Reading Panashe Chigumadzi’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking To Nigerians About Race,” was quite a trip. Halfway through the essay, I was certain that I would join issues with it. Bold, piquant, exacting, yet strangely endearing, the writing staked out a particular challenge to Nigerians who, it seems, have a reputation on social media for not fighting shy of hot-and-heavy gauntlets. Most people have opinions about Nigerians, who have opinions about nearly everything on earth and in outer space, so Chigumadzi’s pinpoint digital pre-indaba was a lucky strike. It immediately elicited a flurry of tweets, replies, and counterreplies, most of them approving. Typically, the impulse-engineered attention did not last.
It is true that a couple of other Nigerians came up for sharp censure in the essay, but none had Ṣóyínká’s standing, or provided enough straw on which to hang the argument.
For me, though, two things stood out in that altogether necessary challenge, and they were obvious in the two tweets I sent in sharing the hot link. First, I felt that the claim that Nigerians lacked sufficient political solidarity with (southern) Africans on the basis of race was debatable (a good thing), and that, second, placing the writer Wolé Ṣóyínká as the exemplary figure of that national lack of empathy could use a more considered appreciation of the writer’s involvements as a political personality.
It is true that a couple of other Nigerians came up for sharp censure in the essay, but none had Ṣóyínká’s standing, or provided enough straw on which to hang the argument. The first issue was the authors’ main beef, and she marshaled many points, some relying on personal observations and others distilled from quite impressive reading. “If it is true,” she wrote, “that we of African descent have grown up in different households, that shape our experiences of the world differently, how do we respond to the pain and yearnings of our sisters?” I imagined addressing this question with a combination of historical details and actual examples of Nigerians’ commitment to racial solidarity that Chigumadzi might have missed. Then, parenthetically, I would add a long paragraph to offer a complex picture of Ṣóyínká’s racial politics, in art and in life.
In the meantime, I hoped someone else, another Nigerian or anyone from anywhere informed about Ṣóyínká’s work, would pick this gauntlet …
Reflecting further on the task, however, it seems to me that building an argument around Ṣóyínká’s politics in relation to the black world, and to southern Africa in particular, is the more productive way to address my two quibbles with the essay. It presents an opportunity to put on record information about African literary culture that is not well-known, much less treasured. The prevalent attitudes among African creative artists, especially those who are socialized in digital culture, do not seem to sufficiently encourage habits that make confident creatures of sensibilities—curiosity, criticism and the eschewal of easy answers. It is to the benefit of Chigumadzi’s readers that they are made aware of the political exactions of writers like Ṣóyínká and others, whether or not such readers are inclined to take literature as vocation. Writers also make our history, after all, and they do so in ways that give us cause for hope, for the most part. And who knows but that refreshing relevant parts of this history can foster (actually rekindle!) the solidarity that the author felt to be lacking.
Writing with Attitude
Chigumadzi wrote that Ṣóyínká “had been so unimpressed and impatient with the Negritude movement spearheaded by the Francophone writers of African descent that he famously dismissed them at the 1962 African Writers’ Conference held at Makerere University, quipping: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” At a conference in Berlin two years later, Ṣóyínká elaborated this: “a tiger does not stand in the forest and say: ‘I am a tiger.’ When you pass where the tiger has walked before, you see the skeleton of the duiker, you know that some tigritude has been emanated there.”” She added, subsequently, that “Ṣóyínká was [not] the only one to critique the Negritude movement. It was just that he was the loudest, and perhaps the most flippant, in his response.”
Readers of Myth, Literature and the African World might recall that Ṣóyínká actually turned to endorsing certain of the principles of Negritude in the following decades, and he is known to have declared that Abibiman, the world of black peoples, was his primary sphere of artistic and political interest.
With the right context, Ṣóyínká’s attitude toward Negritude and toward racial politics in Africa and the world appears as two different, clearly justified, things. Yes, a lot has been written about that “tigritude” statement, and Chigumadzi’s summary was largely accurate. However, her interpretation of that statement as a “flippant” dismissal of Negritude, and thus of racial solidarity, was mistaken.
What Ṣóyínká intended with the statement in Kampala was clear, and as soon as an opportunity for clarification appeared, (during the Berlin conference mentioned in Chigumadzi’s essay), he seized it: “To quote what I said fully, I said ‘A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces … The distinction which I was making at this conference (in Kampala, Uganda, 1962) was purely a literary one: I was trying to distinguish between propaganda and true poetic creativity. I was saying in other words that what one expected from poetry was an intrinsic poetic quality, not a mere name-dropping.”
In an unpublished text tracing the history of the tigritude jive, the critic James Gibbs has observed that both the initial statement in Kampala and the clarification in Berlin “did not come out of the blue. Ṣóyínká had toyed with similar ideas and kindred images before. In ‘The Future of West African Writing’ published in The Horn [a magazine at the University of Ibadan], he wrote: ‘The duiker does not paint ‘duiker’ on his beautiful back to proclaim his duikeritude’. [Y]ou’ll know him by his elegant leap.’” That essay came out in June 1960, two clear years before the Kampala meeting.
Ṣóyínká clearly wanted to take a stand. Here was a young writer taking it to the elders, Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire in the main, eager to clear for himself a space from which to speak as an artist with his own mind. And he was hardly the only one. Kampala also provided the stage for the late Christopher Okigbo’s unforgettable declaration that he wrote his poetry only for poets. Such statements are prone to quotations, misquotations, paraphrases and outright decontextualization. These are understandable reactions; they come with the territory, and Ṣóyínká must have issued enough rebuttals to bore himself to exasperated silence, the fate of the verbal magician trying to control the motions of a genie he’d not expected to grow legs as it slid out of the bottle. But silence is not his inclination. On the contrary, he is likelier to downplay his exactions. At another conference in Sweden in 1967, Ṣóyínká’s self-ironizing remarks about “writers holding up radio stations” elicited criticisms from Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Dennis Brutus, neither of whom was aware that the speaker had recently suffered detention and trial in Nigeria for such daring.
Claims of a lack of racial solidarity are hardly tenable, then, in so far as Ṣóyínká is concerned. In his work and activism, he has one of the strongest records among black writers of the modern era in taking on the racial question.
Readers of Myth, Literature and the African World might recall that Ṣóyínká actually turned to endorsing certain of the principles of Negritude in the following decades, and he is known to have declared that Abibiman, the world of black peoples, was his primary sphere of artistic and political interest. As a work of intellectual accounting, that monograph offered much that Ṣóyínká needed to put before the world concerning his views of the continent’s cultural unity, agreeing with the likes of Cheik Anta Diop and Chancellor Williams where evidence required it, and parting ways with them where necessary. No one who has carefully read the final chapter, “Ideology and the Social Vision,” can pretend to any doubts about where the writer stood on the issues. Ironically, in that book he made such a strong case against racist denigration of African experiences that, in mistaken appraisal of his premise, critics like Kwame Appiah took him to task for daring to speak of an African world!
Claims of a lack of racial solidarity are hardly tenable, then, in so far as Ṣóyínká is concerned. In his work and activism, he has one of the strongest records among black writers of the modern era in taking on the racial question. As the Nigerian poet, Peter Akinlabi tweeted in response to AIAC’s post of Chigumadzi’s essay, The Invention, one of Ṣóyínká’s earliest plays written while he was still a student at Leeds University, was his first foray into the political and human costs of apartheid in South Africa. Around this time, he also joined a cadet corps in Leeds in preparation for a planned invasion of the apartheid enclave, and had close contacts with South African exiles in London (Gibbs, pers. comm.).
His collection of poems, Ogun Abibiman, is a creative deployment of the martial ethos of the deity Ogun in confronting racial subjection on the continent. It made its way into the world in the context of the military alliance against apartheid, spearheaded by the late Samora Machel, the founding president of Mozambique, and was subtitled “an epic poem dedicated to the Fallen of Soweto.” In 1975, with fellow writers Kofi Awonoor and Brutus, he founded the Union of Writers of the African Peoples, UWAP, and used that platform for his literary and political activities for several years. (In Los Angeles in the late 1990s, I hung out with the South African poet, Keorapetse Kgotsitsile (“Bra Willie”), whom Chigumadzi quoted in her essay. He spoke often and lovingly about the letters Ṣóyínká wrote to him inquiring of the activities of South African exiles across the world, and of ways to be of help. Later, in the company of another South African, the writer and political activist Nomboniso Gasa, I tried to tease out further information from Ṣóyínká about that episode, but he demurred, obviously unwilling to overemphasize his roles. At any rate, there are other records of this kind of commitment, including an important disclosure by Ngugi in Detained, his prison memoirs.)
Nigerians Making African History
All of this might come across as so much background information concerning an issue that Chigumadzi proffered only as an example of a contemporary trend among Nigerians who show scant attention to the racial complexities that black people in and outside the continent have to deal with. But it is necessary to know these things to better understand why some or even most Nigerians do not relate to racism the way a South African or a Namibian might do. Against the background of Ṣóyínká’s exemplary championing of the cause of black people everywhere (and he was not the only one to do this even in Nigeria), Nigeria’s own efforts in the political arena appear exceptional but evolving, and the reasons for the trend that Chigumadzi attacked are easier to appreciate.
Historians, anthropologists, literary critics and economic historians have pointed to the roles that different colonial models in west and southern Africa played in fostering ambiguous attitudes toward race or racial issues in the post-independence era. Wild conquest (to use the title of Peter Abrahams’ novel) of broad swathes of eastern and southern African societies brought about material dispossession of land and customary property in Rhodesia in a manner that could not be achieved in, say, Nigeria. Additional environmental factors such as climate and vegetation prevented the establishment of settler colonialism in West Africa, and the creation of apartheid as state policy in South Africa was the culmination of European racist ideologies for which the age of capital was suitable, give or take a few accidents of geography. But as Chigumadzi observed, the fact that Nigerians did not live in a country where racism was state policy does not mean that they cannot relate to the experience of those who did, and still do. That is empathy, a sentiment that humans are expected to extend to others.
She also does the important, detailed job of documenting Nigeria’s role in supporting anti-apartheid movements, groups, and initiatives during the long, dark night of that racist madness. Nigerian school children of my generation not only made monetary contributions to anti-apartheid relief funds, we were also taught something unforgettable: the left-hand corner of the blackboard in classrooms in Western Nigeria remained sacrosanct with the declaration: “Apartheid is a crime against humanity.” This message should not be wiped off the blackboard, under any circumstance. As recently as 2002, there were schools in Ibadan where the legend still spoke clearly, white chalk on a black background. In all likelihood, former pupils who took this message to heart also paid the ultimate price during the xenophobic violence exploding across South African cities in 2008, and reigniting periodically. What Nigerians viewed as a national duty with respect to the struggles against apartheid also existed in their music, from reggae, pop, to fuji, best exemplified in the career of the late Sonny Okosuns. This duty doubled in importance for the so-called “frontline states” in the mid-1970s, including Angola, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Mozambique, and Namibia. Support for liberation movements in the region became the centerpiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy, starting with the formal recognition and declaration of support for the MPLA, the anti-colonial party in Angola.
While different high-level political maneuverings shaped that diplomatic outcome, it is important to add that UWAP, the writers group coordinated by Ṣóyínká, played a major role in making the support for Angola count as more than a choice by the Nigerian government. At a symposium organized by President Senghor of Senegal, in 1976, all the writers and scholars, including the Trinidadian political thinker C. L. R. James, who gathered in the National Assembly in Dakar used the occasion of a plenary session to vote—unanimously—in support of the MPLA. Ṣóyínká and Senghor had since mended fences over the “tigritude” diss, assuming any were considered broken, but he made UWAP stand on principle while Senghor, the generous host, had stated his preference for MPLA’s rivals.
To understand the evolving history of this political solidarity, readers need to appreciate the progressive character of the political society in Nigeria, a character that does not always coincide with the forms and practices of the Nigerian state or the habits of its citizens, whether highly placed or not. This means that the principal impulse in the nation that Nigerians worked to build, even long before they came to be identified as Nigerians, was for the betterment of human values, and that a primary identity as Africans was fundamental to stabilizing this impulse. There is no space here to explain these claims in detail, or discuss how this progressive politics developed. It should suffice to note, however, that Nigeria came into existence as a modern, black, African nation at a time when the intellectual values of the black world were coming together, from such unusual places as the writings and activities of Edward Blyden, James Johnson, and other forerunners of the nationalists of the 1920s and the 1930s, as well as the contradictions built into the economic antics of Pax Britannica.
At some point in her essay, Chigumadzi quotes Kwame Appiah to the effect that what “race meant to the ’New Africans’ –the generation of African intellectuals of the 1960s educated in the West such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere – was different to what race meant to “educated blacks in the New World” such as African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Black British people.”
The fact is that between the Pan-Africanist origins of modern Nigerian nationalism and the radical overtures to political struggles in southern Africa, a great variety of symptoms appeared in the body politic that entrenched bourgeois liberalism as the default social mode in the population’s self-apprehension, even though the political outlook could still remain largely progressive
Appiah arrived at this conclusion only in analysis, and a partial one at that. In practice, generations of political activists before Ṣóyínká such as Hezekiah Davies, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Margaret Ekpo, Fúnmiláyọ̀ Ransome-Kútì, and Nkrumah posed the question of anti-colonialism as Africans partly due to their experience of living and studying in the US and England, and partly because even in countries without policies of racial segregation, colonial prejudice often manifested itself in terms of racial hierarchies. Whites got paid more than their African counterparts who held the same or more demanding jobs, and Africans were unable to rise in the professions unless they obtained expensive degrees that were not available in the colonies. What these political figures did when or if they got into power might run counter to those principles, but it would be ahistorical to ignore the situations which shaped their radical politics and the courage with which they responded to those situations.
“At the End of the Small Hours…”
This history does not always inform the way that contemporary Nigerians relate to issues of racism on the continent and in the world at large. The fact is that between the Pan-Africanist origins of modern Nigerian nationalism and the radical overtures to political struggles in southern Africa, a great variety of symptoms appeared in the body politic that entrenched bourgeois liberalism as the default social mode in the population’s self-apprehension, even though the political outlook could still remain largely progressive. Among these symptoms was the fact that the party which came to power after the 1959 elections intensely distrusted radical politics, and exacted heavy penalties from those who professed even a mild form of it within three years of self-government. Moreover, and perhaps as a consequence of the first symptom. a combination of ethnic, religious, class and linguistic differences catalyzed a climate of opportunism that made a fair game of needs considered extraneous in political terms. As examples of Pan-African solidarity, the support for the frontline states in 1975 and the establishment of the Technical Aids Corps (through which Nigerian professional expertise was distributed to African, Caribbean and Pacific countries) both occurred, irony of ironies, under military regimes.
Much later in the essay, Chigumadzi posed another question: “Why are so many of these [Nigerian] writers seemingly so apolitical around race politics and deliberately refuse to understand these basic ethics of solidarity and instead bask in the glory of individuated reward of model minority?” The question became necessary because of the ‘blame-the-victim’ standpoint of a Nigerian entrepreneur like Chika Onyeani, author of a bestselling book in South Africa (Capitalist Nigger), and other newly emergent writers. This question may be related to the main one about lack of empathy, but it is in fact different. It speaks to a particular condition among colonial and postcolonial intellectuals, especially those of African descent everywhere. It is informed, I think, by the opportunisms that go with pursuing an artistic/intellectual career in a world that is run by mostly white capitalists and that rewards those who are unwilling to ask difficult questions about economic and social injustices, or prefer to ask them only of Africans, the way an Onyeani would. It is a form of power grab; the Indian writer Arundhati Roy addresses an aspect of it in her book, Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Whether things would change if that world were to be run by black or brown capitalists is an open question, but we have provisional answers from the way the affairs of Nigeria and South Africa have been managed in the last two decades. Neither country, as far as I can see, places any real worth on the lives of its citizens. Chigumadzi shows a keen awareness of this problem when she writes of “white racial capitalism and coloniality which is sophisticated enough not to need the presence of white bodies to function.” We can be mindful of the records of British colonialism in Nigeria without thinking to hold Theresa May accountable for the genocidal level of poverty in Nigeria today.
The two questions are ever necessary, and we should be grateful to Chigumadzi for the courage and imagination to raise them. She speaks in a register that is familiar to those who are inclined to form their opinions through soundbites and short reads. Praises on social media of the brilliance of her analyses arrived in lockstep with complaints about the length of the essay. (There are other waters that the essay could have troubled. For example, do contemporary Ghanaians practice a better form of racial solidarity than Nigerians? When prominent politicians such as Ignatius Kutu Acheampong (Ghana), Frederick Chiluba (Zambia) and Alassane Ouattara (Ivory Coast) became victims of the nationality test, any surprises that Zimbabweans living bare lives in South Africa, or Nigerians in Libya, should suffer the fate of blacks in segregation-era Mississippi? But we can hope that such impressions are not lost on informed readers of the essay.) The passion with which Chigumadzi has connected a variety of global-black experiences, through literary and musical references, points to an intellectual sensibility that those interested in their place in the world would do well to cultivate. Chinua Achebe is right: to partisans of African occasions, it is morning yet on creation day.
I suspect that the title of the essay is used tongue-in-cheek. Even with the disposition toward “stanning” “famzing” and surface “bants” among folks on social media there are many people who may be prepared to work their way to genuine awareness if provided with information. This is a responsibility that falls to artists and writers, and they should do it wherever and whenever possible, in spite of the tendency among people on social media to take offense when corrected on points of fact, style or logic. Once at the University of Ibadan, I listened with horror as a student responded to a lecture by a visiting African American professor by dismissing him as a ‘Negro’, not an African! The professor didn’t expect this, in Ibadan of all places, and so did not know how to respond. I issued a quick rejoinder, and after the lecture the person who’d made the offensive comment came up to me to apologize which, I sensed, was genuine.
These attitudes always have to be cultivated, lifelong, vigilant, unapologetic. Like Lewis Nkosi, Maryse Conde, Mongo Beti and Bessie Head, Ṣóyínká appeared early to observers as an unusually gifted writer who displayed these qualities, but always in the guise of a citizen, and of a country that only happened to be Nigeria. A wonderful accident of birth, the gift of history as citizen of two countries scarred by racism, we hope, makes Chigumadzi another exemplary figure. Her essay is a strong sign of that irrevocable commitment to asking difficult questions, without which silence might be taken, falsely, scandalously again, as the response of sentient black people to the manifold conundrums of the world.
Editors Note: This essay was originally published in Africa as a Country
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Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah
Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of the UN that shatters any notions that the organization is the moral conscience of the world, instead revealing an internal culture of fraud, corruption, mismanagement, racism and sexism, driven by an instinct of craven institutional self-preservation.
Living in Nairobi, one of my guilty pleasures is looking through expat guides and tour books on Kenya. I am definitely not the target audience, but I pick up Xpat Magazine whenever I’m in the Karen area, where it seems to be plentiful and free, its outdated font and clunky layout notwithstanding. There’s the famous Nairobi Expat Marketplace on Facebook, which has somehow lost its lustre in recent years since being infiltrated (this is conjecture) by commercial sellers, but which in its heyday was the place to get all kinds of high-quality second-hand household items from expatriates disposing of their possessions in readiness for moving back to their home countries. Most of the posts would read “QUICK SALE”—taken by most Kenyans not as an indication to actually buy the item quickly, but rather to be a signal that it was “game on” to bargain as hard as possible.
Then there are the many expat guides online, which offer advice on everything from finding schools to hiring domestic help. Here’s one: “Employing domestic staff is the norm here, and they can be a great asset to an expat household. This may not be something that new arrivals are used to, but likely something they will soon embrace.” (!) There is a part of me that is triggered when I read the casual racism and superiority in some of these posts, but to be honest, my main motivation in deliberately falling into these strange rabbit holes is the same as watching trashy reality TV—to roll my eyes and scoff with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity.
Of course, in the Nairobi context, the main hub serving as the attraction and engine for this fairly large expatriate community (relative to many other African cities), is the United Nations office in Nairobi that serves as the UN headquarters in Africa and one of the four UN main duty stations, the only one in the global south, as many an article breathlessly, and needlessly, emphasizes. The Nairobi office is the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as well as 23 country offices and several regional hubs.
Working for the UN is an ambition for many, not just because of its perceived high pay and job security—a friend of mine was recently hired by the UN office in Nairobi and upon hearing the news, another friend told him, “Ah, wewe umeomoka!” (Sheng for dude, you’ve made it!). On a broader level, the public image of the UN is that of an institution where people are driven by a strong sense of purpose, working together in the pursuit of world peace and a better future for us all, a place of “high protocol and elegant diplomatic manners.”
But Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world. Warah, a writer, journalist and author of five books, worked for the organization for twelve years, having joined with the same wide-eyed innocence and determination to Make A Difference. What she found instead is a rigidly hierarchical, self-protecting system that tolerates fraud, abets corruption, excuses mismanagement, encourages abuse of authority, persecutes whistle-blowers, actively and tacitly devalues black lives, and puts women and children in the way of sexual predators.
Warah’s book touches on her own experiences of being harassed and forced out of the organization when she accidentally discovered US$300,000 in donor funds being possibly misused, and the emotional and verbal bullying that ensued. She had also been compelled by her supervisor to use unscientific and inaccurate data in The State of the World’s Cities report, of which she was editor. Instead of addressing this gross irregularity, Warah writes, she was “humiliated in office meetings and called a liar”. All her efforts to get internal redress were ignored, “buried in a heap of bureaucratic indifference” including by the UN Ethics Office, and by several subsequent directors of UN-Habitat, only going public by writing this book as a last resort.
Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world.
The bulk of the book however, unearths harrowing stories from UN failures worldwide, opening in the first chapter with a striking quote from a 1994 New York Times op-ed that describes the UN headquarters in New York as “one of the most dangerous territories for women”, where female UN staff faced a hostile work environment of rampant sexual harassment, but had nowhere to turn because no national laws, not even those of the United States, can govern how it operates. This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.
The book goes on to chronicle serious offences covered up by a UN that, in her telling, is a place concerned, above all, with its own reputation and continued existence. Some of these offences are well known, such as the UN’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, even though it had the intel to do so. (Remarkably, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, escaped blame for the genocide, going on to head the UN as Secretary-General and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.) In addition, the UN failed to take responsibility for a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 10,000 people; the outbreak originated in the sewage of the UN peacekeeping mission there. Others feature less in the public consciousness but are no less appalling, such as the organization’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by UN Peacekeepers in Mozambique, Liberia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo—the perpetrators were simply sent home.
This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.
There is also the internal work culture at the organization that abets irregularities and outright fraud, such as fiddling with statistics to show a higher slum population or more people facing food emergencies, so that more funds can be raised for a particular cause. Or, in an even broader sense, the outright colonial idea that white people are invariably better than non-white people at the organization, with white supremacy animating much of the hierarchy at the UN. Lack of career advancement is a sore point for African staff at the organization, and in one episode in the book that I found particularly striking, denial of a promotion is ostensibly carried out “to ‘protect’ the employee from racism—a very convoluted way of thinking that victimizes African employees twice”. Instead of white colleagues being reprimanded for being unwilling to be supervised by an African, the African’s career advancement was blocked. Any typical Nairobian can attest to the fact that white expatriates enjoy privileges—such as domestic staff, which expat publications are always quick to laud—that they might not get in Europe and North America, and so, white people typically throw their weight around and commit infarctions that they would not dare attempt back home.
Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of an organization that, all said, she still believes can do much good in the world, but only with real and systematic restructuring—such as redefining the immunity clauses of the UN charter so that staff implicated in crime or unethical behaviour are not exempted from being indicted in their home country as is the case currently, and replacing the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal.
The book’s major weakness is that in some places, its scope becomes too sprawling and one can become lost in the intricacies of the internal workings of the UN; it could have been edited more tightly for a general audience. I am also not sure how different this book is from Warah’s 2016 book UNSilenced, which uncovers similar webs of lies, cover-ups, corruption and impunity within a UN that has allowed wrongdoing to continue unabated, but this may be because have not yet had the opportunity to read that earlier book.
Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.
In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.
Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.
Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.
But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.
When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.
Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.
For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”
The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.
Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.
In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.
Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.
The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.
Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.
Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”
Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.
When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?
Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.
It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.
And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.
Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.
So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.
Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.
And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?
Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.
The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.
And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.
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