the man”. The white man continued to shout. The Nigerian manager rose to his full height. He reprimanded the white man like he was his schoolboy. As a headmaster does, he finished his dress down of the white man by instructing him to sit down. He would serve him when he was ready. The white man did as he was told and thanked the manager for his time.
Having suffered many South African queues in my lifetime, I can almost certainly guarantee that if a black South African manager had decided to defend their dignity, they would do so by first declaring that they are a proud black person and on that basis would not allow themselves to be treated by a white man in this way. The ordeal might have lasted longer, drawn in more people and unlikely have ended with the white man expressing his gratitude for the black man’s graciousness. While it is true that the manager’s booming voice and imposing physical stature already gave him an unfair advantage, I can say almost certainly that it was his Nigerian “Tigritude” that allowed him to summarily dismiss the white man’s temper tantrum, not necessarily because he was a racist oyinbo (which he almost certainly was), but simply because he was a client with bad home training behaving badly in his house. Negritude? Tigritude!
I will never repeat these words anywhere else, but let it be said here: sometimes it is only Nigerian arrogance that can successfully stare down white racial arrogance. With a little more sobriety, I use this example to argue that there is indeed much to be gained for black people all over the world in having the most populous black nation be one in which black people walk tall and do not cower in the face of white supremacy. The trouble is when that confidence veers into the kind of loud and dismissive arrogance that it so often does.
Aside from the late Ogbu, there are many other Nigerian academics, writers, artists, and intellectuals such as Bibi Bakare Yusuf, Olu Oguibe, Ashley Akunna, Hakim Adi, Biodun Jeyifo and Moses Ochonu who have engaged with the subject of race with that rare combination of rigor and empathy, using their Nigerian experience as an opportunity to build and not to undermine broader black struggles. They act within Nigeria’s long tradition of supporting black struggle. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, individuals (including Soyinka himself), movements, organizations and the state played an important role in Southern Africa’s liberation struggles against white settler rule. Along with the Frontline States, Nigeria was actively involved in the negotiations, embargoes, boycotts, and economic sanctions that eventually brought an end to official apartheid. Shortly after the recent passing of Okwui Enwezor, a son of Anambra whose groundbreaking work in the art world demonstrated a fierce commitment to a radical ethics and politics of black and pan-Africanist solidarity, African American artist Hank Willis-Thomas hailed him as a “true titan”, saying, “I once asked how he was able to walk into so many spaces being the only one and accomplish so much radical change with such poise. He replied simply, ‘It’s because Nigerians are Fearless.’”
If Nigerians want to be the true Giants of Africa and, indeed, the world, they must walk it with the empathy and humility befitting of a true politics of black and pan-Africanist solidarity. If instead, you walk as giants blind to the pain and the struggles of your sisters, your presence only serves to destroy the work done by others instead of elevating us all to new heights.
Editors note: This essay was originally published in Africa as a country with the title, Why I’m no longer talking to Nigerians about race.
Making Black Lives Matter: Fanonian Notes About Today’s (Shifting) Front Lines
Fanon offers a much more pessimistic view of the opportunities for black thought and being than King does, arguing that the black person trying to assert his or her humanity is cast into “a zone of nonbeing” by a world that equates humanity with whiteness.
Emmett Till, say his name.
Amadou Diallo, say his name.
Trayvon Martin, say his name.
Aiyana Jones, say her name.
Sandra Bland, say her name.
This a small selection of lyrics from “Hell You Talmbout”, a song recorded by Janelle Monáe and Wondaland in 2015 to protest the endemic racialised violence that African-Americans face everyday in encounters with law enforcement. It is a memorialisation of the human beings whose legally-sanctioned homicides have produced searing, horrifying story after story in the American news for decades. Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. Freddie Grey, another of the names in the lyrics, was fatally injured in the custody of Baltimore police in the year this song was released. This song is more than a monument to lives lost to racism and hatred; it is an anthem that is shaping and giving moral force to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite its clear call for diversity in mobilising people to fight for recognition of black people’s humanity and the right of African-Americans to live their lives in the context of respect and security that white middle class Americans take for granted, BLM is frequently the target of criticism that it is promoting an exclusionary “black nationalist” agenda.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) was founded in 2013 by three American women of colour – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – to rally popular resistance against this deadly state-sponsored violence and to build “a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise” (blacklivesmatter.com). Formed in the wake of the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin (stalked and shot by a neighbourhood vigilante who was subsequently acquitted) and further radicalised by the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 death of Mike Brown (shot by a police officer who faced no charges), BLM has asserted itself as a champion of what it terms “unapologetic blackness”, and of the need for gender-inclusive, queer-positive, intergenerational community activism on a global scale.
Despite its clear call for diversity in mobilising people to fight for recognition of black people’s humanity and the right of African-Americans to live their lives in the context of respect and security that white middle class Americans take for granted, BLM is frequently the target of criticism that it is promoting an exclusionary “black nationalist” agenda. Opponents, often uninformed and unwilling to engage with BLM’s own stated manifesto, claim that American society should instead dedicate itself to the view that “all lives matter”.
In attempting to stake out this ground, however, BLM’s opponents ignore the obvious point that a movement dedicated to ending state-sanctioned violence against a racially identifiable group is in fact working to make all lives matter. Retreating into false universalism serves only to deflect attention from the justice demands that are being made, demands that have been made by black Americans since the days of the slavery-abolition movement in the mid-19th century and which were thrown into global prominence in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. (This speech is now widely understood in the United States as the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s-1960s racial justice movement which, in the popular imagination, ended racism in America.) When one considers the many names said in the lyrics of “Hell You Talmbout,” and the news stories behind those lyrics, it becomes obvious that the American popular imagination is quite wrong on that count.
So, what accounts for this belief that racial equality has been achieved in a country in which one is still very much at risk – of physical violence, of psychological violence, of death – if one is moving through the world in a black skin? A sketch of an answer to this paradox of belief in a level playing field that somehow coexists with a pernicious significance of whiteness in ongoing power relations can be found in synthesis of two remarkable Caribbean theorists of race: Frantz Fanon (of Martinique) and Sylvia Wynter (of Jamaica).
Humanity as whiteness
In 1952, Fanon published the first of his major works on the phenomenology of blackness, Peau Noir, Masques Blancs, written while he was doing his residency in France as a doctor of psychiatry. This book was not published in English until 1967 (as Black Skin, White Masks) so it was not an analysis available to Dr. King when, in 1963, he was publicly dreaming that his children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.
Fanon offers a much more pessimistic view of the opportunities for black thought and being than King does, arguing that the black person trying to assert his or her humanity is cast into “a zone of nonbeing” by a world that equates humanity with whiteness. This is what he means when he writes that the black man’s destiny is a white destiny: the black person (entirely appropriately) wishes to assert himself or herself as human; the African-American wishes to assert himself or herself as American; and the obstacle encountered in each case is that humanity and Americanness have been coded implicitly as white. One can assert one’s humanity, or one’s citizenship – that is, one can fight the social and psychological alienation Fanon theorises throughout this book – but one cannot insulate oneself from encounters in which the other person looks no further than one’s skin.
This destabilisation, this denial of humanity, is what Fanon is referencing in Black Skin, White Masks when he describes an encounter with a (white) French child who cries out in fear to his mother because of “the Negro”. In that moment Fanon experiences a crumbling of his “corporeal schema” (his sense of inhabiting a human body) and its replacement with “a racial epidermal schema” (his realisation that he is being seen, not as inhabiting a human body, nor even as a human inhabiting a black body, but only as a black body). This experience of being human and not having one’s humanity recognised is the basis of the “massive psychoexistential complex” that Fanon hopes to destroy through ruthless analysis of its cultural construction, and that the Black Lives Matter movement hopes to destroy through their embrace of unapologetic blackness.
The struggle to break down the cultural architecture of humanity-as-whiteness is complicated by a phenomenon that Sylvia Wynter traces in an important essay interrogating American race relations in the mid-1990s: the ability of concepts (like who counts as “deviant”) to shift and adapt to contemporary realities while still targeting the same populations. Wynter begins her “open letter” to her fellow black academics with a quotation of Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that “systems of classification direct our thinking and order our behaviours”. Her overall purpose is to interrogate the role of academics and intellectuals in perpetuating a system of thought that casts black Americans – and black people worldwide – as what she terms “the Conceptual Other” of white (American) culture, a project that she introduces through discussion of the race-relations issues raised by the then-contemporary Rodney King riots.
“How,” she asks, “did they [the police officers who assaulted King, and jurors who subsequently acquitted the officers] come to conceive of what it means to be both human and North American in the kinds of terms (i.e. to be White, of Euroamerican culture and descent, middle class, college-educated and suburban) within whose logic, the jobless and usually school drop-out/push-out category of young Black males can be perceived, and therefore behaved towards, only as the Lack of the human, the Conceptual Other to being North American?”
Calling her fellow intellectuals to account for their/our role in constructing cultural concepts and norms, she further asks: “What have we had to do…with the putting in place of the classifying logic [in which] young Black males can be perceived as being justly shut out from what Helen Fein calls the ‘universe of moral obligation’ that bonds the interests of the Simi Valley jurors…to the interests of the White policemen …?” What it means to be in a “universe of moral obligation”, in Wynter’s explanation of Fein’s work, is to be a “circle of people with reciprocal obligations to protect each other”.
In a world that has changed its laws but not its wealth distribution or economic power structures, discrimination shifts from racial labels to socio-economic ones, but continues to pick out the same marginalised populations.
Black Americans have never been fully, non-provisionally included in that universe, Wynter charges, despite the changes in law and social policy inaugurated by the Civil Rights Movement – the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and various Affirmative Action programmes instituted in government hiring and college admissions. Conceptual and linguistic shifts have conspired to keep black people from being seen as unproblematically “inside” the moral-obligation universe. If confronted with the question of whether any given black life matters, most people would agree that of course that life matters. But, at the same time, these same people endorse language and policies that exclude “the criminal”, “the jobless” or “uneducated” and, globally, the populations of “The Third World”.
In a world that has changed its laws but not its wealth distribution or economic power structures, discrimination shifts from racial labels to socio-economic ones, but continues to pick out the same marginalised populations. “In the wake of the Civil Rights Movements, and of the Affirmative Action programmes which incorporated a now new Black middle class into the ‘American Dream,’ the jobless category has been made to bear the weight of the Deviant status that, before the Sixties, had been imposed on all Americans of African and Afro-mixed descent,” explains Wynter. She observes that “it costs $25,000 a year [in 1992 dollars] to keep a kid in prison; which is more than…college. However, for society at large to choose the latter option in place of the former it would mean that the ‘kids’ in question could no longer be ‘perceived’ in N.H.I. [no humans involved] terms.”
One could make similar points about the overall economic benefits (building a bigger pie) that could result from giving African nations greater access to genuinely fair trade agreements and genuinely equitable economic development. Indeed, Wynter notes the parallel between the deliberately marginalised African-American youth and the global populations that Frantz Fanon identified in his other major work on the phenomenology of blackness, The Wretched of the Earth, as les damnés .
Wynter’s overarching summary of her argument is worth quoting in full:
It is only on the basis of the classificatory logic of our present Humanities and Social Sciences, and its related mode of subjective understanding or “inner eyes” generated from the representation of the human as an evolutionarily selected organism, (and who can therefore be more or less human, even totally lacking in humanness as in the case of the N.H.I.), that we can be induced to see all those outside our present “sanctified universe of obligation,” whether as racial or as Jobless Other, as having been placed in their inferiorized status, not by our culture-specific institutional mechanisms but rather by the extra-human ordering of bio-evolutionary Natural Selection.
Her point here is that failure to see black Americans as Americans – indeed, as human beings – is not a failure at the level of cultural institutions (which could be reformed and made more just); it is a foundational epistemological commitment that shapes how we see humanity. It is the unjustifiable, and therefore unasserted, justification for the beliefs that privileged people perpetuate and marginalised people internalise: that those “at the top” (white people, wealthy people, citizens of developed countries) are there because they are better specimens of humanity. They are the evolutionarily selected, the winners. They have not earned their privilege any more than gold has earned its ascribed value, or diamonds. They simply are more valuable. I hope, in putting this point into words, to expose it for the nonsense it is. I hope also that articulating it in this way is making clear the connection of Wynter’s argument to Fanon’s existential analysis of blackness as always embattled in a world that is always white, and the connection to the ways that the Black Lives Matter movement is being framed as unapologetic blackness and being dismissed as exclusionary by “all lives matter” proponents.
Wynter indicts our entire epistemic archive (the stores of knowledge that organise our current epoch) for its “economic ethic,” its “hegemonic economic categories” that cannot see these damnés (be they black/jobless American youths or the Global Poor) as anything other than “throwaway lives” to be given no more consideration than the “discardable environment” precisely because none of them can be, or is being, monetised.
In this worldview that she argues we must reject, if a thing has no price-value, it has no value at all. All of our conventional wisdom is focused on how to bring about increasingly higher standards of living; to speak of anything else is to be foolish, to be naïve, to stop making sense…worse, to be a mouthpiece for Marxism or socialism. The only way out of this economic fetishisation at the core of our worldview is to rewrite our knowledge – to re-envision what counts as the true, the good, and the beautiful as concepts no longer underpinned by economic foundations.
This revisioning of our social world might start by taking seriously the Black Lives Matter commitment to “struggling together and to imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive”. For BLM, this commitment is a global one; their work is a struggle for a racially-just United States of America, and it is also a sustained outreach to people in other nations “as part of the global Black family”. While there are clearly many aspects of their work that are US-centric, there is also a very real sense in which, aspirationally, BLM’s manifesto mirrors the work that needs to be done on a global scale.
A first step towards this world in which all people have the resources to thrive is represented in initiatives like the global Sustainable Development Goals (articulated by the United Nations in 2015 and committed, like BLM, to a “leave no one behind” agenda) and the pan-African Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, which envisions a citizen-driven transformation of the entire continent. While neither initiative implicate the complete epistemic transformation that Wynter prescribes, they do trouble the economic fetishisation she critiques in our contemporary world by refocusing our attention on values that are not fully reducible to economic considerations. Both the global and the continent-specific agendas echo Wynter’s rejection of our current practices of throwing away people and throwing away the planet that we need to sustain all our lives, just as they amplify the moral core of Fanon’s decolonisation message: that no one is expendable, ever.
That the United States needs a “Black Lives Matter” movement (and a #MeToo movement, and an Occupy movement) is a depressing indictment of a society that has failed to make the systemic social justice reforms that Martin Luther King called for…
These are not new ideas; the project of building pan-African communities and coalitions has been argued for since the days of post-World War II decolonisation when the world witnessed the attempts of newly independent nations to articulate a policy of non-alignment with the global superpowers of the time, both of which have long since run out of inspiring rhetoric and are now retreating into exclusive focus on the only tools they have left: bullying and force. It is (long past) time to renew that conversation about how to move forward into a geo-political space that takes sustainability, development, and justice seriously.
That the United States needs a “Black Lives Matter” movement (and a #MeToo movement, and an Occupy movement) is a depressing indictment of a society that has failed to make the systemic social justice reforms that Martin Luther King called for, and that both Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter theorised.
But the human energy that is being poured into the BLM movement by the artists and academics who are promoting its goals, but most especially, each unnamed individual in each protesting crowd, people who are giving what would otherwise be their leisure time, their family time, speaks loudly and uncompromisingly of enduring recognition of the need for change. We can, and should, hope for a better world in which Fanon’s “new man” – still struggling to be born – might live a fully human life. We must also, as Fanon urged us, work together to bring that world into being. To borrow from the title of one of Kwame Nkrumah’s essays, the struggle continues.
How Green Energy and New Technologies Will Impact Kenya’s Power Sector
The biggest question facing the power sector is this: How will it lower costs, compete and improve overall performance for a population promised 100 per cent electricity access in a global business environment where customers can increasingly generate their own power more efficiently than the power company.
“The waste of scarce resources in Africa’s energy systems remains stark and disturbing. Current highly centralized energy systems often benefit the rich and bypass the poor and are underpowered, inefficient and unequal. Energy-sector bottlenecks and power shortages cost the region 2-4 per cent of GDP annually, undermining sustainable economic growth, jobs and investment. They also reinforce poverty, especially for women and people in rural areas. It is indefensible that Africa’s poorest people are paying among the world’s highest prices for energy.” ~ Excerpt from the Foreword by Kofi Annan in the AFRICA PROGRESS REPORT 2015
“… and all consumers know, when the producers name the tune, the consumer has to dance.” ~ Gil Scot Heron, B-Movie
The Kenya power sector is many things to many people. For some, it is a shining African example of a successful power sector while for others, it is a scandal-ridden den of thieves. For some, it is one of the world’s leaders in green energy and for others it is an unapologetic advocate of coal power. As with many countries, amidst the conflicting politically-driven narratives, it is often hard to separate truth from opinion. Tabled plans serve complicated and disguised agendas of both local and international interests.
Currently, Kenya has an installed capacity of about 2600 MW. This is about one-twentieth the size of South Africa’s grid and more than twice that of Uganda’s.
Despite the bad press, there is much in Kenya’s power sector to be upbeat about. Compared to others in the region, the sector has performed well. Kenya Power has a reputation as a credit-worthy off-taker. The sector is, to a large degree, privately owned, funded and operated. It is “open for business” and, eventually, it gets projects done. Much of the time (but not all) companies in Kenya’s power sector are profitable. By fortuitous accident of location and resource availability (geothermal, wind and hydro), the sector is mostly green. The sector has been able to innovate, complete projects and grow power generation with steady increases in supply and demand over 20 years. With donor support for the Last Mile Programme, it has managed a massive expansion, doubling its customer base in 10 years. Kenya Power, KenGen, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), parastatal agencies and independent power producers (IPPs) have talented staff who enjoy competitive salaries and benefits.
Currently, Kenya has an installed capacity of about 2600 MW. (Ministry of Energy online statistics do not include recent solar, wind and geothermal projects.) This is about one twentieth the size of South Africa’s grid and more than twice that of Uganda’s. Recent additions of wind (300 MW from Turkana) and solar (50 MW from Garissa) have ratcheted down fossil fuel-fired thermal generation and greatly increased capacity to meet peak demand, as shown in Table 1.
Whether the reputation is deserved or not, Kenya’s electricity sector is much-liked by African energy investors. With over 1100MW of power-producing wells, Kenya is in the global top ten of geothermal electricity producers. Turkana Wind is the single largest sub-Saharan wind power project on the continent. At 50MW, Garissa solar is the largest solar project in the East Africa region. Today, tabled investments in geothermal, wind and solar are under way that will double Kenya’s power output in 10 years and most of these are environmentally-friendly (the proposed Lamu coal plant notwithstanding). With 60 per cent of the population connected to the grid, Kenya has the highest electricity access in the region and a higher per capita electricity consumption than Nigeria.
Exceptionally expensive electricity
So, from the above, everything would seem to be satisfactory with the Kenya power sector. But not all is well. In a 2015 assessment, Power Africa lists major “bottlenecks”: inadequate early stage capital for project financing, land/right-of-way risks (i.e. for transmission projects) and IPP “procedural” and process issues. In addition, it points out that the inadequate transmission and distribution infrastructure prevents optimal deployment of the available power resource.
Kenyan industrialists put it more bluntly. For them, exceptionally expensive electricity is among the main causes of manufacturer and investor migration to neighbouring countries. Given the comparatively low-cost hydro and geothermal power in the system, they have long expected reduced power costs. And this is a something the government has long promised but been unable to deliver.
Although murky deals have much to do with the problem, two factors drive continued high consumer power prices. First, we can thank the unbundled power sector. In 1996, at the behest of the international community, Kenya unbundled its power sector. According to a logic pushed by the World Bank, separate companies would independently manage costs, raise finance and increase competition. They would build management efficiency and help to overcome corruption and debt accumulation. Separated entities would enable Kenya Power to place the burden of electricity costs firmly on the shoulders of consumers as there is no subsidy in the payment formulas used to calculate consumer bills.
The unbundling of the power sector and the incorporation of IPPs had a number of positive outcomes. But they did not put to rest the central problems facing the Kenya power sector, nor did they reduce energy costs.
Second, for high power prices, we can thank diesel-fueled thermal power generators. These generators, which are necessary to meet peak loads and supply power when drought reduces hydropower output, add disproportionate long-term costs to power supply. Though they usually supply less than 15 per cent of the overall supply capacity, their costs to consumers (via fuel cost charges) make up an outsized part of the monthly consumer bill.
Kenya Power: An ignoble history
The unbundling of the power sector and the incorporation of IPPs had a number of positive outcomes. But they did not put to rest the central problems facing the Kenya power sector, nor did they reduce energy costs. To understand the situation today, it helps to review the sector’s past and how the donor-sanctioned unbundling of power altered its course.
At independence, East Africa Power Company Limited (EAPCL), a Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed company, included generation systems in Nairobi, Mombasa and the Tanganyika Electricity Supply Company (that became Tanesco). In 1954, the Kenya Power Company had built transmission lines to connect Kenya to Uganda’s Owen Falls Dam. In 1964, EAPCL sold its stake in Tanesco and it was much later renamed Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC). Initially, most of its power generation was from the Tana River Development Company and hydropower accounted for 72 per cent of the country’s electricity.
The development of Kenya’s vast geothermal potential began in 1981 when the European Investment Bank kick-started the drilling of the Olkaria wells. After the first successful geothermal projects, many other financiers followed.
During the Daniel arap Moi era, high-level cartels used the energy sector investments to build political power and business empires and to fund political campaigns. Between 1983 and 1992, the power sector was plagued by scandals that had repercussions on the rest of the economy and which affected relationships with donor partners and investors. Multiple shady deals from the period, such as the Turkwell Gorge and the Ewaso Ngiro dam feasibility (it was never built), are still debated. Whatever the reality of these still-disputed deals, an outcome of the mismanagement was the withdrawal of donor support for the power sector. Following the Turkwell Gorge saga, a consultative donors’ group meeting (which included the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) imposed an embargo on Kenya’s energy sector, which stalled international power project investments for almost a decade.
The World Bank and the donor community re-engaged with Kenya in 1996 with a plan to restructure the energy sector. The programme, which was part of global World Bank liberalisation initiatives, would pressure state-owned electricity companies to “unbundle” production, distribution, transmission and regulation. This resulted in the privatisation of power production to KenGen and independent power producers. KPLC was responsible for distribution and transmission and for creating an Energy Regulatory Commission to oversee the sector. The international community anticipated that unbundling would improve the overall management of the sector, increase transparency, expand opportunities for international investment in power projects, and lower prices.
Unlike other regional power sectors (e.g. South Africa, Tanzania, and Ethiopia), Kenya eagerly went along with unbundling, perhaps because it saw business prospects in this restructuring. However, under the new rules, the same cartels responsible for tarnished projects in the previous decade contrived new opportunities for themselves. Focusing on thermal power, insiders profited hugely from the entrance of new IPPs into the unbundled sector.
Contracts for thermal generation companies are attractive; it is almost impossible for IPP players to lose money. First, simply for being there, IPPs receive a “capacity charge”, paid according to the size of the generator. Whether or not they are deployed, contracts stipulate that the IPP is paid for being on standby and ready to supply power. Secondly, all thermal IPPs are paid per kilowatt-hours supplied at a fixed rate that is well above that paid for hydro or geothermal power providers. Thirdly, IPPs receive a “fuel pass-through payment” to cover the costs of fuel purchased. (Unsurprisingly, most thermal IPP companies come from the same business ecosystems as petroleum companies.)
From the very start, the processes of awarding thermal IPP contracts were contentious. There were conflicts of interest in ownership, unusual tendering procedures and allegations of insider trading. During poor rainfall periods in 1999 and 2000, diesel plants made money and consumers suffered. In 2000, while KPLC and KenGen flirted with insolvency, the government had to take an emergency $72 million loan to pay for fuel for generator IPPs. A 2003 parliamentary investigation committee blamed KPLC for mismanaging water from dams and creating artificial power shortages to boost thermal power generator sales.
Starting in 2008, and with the support of donor partners, the government introduced standard feed-in tariffs for wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and biogas, which would attract renewable IPPs. However, the feed-in tariffs did not fast track wind or solar. Instead, between 2008 and 2016, petroleum-fueled IPP and KenGen generation rose from 22 per cent to 35 per cent of the overall generation capacity, while by 2016 wind (from Ngong) amounted to less than 1 per cent of the installed capacity.
If the objectives of unbundling of the sector was to open up opportunities, in the 15 years that followed, it was mainly IPP thermal generation players that benefited from these opportunities. As noted earlier, geothermal power sources also increased significantly during this period, but consumers mostly were impacted by the costs of the long-term agreements signed with thermal IPPs that continue to haunt the sector until today.
Under pressure from the private sector to reduce prices and improve sector performance, the Jubilee administration has made some progress. Several new geothermal plants have been added, Turkana wind and Garissa solar are in place, and there is a considerable pipeline of projects on the way. But the litany of power sector maladministration continues. Sector agencies have been accused of procurement abuses on goods that range from poles to transformers, prepaid meters and drilling rigs. Employees set up “tenderpreneur” companies to do inside deals. On what seems like a daily basis, journalists report on the corruption and leakages in the sector.
From the very start, the processes of awarding thermal IPP contracts were contentious. There were conflicts of interest in ownership, unusual tendering procedures and allegations of insider trading.
So, even though power purchase agreements are being signed, capacity is being added and poles are being strung, the sector’s leaders have not brought down prices. Kenya’s power is still three times as expensive as power in Ethiopia and sector governance remains opaque and inefficient. Consumers are being warned by the regulator that prices are likely to rise.
Centralised or decentralised power: That is the question
The Kenyan government’s plan to address expensive power is to increase supply and to renegotiate unwieldy Power purchase agreements (PPA). However, in response to high prices and continued supply problems, and, in a trend that may foreshadow the future, local industry is exploring alternatives that allow them to control their own power supplies.
If the grid doubles in size in five years, Kenya Power will have to buy this power and sell it to consumers. With recent solar, wind and geothermal additions, and with another 400 MW from Ethiopia, the Kenya grid will have a growing oversupply of power.
Jubilee’s Big 4 industrial agenda requires low-cost electricity for urbanisation, population growth and economic development. Its political platform promised major power supply additions from the start, and its Least Cost Power Development Plan calls for 3000 MW additions that will double the current grid size by 2024. This includes scores of planned KenGen and IPP projects in wind (Kipeto, Ngong Phase III, Chania, Prunus, Meru), solar (Kopere, Alten Malindi, Quaint, Gitaru and others), geothermal (over 1000MW) and coal (Lamu). But even if all of the above power projects can be completed more cost-effectively and with less political influence than in the past, it is not clear that increased supply will reduce power costs. In 2019, current peak demand is just above 1800MW, compared to a healthy production capacity of about 2500MW.
If the grid doubles in size in five years, Kenya Power will have to buy this power and sell it to consumers. With recent solar, wind and geothermal additions, and with another 400 MW from Ethiopia, the Kenya grid will have a growing oversupply of power. Globally, few economies anywhere have expanded fast enough to double power demand in less than a decade and Kenya’s economy today is not poised for double-digit growth. An oversupply of power will create more, not less, problems for Kenya Power and its consumers. This comes at a time when Uganda and Ethiopia also have oversupplies and are looking to sell their surplus power. Common sense says that if the economy took 60 years to grow demand for a 2600MW grid, it will not be able to absorb an additional 3000MW in less than a decade.
Meanwhile, unhappy with expensive and often unreliable power, big customers have begun to produce power on site for their own needs at financed prices that are more attractive than Kenya Power rates. On the order of 25MW of embedded power has been installed in Kenya in the past five years, mostly in the form or solar PV but also from biogas and geothermal sources. In 2019, an additional 20 MW is likely be added. Malls, flower farms, factories, tea estates and universities are taking up embedded solar systems because they are reliable, they help control costs, they meet growing consumer demand for green power and they increase productivity. As shown in Table 2, companies are finding that they can manage their energy costs in ways that support their bottom line – at prices that are lower than Kenya Power rates.
Although thus far the tally of embedded solar power projects is relatively small, the trend should be of concern to power sector leaders. This is because the top 6,000 power consumers (i.e. those consuming 15,000 kWh/mo) account for about 60 per cent of Kenya Power revenues. These players are watching the early adopters and meeting with the financiers and installers of embedded power systems. Trends for self-production of power will not go away.
With the rapidly decreasing costs of solar, wind, biogas and energy storage technologies, producing one’s own power is increasingly viable. Globally, scores of companies are developing technologies and raising finance that can make consumers energy independent and enable them to sell excess power to the grid. Indeed, embedded solar and biogas and, increasingly, battery storage, are being actively promoted for industries, commercial establishments and households in developed countries. National power production profile curves in California, Germany and Australia now show impressive inputs from wind and solar power. A large portion of these are from household and commercial systems. As batteries get cheaper, more customers will opt to manage their own energy supply. As technology improves and costs go down, decisions will increasingly be driven by company (and household) bottom lines.
A Green New Deal for Kenya?
Although Kenya’s new Energy Act allows for net metering and distributed generation (i.e. self- production of power and sales of excess to the grid), the government and Kenya Power have been less enthusiastic about promoting embedded power. As elaborated above, the government’s focus is on centralised generation projects. This is unfortunate because it is clear that, globally, a tipping point is near. Lower-cost renewables and storage are changing things quickly, enabling large companies and developments to fully manage their own power production and, moreover, to remove part of the financing burden from the state and IPPs.
The biggest question facing the power sector is this: How will it lower costs, compete and improve overall performance for a population promised 100 per cent electricity access in a global business environment where customers can increasingly generate their own power more efficiently than the power company? To survive, the power sector must anticipate changing technologies and business models or it is likely to suffer some of the same consequences that land line telephones did when they were overwhelmed by cellular technology.
Globally, whether East Africa likes it or not, the world is entering the sunset stages of the fossil fuel age and power sector business environments are unfolding very differently than they were just a few years ago. They are moving toward distributed power technologies that can improve grid stability, create jobs and add economic value. In order to fight climate change and clean up the environment, international leaders are looking to green technologies, electric cars and renewably-powered smart and decentralised grids. The good news is that this is no longer science fiction – it is reality.
Rather than fight the inevitable, Kenya – which already has a reputation for having a “green power sector” – should become a regional leader for decentralised clean energy and plan for it. Just as was done with cellular phone networks, power sector planners should rethink their strategies so as to embrace the new realities.
First, power sector planners should move away from IPP-driven exclusively large-scale project approaches that are top-down, opaque and, increasingly outdated. Though economies of scale and stable power requirements demand that there will always be large-scale power suppliers, there is also a need to recognise the developing niches for smaller decentralised power providers and the ways in which they can help improve the overall grid.
Second, planners should give consumers a larger stake in the sector and encourage them to finance and produce their own energy. Large consumers using decentralised solar, geothermal and storage should be incentivised to supply their own power and to sell their excess power to the grid. Since such large consumers make up the bulk of Kenya Power’s demand, their decisions will increasingly affect the prices and power generation choices of millions of smaller commercial and household consumers.
Thirdly, by opening up the sector, and setting targets for smaller-scale decentralised and embedded solar, wind, biogas, geothermal and storage, planners will create jobs for the financiers, developers, manufacturers and installers of these technologies. In developed economies, decentralised solar players create far more jobs than large-scale power projects, jobs that are high quality and available for local small and medium enterprise players. Given the right policy environment, the Kenyan private sector is well-equipped to move into this space and to develop new efficient business models.
Fourth, the power sector should focus on its core business: efficiently distributing and transmitting power. Many recognise that unless considerable improvements are made in the country’s distribution and transmission infrastructure, generation capacity will be added in vain. Kenya Power – and the central investments in its infrastructure – need to be targeted at poorly performing parts of the distribution and transmission system. By allowing decentralised producers to add needed capacity, the power sector can simultaneously refocus its investments on Transmission and distribution improvements and reduce the need for expensive upgrades to sites where energy is self-produced.
Finally, Kenya should seek to be the hub for international electrification connections between Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and SADC markets. By building up the transmission connections between these countries, it will increase local electricity supplies, lower prices and increase income opportunities from the wheeling of electricity between countries. Lower priced electricity, especially from Ethiopia, will force down prices and enable local industry, and eventually stimulate the inevitable transition to electric transport.
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