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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 an independent writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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The Future of Artificial Intelligence in Africa: Risks and Opportunities

Governments have the responsibility to harness the power of AI and ML to help communities grow and prosper. This technology should never be used to spy or prey on citizens, or to enforce the position of dystopic tyrants; it must always be employed to serve the good of humanity first and foremost.

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to be the most revolutionary technology that humanity ever experienced, and many developed countries have already started implementing it in its earliest forms. The African continent is lagging behind, and many challenges, including inadequate knowledge, infrastructure, and research capacities, must be overcome to harness its potential fully. If Africa won’t find a solution to harness AI’s full potential quickly enough, the digital divide will be exacerbated, further widening the gap between this continent and the rest of the world.

However, things are not so simple. Social media platforms have already been exploited by many ruthless governments to distort reality and spy on people, and it’s no secret that China is among those countries behind these dystopian scenarios. Many African countries are increasingly reliant on Beijing’s Big Brother technologies to monitor their citizens’ communication, and the Chinese giants are, in turn, using data drawn from these partnerships to feed their AI.

Why are the most unethical uses of AI used, such as mass surveillance and social control, being exported to developing countries? What does the future of AI technology hold for Africans? Is there any way to keep up with the new global technology race without being involved in the current rivalries between China, Russia, Europe, and the United States?

The full range of opportunities opened by AI is simply immense. The latest advancements in machine learning (ML)-based technologies are affecting literally every field of human knowledge and every aspect of human society. AI is so revolutionary that is a disruptive and sustaining technology at the same time, with applications ranging from architecture to education, security, data collection, agriculture, industry, communication, and even the world’s economy.

Keeping up with the current AI revolution is critical for Africa because this technology has the potential to have as much global impact as the discovery of America, the invention of gunpowder, or the Industrial Revolution.

One of the most controversial uses of AI and ML is augmented analytics to understand human behaviour. Drawing from the immense amount of big data collected in the last few years by data analysts across the world, modern AI development is being used to improve all kind of enterprise needs – from marketing to sales, customer services and human resources (HR). The new predictive models of human behaviour are becoming more refined, and new sciences, such as social physics, are emerging to help us understand an entire society.

Keeping up with the current AI revolution is critical for Africa because this technology has the potential to have as much global impact as the discovery of America, the invention of gunpowder, or the Industrial Revolution. AI will be able to influence human society so deeply that it will open up a unique opportunity to improve the lives of wealthy and poor people equally. On the other hand, failing to adopt it as quickly as possible may exacerbate global inequalities even more, forcing Africa to lose any ground it may have gained over the rest of the world. Moreover, rushing its development may expose many countries to the interests of unscrupulous giant corporations (and foreign governments) who may want to expropriate their digital sovereignty.

The current state of AI in Africa

Healthy development of AI in Africa is a central topic of discussion today. A central point brought up during the latest UNESCO Forum on Artificial Intelligence in Africa that took place in Morocco on 12 and 13 December 2018 was that the proper use of local human resources is the best approach to harness the full potential of AI. Start-ups across the world are identical in one aspect: they’re always driven forward by the enthusiasm of the people who founded them. This energetic ecosystem of AI start-ups is just as lively in Africa as in other richer countries and represents a powerful force that can make the difference.

There are many examples, such as Clevva, a Stellenbosch-based company founded in 2011 that implemented AI in agriculture. Their virtual advisor helps sales and technical consultants by providing them with fundamental information about the products that are used to make optimised and accurate decisions. Their platform is so efficient and flexible that it was later used even by financial services and petroleum companies. Or Hubs.ng, a Nigerian company that recently launched an AI-based digital assistant and customer care agent named Emily that earned the start-up the 2018 Digital Africa Start-Pitch prize.

The enormous potential of the thriving African digital environment has attracted the attention of many venture capitalists, who invested $560 million in 2017 in this continent. And the future seems to be even brighter for AI in Africa, as none other than the biggest technology giant of the world – Google – decided to make substantial investments, After supporting and advising more than 60 start-ups through the Launchpad Accelerator Africa project, Google pushed forward its AI efforts in Africa by opening its first AI laboratory in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. According to the Senegalese lead research scientist Moustapha Cisse, its goal is to provide local developers with the necessary means needed to build products that can address the many problems faced by African countries every day. For example, its algorithm deployed on phones to diagnose crop diseases will be published as an open-source code for everybody to access.

Things are, however, rarely that simple, and AI is evolving at an amazingly fast pace. Many challenges still need to be overcome if Africa wants to keep pace with the rest of the world.

Barriers against the implementation of AI in Africa

Just like its entire technology infrastructure, the development of AI in Africa is still in a very immature stage. Much like a valuable crop, AI requires a suitable environment to eventually bear fruit and become productive. Extremely inconsistent IT infrastructure represents a major challenge that needs to be addressed by various African governments, mostly because AI requires robust networks, immense computing power, and stable connections.

And diversities do matter for AI – quite a lot, in fact. If the data fed to AI is full of bias, the machines will see that bias as “normality” and react accordingly. The vast majority of ML experts are in North America, Europe, and Asia and they’re inadvertently building discrimination inside their products.

Machines have their own way of learning. Machine Learning (ML) can be compared to a child – it needs to be “educated” in the appropriate way before it can grow into a fully functional adult. However, deep learning models must be fed with lots of data to train them, a resource that is currently scarce in Africa. Other than lacking the raw amount of big data that the other highly developed countries collected in the last few years, even the data that is currently available is often largely irrelevant. Much like Europe, the African continent is a mixed bag of complex and varied cultures, languages, and identities, with substantial diversities between the political and legal frameworks that characterise each country and region.

And diversities do matter for AI – quite a lot, in fact. If the data fed to AI is full of bias, the machines will see that bias as “normality” and react accordingly. The vast majority of ML experts are in North America, Europe, and Asia and they’re inadvertently building discrimination inside their products. A tragically comic but outrageous episode occurred in 2015 when the facial recognition software of the Google Photos app tagged images of black people as “gorillas” because that was the data the algorithm has been fed with. The samples used to gather data must be diverse enough to provide an accurate representation of reality. But the humans and the experts that gather this data must be diverse as well – or else they will inevitably transfer their bias inside the algorithms.

African engineers and AI researchers are very limited in number, mostly because the education system is often insufficient to provide African talent with the necessary degree of specialisation. The most brilliant minds have no choice but to complete their academic studies overseas and are, therefore, lost to competition in the never-ending technology race. There’s no network of African institutes of artificial intelligence available to coordinate the efforts made by the various African countries, which still need to depend on external aid. This overreliance on help from outside is a serious liability, and, once again, represents a vulnerability that endangers the ability of most African governments to retain their sovereignty.

A unique opportunity or the theatre of an upcoming digital war?

AI is neither good nor bad. It can be used to improve the lives of people or to manipulate their opinions and create “fake news” – it depends on how it is used. Nevertheless, the rapid evolution of AI is not devoid of dangers. Undeniably, some of the global players saw in this emerging technology an opportunity to encroach on human rights. (We already talked a lot about the serious threat represented by those external forces which are currently influencing Internet freedom in Africa.)

China is planning to become the world leader in the field of AI and ML, and it is fueling its plans for domination by using the developing world as a giant laboratory. Many African governments are strictly dependent on Chinese companies for their telecom and digital services, which are used to improve the newest surveillance technologies and facial-recognition algorithms.

Companies like Google say that they have ensured that all privacy concerns are addressed and that their algorithms are transparent enough, but it’s still too early to know if they will keep their word. In the meantime, the power of AI has already been used more or less secretly by governments and organisations to influence society and to push their agenda.

China is planning to become the world leader in the field of AI and ML, and it is fueling its plans for domination by using the developing world as a giant laboratory. Many African governments are strictly dependent on Chinese companies for their telecom and digital services, which are used to improve the newest surveillance technologies and facial-recognition algorithms. It is no coincidence that most of these technologies are used by the most ruthless regimes to monitor their citizens constantly.

But digital sovereignty is not a problem that affects Africa alone. After Edward Snowden blew the whistle for the first time back in 2013, many industrialised countries felt that the privacy of their citizens was endangered by the unstoppable power of tech behemoths. Digital paranoia is spreading everywhere. In Europe, in November 2018, the French government announced that it will to ditch Google as the default search engine for their devices in favour of the privacy-focused Qwant. The United States, Australia, and New Zealand have all banned Huawei 5G gear on the grounds that the Chinese equipment poses a threat to their national security. With so many global interests at stake, every choice made by African governments about the future (or the present) of AI technologies is inevitably going to have many repercussions – even from a strictly political point of view.

And despite efforts made by continental forces in Europe and North America to set ethical guidelines for the implementation of AI, the threat represented by its most nefarious uses is always present. Africa must establish a solid legal and ethical framework to ensure that the digital journey of AI leads to positive outcomes.

Governments have the responsibility to harness the power of AI and ML to help communities grow and prosper. This technology should never be used to spy or prey on citizens, or to enforce the position of dystopic tyrants; it must always be employed to serve the good of humanity first and foremost.

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Death by a Thousand Small Cuts: The Problem with Low Quality Oppression

The problem with this low-quality oppression is the way it clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems.

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Death by a Thousand Small Cuts: The Problem with Low Quality Oppression
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In 1961, in the year he died aged just 36, the philosopher Frantz Fanon published The Wretched of the Earth. It is a text that is as searing as it was prescient. With the clarity of an ancient prophet, Fanon expertly diagnosed the intellectual laziness, moral vacuity and spiritual penury of what he called the “national bourgeoisie”, the class of wheeler-dealers that was left in charge of African nations with the departure of colonisers.

Fanon wrote of a class that was bereft of ideas, that was caught up in “activities of the intermediary type”, scheming and hustling, but firmly entrenched in the role of business agent of more powerful, former colonial powers. The national bourgeoisie, he said, was already senile before it ever came to maturity. Its members were following their Western masters along the path of negation and decadence “without ever having emulated it in its first stages of exploration and invention”.

Fanon’s treatise came to mind when a few weeks ago, a Nairobi driver was pushed off the road by a convoy of siren-blaring “escorts” of an Important Person who made her, the driver, veer into a ditch and then drove away. It later turned out that the car belonged to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). It is ironic that a driver of such a high-ranking judicial office could behave in such a thuggish way. Or is it?

This “colonial mental disorder”, as Fanon would call it, is in our view, a broader problem that we call “low quality oppression”, whose insidious effects are more serious than you might imagine. And yes, it’s odd that we have reached the stage where we can rank and rate oppression the same way we give stars to online products.

This was by no means an isolated incident. Siren-blaring road bullies seem to be everywhere, flagrantly taking to the opposite side of the road to escape traffic, and seriously endangering other road users. Drivers may grudgingly give way, or refuse to do so as a small act of resistance. And why can’t the Important Person leave home early like the rest of us? What are they rushing to do? Is it to “network” or “benchmark” something or other?

You see, in this part of the world, it is common for extremely important but low-level government services to get stuck in a bureaucratic process because “mkubwa hayuko” (the Important Person is not around).

This “colonial mental disorder”, as Fanon would call it, is in our view, a broader problem that we call “low quality oppression”, whose insidious effects are more serious than you might imagine. And yes, it’s odd that we have reached the stage where we can rank and rate oppression the same way we give stars to online products. But this is the reality of living in this country at this time. Our reality can be so dire sometimes, that with all manner of oppression attacking from all sides, we must prioritise. Do we first deal with nepotism, profligate spending and outright theft in government, or do we pause a little and first push through the application for a birth certificate?

You see, in this part of the world, it is common for extremely important but low-level government services to get stuck in a bureaucratic process because “mkubwa hayuko” (the Important Person is not around).

Let us analyse this for a minute. Imagine that a dearly beloved family member passes away peacefully in her sleep while in her hut (in what we call home squared). In order to move the body and to begin burial preparations, we need to get documentation from the local area chief. This is now our mkubwa. Now, the mkubwa might not have anything against you personally. He may not even know you. The mkubwa might even be willing to sign or stamp whatever it is you need signed or stamped. But somehow, going by how the system works, the entire process hinges on his physical presence at his desk. Without this, the whole process grinds to an unfortunate halt.

For instance, what do we do if the death occurs on a Friday and our mkubwa has left early so that he can visit his family in a different town (because such officials are usually not locals, which presents another unnecessary obstacle as they cannot be located once they have gone “home”)?

There might even be people in that office whose main task is to tell you, “I’m so sorry, mkubwa hayuko.” There’s nothing else they really do at work other than creatively manage the frustration levels of people like you.

The problem here is that you, the frustrated party, cannot really think your way around this obstacle. You could demand to be served, invoking your rights as a citizen or customer. You could walk away angrily, and resolve to come back another day, earlier this time. Maybe if you are first in line at 8am this will be sorted. You could write a screed, maybe on Twitter, about how people should be at their desks and it is wrong to keep someone waiting like this.

In this scenario, there is little you can say substantively after angrily sputtering about it. There is no nefarious genius here, no diabolical mastermind with a plan to subjugate your entire country, no systematised thinking to grapple with, just a kind of low-grade, repetitive, diffuse dysfunction. It is death by a thousand small cuts.

But when you are done, it’s deflating, because it is stating the obvious.

There is no ideological meat here. There is nothing to wrestle with intellectually. It is petty, and ridiculous, but mostly petty.

In this scenario, there is little you can say substantively after angrily sputtering about it. There is no nefarious genius here, no diabolical mastermind with a plan to subjugate your entire country, no systematised thinking to grapple with, just a kind of low-grade, repetitive, diffuse dysfunction. It is death by a thousand small cuts.

The problem with this low quality oppression is the way it clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems, like the ever-expanding black hole of the mindless plunder of public funds – the mysterious disappearance of 51 million litres of aviation fuel worth Sh3.4 billion ($34 million) from the tanks of the Kenya Pipeline Company; the Sh180 billion unaccounted for at the power transmission firm KETRACO (which works out to 3,200 kilometres of power transmission lines never built), or the companies contracted to supply kitchenware and towels to build dams.

Where is the time to investigate and mobilise while you have to smuggle your departed relative’s remains out of the village to a morgue at night?

***

Vernacular (adj.) [of language] spoken as one’s mother tongue; not learned or imposed as a second language.

In the place of analytical precision, we have instead a deluge of what Keguro Macharia calls “political vernaculars” – terms that frame the conversation we can have without considering what they look like in practice, whose freedom they impinge and who is paying the cost for them. They are vernaculars because they come as easily as a mother tongue. They are not imposed as a second language; instead they form the primary frame of expressing our political issues.

“Corruption” is one such dominant political vernacular that houses all our collective anger and anxiety of living under a political system where outright theft is the order of the day. “Development” is another political vernacular that is the repository of all our dreams and what we want to be. These two act in concert with each other, disciplining our minds and tethering our freedom dreams, taking them down the same, predictable path.

“Development captures ­imaginations—one is not permitted to think beyond, against, or beside development,” Macharia writes. “But the failure of development projects – often through corruption – only leads to demands for more development projects, and quite often the same ones.”

These terms – “corruption”, “development”, “tribalism”, “negative ethnicity” – seem self-explanatory but are actually very vague, and their enduring power is in creating habits of the mind and of speech. Produced by powerful yet shadowy forces, they determine what is thinkable. They are flimsy yet strong, like a spider’s silk enveloping us all in a garment of mediocrity.

As a result of this hollow phraseology, Kenyans are walking around in shambles and are unable to even describe the state of their own dishevelment, as John Githongo once said.

For all of the overt traumas that the African diaspora has experienced in the so-called New World, there is something to be said about how being in that space has created a tradition of intellectual clarity and radical truth-telling – parrhesia in Greek. This is perhaps why the writings of writers as diverse as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kiese Laymon are crisp and searing – these writers write out of a particular context that puts blackness in sharp relief. The contours of injustices that have been visited on the black body, in particular, are clear. Bodies have definitional clarity; they have shape and form; they occupy space and time, and so can be, so to speak, grappled with.

But in our context, our petty tyrants share physical qualities similar to ours, they invoke similar genealogies, and they bandy around slogans that we too want to believe in, like “independence”, “sovereignty” and “development”. They misappropriate the same terms we use to express our freedom dreams.

Even sacred texts are fair game for definitional hijack, perhaps more than any other kinds of literature. Kenyans, even church-going types, can hardly remember that the term Jubilee comes straight out of the Old Testament in Leviticus 25, in which every 50-year debts were to be cancelled, land returned to the original owners, and the gap between the rich and the poor in Israel leveled out.

However, in a kind of cruel joke, Jubilee (the political party) has presided over the swiftest racking up of debt in independent Kenya, and a systematic and comprehensive concentration of political power and business interests of the elite, specifically the Kenyatta family. Kenya celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, but there would be no liberty to the captives or restoration of the indebted – in fact, just the opposite.

In the words of Kalundi Serumaga, we are hostages of this venal, idiotic class that harps on about sovereignty and independence because all they can do now is enclose us in these colonial borders. They have nothing left to offer; there is no originality.

“When this caste has vanished, devoured by its own contradictions, it will be seen that nothing new has happened since independence was proclaimed, and that everything must be started again from scratch.”

“It must not be said that the national bourgeoisie retards the country’s evolution, that it makes it lose time or that it threatens to lead the nation up blind alleys,” wrote Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, “… in fact, the bourgeois phase in the history of underdeveloped countries is a completely useless phase.”

“When this caste has vanished, devoured by its own contradictions, it will be seen that nothing new has happened since independence was proclaimed, and that everything must be started again from scratch.”

This is the space our petty tyrants are operating from as they push us out of the road with arms flailing out of four windows, mean looks, and sirens blazing.

Which oppression do we fight first? Is it the two-star one that makes people smuggle their relatives to mortuaries at night? Or is it the one where the entire public finance management system is razed to the ground in an inferno of brazen theft and worthless vanity projects? Is it possible to do both?

And most of all, where do we get new words?

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Capitalism and Its Discontents: My Observations in Uganda and Kenya

We are witnessing the operation of a more fully fledged, institutionalised, normalised capitalist social order, and an intensification and deepening of processes that will render these countries, for the time being, ever more capitalist. Capitalism is now more fully operational and thus, so to speak, causal i.e. it needs to be taken into account when discussing the drivers and characteristics of contemporary life in African countries.

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Capitalism and Its Discontents: My Observations in Uganda and Kenya
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The world, including Africa, has arguably never been more capitalist than at the current juncture. And yet, the scholarly and public debates in and about Africa, as far as I am aware, are nowhere near in tandem with this reality. In countries such as Uganda and Kenya, that I both regard as capitalist countries, there is hardly any explicit public debate about how capitalism shapes and alters these societies. The very basic question (are we a capitalist society?) does not get discussed in public forums.

In Kampala, despite the capitalist character in the culture of everyday life that is intensifying by the day, public debate is about almost everything except capitalism. Government officials, public servants, technocracts, political, religious, and business leaders and national observers and commentators rarely use the C-word in their public analysis, speeches or statements.

This low intensity of an explicit capitalism debate is not necessarily unique to these two countries or the region. Colleagues who do research in Central Asia tell me the situation is similar in that region too. And in my home country, Germany, this topic is hardly ever discussed head-on by government officials and mainstream parties either; official discourse there circles around the term “social market economy”.

In Kampala, despite the capitalist character in the culture of everyday life that is intensifying by the day, public debate is about almost everything except capitalism. Government officials, public servants, technocracts, political, religious, and business leaders and national observers and commentators rarely use the C-word in their public analysis, speeches or statements. President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni once in a while offers a brief take on the matter by declaring that Uganda is pre-capitalist and the analyst Andrew Mwenda from time to time touches upon the topic too.

Plus there is a group of other public intellectuals who are making various aspects of capitalism the explicit focus of some of their analyses, including Fred Muhumuza, Moses Khisa, Charles Onyango-Obbo, Kalundi Serumaga, Mary Serumaga, and Yusuf Serunkuma. But that, more or less, is basically it in terms of focused, explicit articulations on the matter in the analysis that makes it into the (English language) media space. To date, the weekly prime time talk shows on NTV and NBS as a rule of thumb do not frame debates in terms of capitalism, neither does the weekly media roundtable. The general silence regarding capitalism in Africa (CiA) doesn’t stop there, or on the continent for that matter. It also extends to university campuses where it suppresses intellectual creativity (as I have argued previously).

And yet, many African countries are by now capitalist societies and analytically need to be treated as such. A number of social phenomena in these countries can be seen to be typical of a capitalist society, such as inequalities and uneven spatial development. These are to some degree comparable to similar phenomena in other capitalist countries across the world, including the Global North. There are striking similarities now across the North-South axis when it comes to some of the experiences of capitalist everyday life. Let me go deeper here…

Sometime ago, I attended the grand finale of a best comedian-type competition show of a Ugandan TV station (NBS The Comic, Season 2) in a big packed show tent in my neighbourhood in Kampala. It was a live event that had major elements of similar TV show competitions that I have viewed back home in the UK: prominent judges; an excited, participating large (young) audience that votes for their winner via mobile phones; ecstatic prominent organisers/MCs; corporate sponsorship; stars’ performances; votes of thanks to the sponsors; proud winner with a cheque and new car to go home with, etc. Witnessing the event reinforced my view that an intensified analysis of CiA is needed and that I had to focus and sharpen my analytical lenses and fully recognise and make sense of the fact that these social phenomena are typical of contemporary capitalist societies everywhere. In other words, these different social phenomena and the societal order as such need to be recognised analytically and studied empirically from the perspective of “capitalism”.

And further, that capitalism is not peripheral or irrelevant but central to these phenomena. That phenomena x, y, z (say, this national, corporate-sponsored comedy competition) cannot merely, or predominantly or easily, be grouped under some of the most widely used analytical frames in what is called African Studies or Development Studies that together dominate scholarly debate about the dynamics on the continent: development; democracy/democratisation; security, (post-)conflict; poverty; crisis; politics; authoritarianism; and so on. Instead, these phenomena need to be analytically categorised as capitalism i.e. as phenomena of capitalist economy, polity, culture, and society. The comedy show, for example (and many similar shows), can be seen to be part of what can be called entertainment capitalism in Africa, part of the advertising and marketing complex of global capitalist culture. This show has, of course, not only highly cultural but also political dimensions, functions and effects, in the way shows such as The Voice in the UK and elsewhere in the North have within the capitalist societal context there. That is to say, there is a cultural political economy at work in these cases.

One term that has been used is “africapitalism”. It is suggested that capitalism can be turned into something very positive for the African continent and its people (including the subaltern classes) if a, b, c (e.g. indigenisation of capitalism) happens i.e. that the private sector wants and can contribute to socially progressive, sustainable, long-term development on the continent.

My heightened attention to and search for everyday phenomena of capitalism in Kampala and Nairobi led me to think about the available analytical categories and options. Consumerism? Commercialisation? Uneven and combined development in capitalism? Market society? Corporate state? Market state? Competition state? Economic and cultural globalisation? Cultural diffusion? Cultural mélange? Capitalist social order? Afro-capitalist civilisation?

The one term I have used for years to orient and frame my research is “neoliberalism”. I have explored the embedding of neoliberalism in Uganda i.e. the making and operation of a capitalist market society there. But maybe there is a need for a different, more suggestive term – a term that reflects more the particular glocal character of the current phase of CiA of this continued spread, intensification, institutionalisation, reproduction and modification of the capitalist social order (CSO). Could one say that many of the examples I had noticed more and more, and so intensely, during my extensive stay in the two capitals in 2018 were pointing to the continuous building, expanding, locking in and managing of CSO, including capitalist culture? That the advancement of what we academics term as “market society project via liberal reforms and programmes” was a crucial part of the contemporary advancement and consolidation of ““capitalist civilisation’ (Immanuel Wallerstein) of ““market civilisation’ (Stephen Gill) in Africa or Afro-capitalist civilization.

“Civilisation” is a particularly loaded, tricky and controversial term, and is linked not only to the recent “clash-of-civilisations” argument (Samuel Huntington) but also to the discourse of the advancement of “Western civilisation” on the continent during the colonial period. Still, well-known analysts of capitalism, such as Wallerstein and Gill, have, as I have indicated, brought the term civilisation into the analysis of capitalism. Also, Erik Hobsbawm’s Age of Capital, 1848–187 is published with a History of Civilization label at the bottom of the book cover; while Fernand Braudel titled one of his major books The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Century.

So capitalism/markets and civilisation have been linked in scholarly debates (see also the work of Karl Polanyi and Max Weber). But can one talk of Afro-capitalist civilisation (ACC), Euro-, South Asia-capitalist civilisation, and so on (in order to highlight region-specific origins, trajectories and specificities of capitalism)? Can one analyse how ACC is related to global capitalist civilisation? Can one argue that the neoliberal era has also been about the further expansion, build-up and management of ACC?

One term that has been used is “africapitalism”. It is suggested that capitalism can be turned into something very positive for the African continent and its people (including the subaltern classes) if a, b, c (e.g. indigenisation of capitalism) happens i.e. that the private sector wants and can contribute to socially progressive, sustainable, long-term development on the continent. A blog piece about this philosophy is titled “Capitalism with African values. The Nigerian banker, entrepreneur and economist, Tony O. Elumelu, who coined the term, runs The Africapitalism Institute. I haven’t delved into the respective literature yet (see here, here and here), but the term’s definition seems rather business and management speak.

That said, however, as much as one is intrigued by the contemporary features of CiA and tries to grasp the specifics of the current era of capitalist restructuring and reality on the continent, the process of spreading and embedding CiA goes back very far. There has for long been a flow of capitalist tropes, ideas, norms, and practices of financial capital, labour, and commodities, an expansion of commodity production and circulation, and so on. That is to say, not everything we see in neoliberal Africa, especially culturally, is new as such.

But again, my argument is this: In countries like Uganda, capitalism is now more broad-based, established and advanced (i.e institutionalised) than during earlier periods. And this difference has analytical significance. The neoliberal era has made the country more capitalist, and, crucially, normalised capitalism further i.e. rendered capitalism more (not absolutely) natural, ordinary, hegemonic. This process, as James Parisot detailed for the case of America, is particular to any country that goes through capitalist restructuring.

The neoliberal era has arguably brought about an acceleration and deepening of commodification, commercialisation, and marketisation in many countries in Africa, especially in urban areas (above all in the big cities/capitals). Scholars call the latest phase in this process “Neoliberalism 3.0 i.e. the “deep marketisation in the South’. In short then, a country like Uganda has arguably never been more capitalist, and is becoming ever more capitalist by the day. And some of the ways in which Uganda or Kenya and the social classes there are integrated into global capitalism are specific to the current era; some of these are cutting edge capitalism (e.g. M-Pesa).

In Kenya too there is a major capitalist wave, thanks to the effects of the period from the late 1980s onwards, the period of embedding and locking in the neoliberal variant of CiA. This significant and hard to reverse institutionalisation of capitalism in African countries such as Uganda and Kenya is perhaps one of the most fundamental outcomes of the ongoing neoliberal era…

The neoliberal project of social engineering has made a significant difference in this regard; the policies, programmes, discourses, technologies, and practices accelerated and shaped the process of the institutionalisation of CSO in Africa in the current period. Neoliberalism here and elsewhere has put in place or resulted in “a new institutional architecture for managing capitalist social relations”, as Damien Cahill and Martijn Konings put it. Crucially, neoliberal capitalism has seeped deeper into Ugandan culture and transformed part of this culture in the process, including crucial matters of moral-economic order (values, norms, subjectivities, practices etc.). Capitalism makes and shapes everyday life, including moral economies of earning a living, more and differently now than prior to neoliberal reforms.

In Kenya too there is a major capitalist wave, thanks to the effects of the period from the late 1980s onwards, the period of embedding and locking in the neoliberal variant of CiA. This significant and hard to reverse institutionalisation of capitalism – i.e. making capitalism more embedded, pervasive, powerful, normal, acceptable, cherished, and desired (yet at the same time still ridiculed, critiqued, and resisted) – in African countries such as Uganda and Kenya is perhaps one of the most fundamental outcomes of the ongoing neoliberal era, as is highlighted in a new book that I co-edited with Giuliano Martiniello and Elisa Greco.

Looking back at the last three decades from this angle then, one can conclude so far that – as Graham Harrison and others told us early on in the process – neoliberalism was never just about a particular policy, a right or a ballot, or a style of people-state communication (as donors and other proponents of liberal reform told us). It was about something more fundamental and contentious: about hammering capitalism into Africa for good and thereby moulding class, property and power relations and patterns of social domination, surplus appropriation, and resulting social inequalities and conflicts. Picture a living room with all sorts of furniture. Neoliberalism has brought about a massive moving around of furniture, and throwing out of some and bringing in of other furniture. There is more capitalist furniture (the pillars or institutions of CSO) in the room now (while non-capitalist furniture is still there too of course). And a good share of that furniture was put there by foreign actors, including Western governments, donors, and corporations.

That is to say that pro-capitalist forces and actors in the country are more numerous (especially local ones), powerful and resourceful now, three decades into neoliberalism. In various issue areas, they have the high ground. Capitalism (or its manifestations) is to a considerable degree common sense and taken for granted. Various Ugandan actors – directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously – embrace, endorse, advance, celebrate and/or defend it (or versions of it), in the name of development, modernisation, competiveness, growth, productivity enhancement, entrepreneurship, poverty reduction, survival, empowerment, national sovereignty etc.

The argument is not that capitalism swept everything away (and that it is all there is now) but that it has expanded and advanced and thus become more influential in shaping societal and personal life, again, especially in urban areas. It is significant that the national football league, the Uganda Premier League, now has a multinational corporation as a sponsor (Chinese technology and media company Star Times that operates in 30 African countries), and TV rights and the rest of it are part of the package, while members of the national men’s football team take part in betting adverts. Sponsors of the team include Betlion, a mobile betting company, Airtel, National insurance Cooperation, Nile Breweries, Bidco, Rwenzori and Eco bank. In other words, commercialization of this popular sport is advancing in Uganda, and elsewhere in the region. It is significant that a multinational bank runs and sponsors interventions in the education system (e.g. a national school competition). And that Coca Cola has made it into the State House.

Notably then, some of the pro-capitalist actors are creations of neoliberal intervention and to various degrees orchestrated, designed, financed, supported and/or empowered by foreign actors. The Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU), founded in 1994, was (and remains) a key vehicle for World Bank interventions in the country concerning private sector development.  The PSFU was part of the Bank’s strategies to ensure the acceptability of capitalist restructuring and to prevent policy reversal: “The mix of sensible …. policies which have been introduced in recent years will need to be maintained. Private sector confidence and the credibility of government’s handling of the economy take a long time to be established, and would be lost far more quickly should policy reversals be made. … [T]he Government will try to widen support for the measures being adopted. This is not a technical problem, but rather requires achieving a wider degree of understanding and endorsement of the strategy, amongst key interest groups and the population at large, to build the support needed to sustain sound policy over the longer term. Tools to perform this task are included in this project (i.e. the Private Sector Foundation Component).” Set up during the neoliberal era were also other things like “investment clubs” in schools (from primary level up) boosted by banks, government and others in the name of advancing financial literacy and entrepreneurship amongst children and youth.

I had noticed (and studied) capitalist social phenomena in Uganda in previous years too. I first came to the country in 2004 but it became more noticeable in 2018. The show scripts, the adverts, the economic protagonists, the corporate-speak and propaganda, the discourses of the powerful, the social media rhythms, the aspirations and emotions concerning money and individual success on display. For example, the TV shows I came across had (partly not surprisingly) a global feel i.e. strong parallels with show formats elsewhere. (Look for instance at this format called DFCU Battle For Cash’. I am far from being an expert of these sorts of reality shows, but it instantly and strongly reminded me of Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice. Then here other Ugandan shows: Make My Home; The Property Show; (see here and here for Kenyan equivalents); Money and Markets; Supa jackpot show; NSSF Friends with Benefits; and finally Be My Date. Also check out Nairobi Diaries.

Also listen to minutes 0:55 to 1:12 of this clip: “Uganda is ready for business as a country. We value investors. The investor and the customer are the most important people in Uganda. People who bring capital, create jobs and bring revenue for the state,” says Uganda’s Prime Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, there.

In addition, people with android phones in London, Berlin, Kampala and Nairobi now use fairly similar apps on their phones (and perhaps somewhat similar news feeds from global news providers, Twitter etc.). Some of the most widely used apps are designed and managed by major capitalist corporations. In other words, sections of Ugandan and Kenyan middle and upper classes enjoy some consumer patterns that are similar to their counterparts elsewhere

Let’s look once more then at examples. Again, this is my basic observation: in countries such as Uganda and Kenya, and especially in their major cities, one can find plenty of (cutting edge) social phenomena that are typical of contemporary capitalist society across the world. The mix and type (and concurrency) of similar phenomena is striking. This is significant in the larger history of the spread of global capitalism, and the march towards a “world market of a genuinely global scale” (Paul Cammack).

In addition, people with android phones in London, Berlin, Kampala and Nairobi now use fairly similar apps on their phones (and perhaps somewhat similar news feeds from global news providers, Twitter etc.). Some of the most widely used apps are designed and managed by major capitalist corporations. In other words, sections of Ugandan and Kenyan middle and upper classes enjoy some consumer patterns that are similar to their counterparts elsewhere (thanks also due to the globalised cultural demonstration effect).

Some of these phenomena are captured in aspects of the notion of and debate about Afropolitanism; here, as one analyst put it, there is “an image of an Instagram-friendly Africa…African versions of American or European cities. Afropolitanism it appears is grounded in the ability to engage in the same pastimes one could expect to enjoy in a Western capital…you can now have the Hipster Africa Experience”. On top of that, we have the core characteristics of capitalism present anyway: capitalists owning the means of production, workers selling their labour and being exploited by capitalists (both local and foreign), class conflict between workers and bosses, private ownership as a core legal institution, etc.

Conclusion

I have argued that despite all the global and local differences and inequalities, historical and current local specificities, and the uneven geographical development in global capitalism, there are striking similarities (and concurrencies) now across the North-South axis when it comes to capitalist everyday life. My point here is not to insist on a particular pattern of similarities and differences concerning social phenomena of CiA and capitalism elsewhere, to discuss these phenomena along binaries of good/bad, better/worse, to suggest which analytical terms are most useful, or to say whether this is about “catching-up” or “leading” vis-à-vis certain phenomena. My point is that current capitalism is altering African countries such as Uganda and Kenya in significant ways and that it is these alterations that need more analytical attention, explanation and discussion.

We are witnessing the operation of a more fully fledged, institutionalised, normalised capitalist social order, and an intensification and deepening of processes that will render these countries, for the time being, even more capitalist. Capitalism is now more fully operational and thus, so to speak, causal i.e. it needs to be taken into account when discussing the drivers and characteristics of contemporary life in African countries.

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