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Capitalism and Its Discontents: My Observations in Uganda and Kenya

12 min read.

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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Dr. Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Leeds

Ideas

Boda Boda Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Name has been changed to protect the rider

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Ideas

Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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