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Nyayo House: Unravelling the Architecture and Aesthetics of Torture

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“I’m conflicted. Sometimes I want them to just tear it down. But it’s also part of our history. If we don’t deal with the legacy of that past then we are likely to repeat the same mistakes”.

Wachira Waheire spends several of the first minutes of our interview sizing me up. As he shares this observation with me, he is guarded and measured, uncertain that he will collaborate with me until he establishes who I am and why I need to speak to him. It is Saturday morning in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and the museum coffee shop where we are meeting is buzzing. Only when I show him samples of my previous writing on my phone does he begin to relax and speak a little more freely. “You know this story is very traumatising,” he tells me. “Every time a journalist asks me to talk about it, I give a piece of myself away. I relive the experience again. It’s very hard.”

Waheire was bundled back into the vehicle and driven around for hours before he was dropped off in the bowels of a building he didn’t recognise. “I was promised a short questioning – I ended up in prison for four years. But had I not been so young and healthy I’m not sure I would even be here today,” he says, laughing mirthlessly.

This story is the 17 days Waheire spent in the tower looming over us during our interview, days in which he was beaten, tortured and interrogated before he was finally transferred to a maximum security prison, where he was held in solitary confinement for four years. In 1986, Waheire was 25 and two years out from university when Kenyan Special Branch officers showed up at his office and asked him to follow them. The officers calmly escorted him to the back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and took him to his home. There, they found a political poster featuring an ear of corn and an AK-47 that stated that food insecurity was the root of revolution. The officers argued that that was enough to charge him with sedition. Suddenly the mood shifted.

Waheire was bundled back into the vehicle and driven around for hours before he was dropped off in the bowels of a building he didn’t recognise. “I was promised a short questioning – I ended up in prison for four years. But had I not been so young and healthy I’m not sure I would even be here today,” he says, laughing mirthlessly.

The building where Waheire was held is Nyayo House, once the Nairobi provincial headquarters and administrative heart of the city. Commissioned in 1973 by the Ministry of Works, it was initially planned as the 14-storey “Nairobi House”. In 1979, a year after he assumed office following the death of his predecessor Jomo Kenyatta, President Daniel arap Moi, also known by the sobriquet Nyayo, renamed the project Nyayo House. In a 2003 interview, the then chief government architect, the late A. A. Ngotho, said that by the time they broke ground, the decision to use the building for Special Branch offices as well as other government ministries had been taken.

Nyayo House is loaded with symbols of the relationship between the two presidents. It was for several years the second tallest building after the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, a nod to the way Moi, who served as vice president under Kenyatta, always positioned himself as secondary to his predecessor. Indeed, the word “Nyayo” is Kiswahili for footsteps – a nickname that Moi gave himself and his political philosophy to indicate that he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Thus the building initially conceived as Nairobi House became Nyayo House on completion, and for almost 22 years, Nairobi’s big men symbolically presided over the capital city until Times Tower was completed in 1995.

Both Nyayo House and Nyati House were at the heart of the Moi regime’s torture network, and Kenyans who remember the 1986 to 1992 period still associate the two buildings with arbitrary arrests, detentions and disappearances. Growing up in Nairobi, we avoided walking past Nyati House, especially because of rumours that you could be arrested and held incommunicado for simply looking at the building in the wrong way.

The Moi regime was on shaky grounds from the beginning, but its most severe challenge was an attempted coup by the air force in 1982 that triggered a wave of punitive repression that arguably didn’t end until the Moi regime itself ended and reached its apogee in sites like Nyayo House. Between 1982 and 1985, after the building had been finished, the government architects who oversaw the project were asked by the Special Branch to make several alterations to the original planning that would turn an office block in the heart of a major city into one of the most secretive and notorious prisons in the country. Twelve strong rooms in the basement were turned into pitch black holding cells and concrete slabs blocked elevator access to all but five floors. Access to the top three floors was blocked almost entirely, except through a single door.

In a 2003 interview with a local paper, the then police commissioner Bernard Njiinu argued that even he didn’t have a sense of the full scope of what was happening in the building. “I knew what I read in the newspapers like anybody elsewhere,” he told journalists, even though he was building a picture of his own from titbits of information he gathered independently.

Waheire gives credence to this argument. “It used to be a very busy government office,” he recalls, “but we were always brought in at night, and they made it so that the office workers never knew what was happening in the basement.” Thus, while by day bureaucrats pushed paper and traded water cooler banter, by night hundreds of political prisoners were held incommunicado in the basement, shuffled to the rooftop for painful beating and interrogation sessions, and then shuffled back downstairs for more torture in the form of sensory deprivation and environmental manipulation. Those in the offices may not have known the particulars, but certainly most of Nairobi suspected that all was not well within the building. There were too many “suicides” off the top floor. There were too many armed police officers milling about in the corridors and at the entrances, shouting at civilians to stay away from the staircases.

The scale of the operation was eventually so large that it couldn’t be contained completely and locals would swear that even the air around the building was sodden with the stench of death. The fear and paranoia it triggered is still reflected in the way Nairobians who remember that time navigate the city, leaving a wide berth around Nyayo House even if it is the shortest route to their destination. It is seared in the collective memory of the city.

Do buildings have memory? The phrase “institutional memory” generally refers to the way ideas get preserved and transmitted across a network over time. But there isn’t really a word to describe the ways in which negative energies become indelibly associated with buildings or constructed artefacts that have been used to violent ends. Yet violence like torture marks buildings not least with the physical debris of damaged human bodies: blood stains the walls and floors and soaks into the concrete; human waste in substantial quantities festers in poorly ventilated spaces.

Walking through such spaces, especially when these spaces have been built or altered to accommodate such uses, one often gets a sense of claustrophobia. Spiritualists may argue that this is the weight of tormented spirits that succumbed to unnatural deaths in these spaces, but non-spiritualists would probably observe that our perception of physical spaces is altered by the uses we associate with them.

Moreover, there’s the more ethereal sense of oppression that lingers even after the torture. Walking through such spaces, especially when these spaces have been built or altered to accommodate such uses, one often gets a sense of claustrophobia. Spiritualists may argue that this is the weight of tormented spirits that succumbed to unnatural deaths in these spaces, but non-spiritualists would probably observe that our perception of physical spaces is altered by the uses we associate with them. The philosopher Saul Fisher argues in the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy that beyond aesthetics or beauty, our experience of the built environment contributes to our state of mind – “the ways we experience architectural objects may contribute to how we comprehend, and interact with, those objects.” So an ugly building used as a space to save lives will evoke an entirely different emotion from a beautiful building used for torture.

The experience – even if second hand – of associating a building with torture, or even with deep uncertainty that is amplified by watching others’ anxieties around such buildings, shapes the way we experience these buildings. You feel it when walking through the basement of Elmina Castle in Ghana, a major stopover for the transatlantic slave trade, where hundreds of thousands of slaves were held in near complete darkness before being shipped off to slavery between 1637 and the abolition of slavery in 1814. It is present in the small rooms of Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where almost 20,000 Cambodians were tortured and killed during Pol Pot’s regime. Long after the blood stains have dried and the smell of decaying flesh has wafted, the weight of history hangs in the air in these places, altering our experience of even the most banal bureaucratic artefacts.

But does it persist forever?

Certainly, a collective memory of oppression changes the way people interact with buildings and constructed artefacts: a step is just a step until a parent tells you that it is the “naughty step” where you’re expected to wait out a time out. But buildings like Nyayo House in Nairobi or John Vorseter Square (Johannesburg Central Police Station) in Johannesburg, which both remain in quotidian use, raise the question of whether the legacy of torture is imprinted indelibly into the structures’ DNA. Like Nyayo House, John Vorseter Square was at the heart of a violently oppressive state in which political prisoners were arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed. The similarities don’t end there; John Vorseter Square is also an architecturally uninspiring building that would be left out of any city tour of Johannesburg were it not the site of so much of the apartheid state’s machinery of murder. As with Nyayo House, none of this is a secret, but governments continue to use these buildings.

It’s been 25 years since the last confirmed incident of torture at Nyayo House, and in the lead-up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the city has still not resolved what to do with the building. The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) convened in 2008 and suggested that it should be turned into a museum, a move that Waheire – who worked with the commission – supports. “It’s a symbol of unfinished business because it remains there and it remains in use,” Waheire reflects. Yet, Waheire isn’t convinced that demolishing the building would give victims the closure that they need. “It should remain,” he tells me, “and they should retain the name to retain the essence. If they change the name they can change everything. It should remain Nyayo House so that the history is encapsulated.”

Memory is an idea that Waheire obsesses over, especially as he watches the state erase the truth about Nyayo House torture from the minds of younger generations by leaving it out of the current school curriculum. In other countries, such buildings are decommissioned and turned into museums – spaces where a community can reckon with an ugly chapter of its history. But Nyayo House is a staggeringly tall tower in the heart of a city struggling for space. There simply aren’t enough artefacts from the 12-room cell below and the three stories at the top to fill every space of the building as a museum.

Waheire sees a compromise, arguing that the basement alone should be turned into a museum, instead of its current use as a storage space and dumpsite for office waste from above. “The government hasn’t accepted the idea [of Nyayo House as a historical site] so they are attempting to delete that history. It’s filthy. It is a dumpsite. It was cleaned in 2013 during the [TJRC] hearings but since then …” he trails off. Preserving the memory of these dark years is Waheire’s main work that he does as a volunteer, pushing for the public to rally and protect this memory so that it may never happen again.

Nyayo House is one of a pair of buildings in downtown Nairobi indelibly marked by a legacy of torture, the other being Nyati House, a squat and architecturally uninspiring stack of gray concrete that once served as the headquarters of the dreaded Special Branch, a clandestine arm of the police force that was instrumental in arresting, detaining and torturing real or imagined dissidents during the Moi era. In a 2012 interview with a local newspaper Wanyiri Kihoro, a former detainee, observed of Nyati House that “people would get shivers just from passing by the building’s entrance. It was shrouded in so much mystery that it would seem your own personal demons came alive with each step towards it.”

Over time, stories began to leak, especially when it became impossible to ignore the sheer number of “suicides” reported at Nyayo House. It seemed strange that while no one was allowed access to the top three floors of the building, and at a time when suicide was technically illegal in Kenya, a dead body having allegedly jumped off the top floor would show up every few days. Growing up in Nairobi in the 1990s, I remember being advised to walk past the building quickly in case a body was falling.

Nyayo House, on the other hand, has at least some architectural merit. The dull orange exterior dominates the intersection of two of Nairobi’s main thoroughfares – the Uhuru Highway and Kenyatta Avenue – and its phallic symbolism is all the more prominent as it towers past the trees of the three parks that comprise the southern boundary of the central business district.

Although fundamentally an archetype of the sterile brutalism of Nairobi in the 1980s, it is not an entirely uninspiring example. Rather than a solid rectangular shape, it has a doubled-H shape, and is essentially three towers connected by a corridor. The orange of the two outer towers contrasts slightly with the dull brown of the core tower, and its corners are rounded where other towers have sharp edges. Combined with the flamboyant two-tone colour, the structure of the building adds a touch of quirkiness to the austere design.

In 1985, when it was opened, Nyayo House reflected a style that was perceptively different from the city’s Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC). The latter conformed to the flamboyance of the African modernist frenzy of the 1960s and 70s – the euphoria of the independence era leading to fanciful, extravagant designs that birthed a rotating restaurant flaring from the ceiling of a tower like an elaborate head dress, while a squat plenary hall echoing the lines of a traditional hut sits nearby. Nyayo House, on the other hand, was a concession to the pragmatism of the economic austerity of the 1980s – clean, tame lines with only the smallest concessions to artistic flare.

Both Nyayo House and Nyati House were at the heart of the Moi regime’s torture network, and Kenyans who remember the 1986 to 1992 period still associate the two buildings with arbitrary arrests, detentions and disappearances. Growing up in Nairobi, we avoided walking past Nyati House, especially because of rumours that you could be arrested and held incommunicado for simply looking at the building in the wrong way. In a 2014 interview with the local press, John Ng’aari, a pro-democracy activist in the 1980s, said that he still felt an urge to urinate in fear whenever he walked past Nyati House and that “seeing it evokes memories of the old terror days when speaking out was a crime. Amongst our prayer items in those days was ‘may God save us from Nyati House’”.

Waheire’s ambiguous position on Nyayo House is indicative of the less categorical perspective that Nairobians have towards Nyayo House compared to Nyati House. Unlike Nyati House, which is still used as a police building, and is therefore, closed to the public and shrouded in secrecy, Nyayo House has always been a mixed-purpose building. Since 1983 when the building was completed, it has been home to the Department of Immigration, the provincial administration where Nairobi residents applied for various permits and official documents, as well as the head office for the first privately owned television station in the country’s history, the Kenya Television Network (KTN). Given this expansive use, it has always been and remains one of the busiest buildings in the country, with queues for new passports and permits often snaking around the parking lot and into the street. All of this went on even while people like Waheire were moaning in misery – beaten, deprived of food, sleep and water – in the basement below.

Buildings like Nyayo House are integral to the process of administrative massacres because they allow authorities to bureaucratise the process of torture and killing and to normalise the process as a function of the state.

Ngotho, in the Saturday Nation of 5 May 2012, insisted that Nyayo House was not deliberately built for torture, but testimony given at the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission argued otherwise. In their summary findings, the commission argued that “the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers were designed and built […] specifically for the purpose of terrorising those who were critical of, or perceived to be critical of, the established regime.” Waheire concurs. “After the 2002 change of government,” he tells me, “they tried very hard to destroy evidence of all the torture that had happened but when they tried to demolish the torture chambers, the architects told them that if they did that it would undermine the structural integrity of the whole building. That suggests that the torture chambers were part of the structure from the beginning.”

Ngotho argued otherwise. He told a newspaper in 2003 that the sound- and waterproof rooms that would become the main torture chambers were designed as strong rooms for the storage of important documents produced by the government officers upstairs. They were poorly ventilated because people were not expected to spend extended periods of time there, he insisted. Similarly, the elevators to the basement only served certain floors because only the occupants of those floors required access to the money and the secret documents kept in the basement at any time.

Another architect working on the project concurred with Ngotho. Gideon Mutemi Mulyungi told the TJRC that the rooms were initially designed to store cash and sensitive and valuable government documents, and that they were built with reinforced concrete so that they would be fire resistant, and that because of the lack of natural ventilation, air was piped in through special air vents in the roof and walls to assist in climate control.

Still, Ngotho conceded that the Special Branch did, in fact, have a hand in the final design of the building. He recalled that two senior Special Branch officers and a British national, a “Mr. Parkins”, regularly briefed his team on changes that needed to be incorporated into the structure. And to make the situation really work, the building’s administrators put in place several restrictions on the structure’s use. For instance, the original elevators to the basement only served five of the 27 floors: “those government offices that really needed them”, recalled Ngotho. When public elevators were made available, civilians were prohibited from using the staircases even to the first floor, meaning that the lifts at Nyayo House were always crowded. Eventually, the flow of everything from people to recycled air was structured around restricting access to the extremities of the building.

Eventually, the building could no longer contain its secrets. Over time, stories began to leak, especially when it became impossible to ignore the sheer number of “suicides” reported at Nyayo House. It seemed strange that while no one was allowed access to the top three floors of the building, and at a time when suicide was technically illegal in Kenya, a dead body having allegedly jumped off the top floor would show up every few days. Growing up in Nairobi in the 1990s, I remember being advised to walk past the building quickly in case a body was falling. The suicide theory held up only as long as the autocratic regime remained in power. Soon after the democratic vote in 2002, survivors and security officers who had worked in Nyayo House confirmed that those who died during the torture would be thrown off the top of the building to mask the extent of their injuries.

In a 1995 article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, law professor Mark Osiel defined an administrative massacre as “large scale violations of basic human rights to life and liberty by the central state in a systematic and organised fashion, often against its own citizens.” An administrative massacre is particularly horrifying because it involves building a bureaucracy around human rights violations in order to sanitise them and create an illusion of legality. The political theorist Hannah Arendt first used the term to describe the horrors of British colonialism, especially in India, when colonial administrators would justify widespread murders and deportations of locals in the most sterile bureaucratic terms, a practice that extended to Nazi Germany, where SS officials kept meticulous records of the machine they built to exterminate Jews, Romas, homosexuals and other groups deemed “undesirable and irredeemable”.

Architecture is an integral part of an administrative massacre, particularly where the state in question wants a visible monument to both contain the horror and make an example of those who endure it. Buildings like Nyayo House that are geared primarily to this purpose are not designed to horrify – a remarkable building that stood out from the rest of the architecture would quickly become a focal point for protest and possibly revolt. Rather, the more banal and routine the exterior, the more citizens are likely to accept that what goes on within is a normal part of state function – even if this banality is a function of how quickly the buildings are put together by an autocratic state.

Examples of this type of building can be found on every continent. Many have been turned into museums, like Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh and the Stasi prison in Berlin. Some are still in continuous use, like John Vorseter Square. The US government’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba is the most notable addition to the list, although similar smaller sites, like Richmond Hill prison in Grenada, also exist. Oftentimes buildings that facilitate administrative massacres are modified from other functions, but rarely are they as architecturally striking as the Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada in Buenos Aires – the largest detention centre used during Argentina’s Dirty War from 1976 to 1983. Even though it was an educational facility like Tuol Sleng, this classical revivalist building, with its four imposing pillars, looks more like a museum than any of the other buildings on this list, and so the transition into a museum of the period was perhaps smoother.

Nyayo House was part of the administrative massacre of Kenyans in the 1980s. Unlike generalised violence in neighbouring countries like Uganda and Somalia, it percolated slowly and relied on the acquiescence of the public rather than on widespread demonstrations of force. It focused on fear as a method of control rather than outright destruction, and caused significant physical harm to a few in order to impose psychological control over the majority. It also altered the character of the city significantly – until the mid-2000s, pedestrian traffic around Loita Street was uncharacteristically light for a bustling African city, as civilians avoided walking past both Nyayo House and Nyati House in order to avoid getting caught in the dragnet of a paranoid state.

Although the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) recommended that the Nyayo House torture chambers be converted into a museum, the government has so far resisted this recommendation for many reasons. Quite simply, the state refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the suffering it inflicted on its citizens.

Buildings like Nyayo House are integral to the process of administrative massacres because they allow authorities to bureaucratise the process of torture and killing and to normalise the process as a function of the state. It is, therefore, almost predictable that the most banal exterior should house a bloody history of violence because the form of a building that truly manifested the function of such buildings might prove too grotesque to contemplate. Similarly, the decision to use buildings close to the proximity of the city centre serves not only to speed up the process of arbitrary arrest and detention, but also serves as a visual reminder of what the state is doing. An administrative massacre relieves the perpetrator of the need to entirely mask what they’re doing: they need the public to suspect just enough so as to incite paranoia and paralysing fear.

Although the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission recommended that the Nyayo House torture chambers be converted into a museum, the government has so far resisted this recommendation for many reasons. Quite simply, the state refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the suffering it inflicted on its citizens. Many of those who ended up in office after the end of the authoritarian Moi regime had served under that regime. Mwai Kibaki, the president who set up the TJRC, was once vice president under Moi and also served as chair of the National Security Committee that oversaw internal security at the time that the Nyayo House machine was being deployed. Beyond having knowledge, it is possible to infer that he was complicit, and thus had no incentive to adopt the recommendations of the commission. Kibaki’s successor Uhuru Kenyatta, who received the final report of the TJRC in 2013, has also failed to adopt the commission’s recommendations.

This leaves survivors like Waheire in limbo. On the one hand, they have been financially compensated following prosecutions against the state in the days after Moi left office, but, on the other hand, they sense that without a physical monument to their suffering their place in history is being systematically erased. Kenya is a young country with an average age of 18.1 years, meaning that an entire generation has already emerged since the last prisoner left Nyayo House: an entire generation that doesn’t know why people walk quickly and look up when passing Nyayo House.

Waheire believes that such collective amnesia is disrespectful and undermines the stability of the country in general. As a founding member of the Nyayo House Torture Survivors Association, he battles the state on preserving the memory of the era. (The organisation remains unregistered because the state said its mission was prejudicial to national security.) Waheire volunteers to keep information archived and organised, sharing the Kenyan story at regional and international meetings of torture survivors but is pushing back against apathy from other survivors who, once compensated, argue that the past is better buried.

The sole “good” dimension of the administrative massacre is the meticulous record-keeping that makes such memory projects possible. “We have all the information we need,” Waheire tells me. “We know 98 per cent of the names of the people who were held there and my long-term goal is at least to be able to memorialise them in a plaque or statue of some kind.”

Until then, the tower remembers for everyone. The torture cells below can be buried underneath reams of waste paper but they cannot be detached from the building, which also means that they cannot be physically erased from our collective memories.

This article was initially published in Disegno Magazine, #15, June – August 2017.

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Nanjala Nyabola is a writer, independent researcher, and political analyst. Her work focuses on conflict and post-conflict transitions, with a focus on refugees and migration, as well as East African politics generally. Her latest book, Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move, was published on November 19th 2020.

Ideas

Boda Boda Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Name has been changed to protect the rider

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Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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