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Battered but Not Broken: Resurrecting the Pan-Africanist Ideal

7 min read.

Arguably, Pan-Africanism could only have emerged beyond the shores of Africa. The continent’s riotous diversity, comparatively as dense as its famous jungles, aided the divide-and-conquer tactics of its numerous enemies. The multitudinous nature of its languages, historical traditions, customs and ethnicities meant that Africa never learnt to speak with “one voice” as it had historically spoken with cacophonies of voices. Its diversity in all things was simply astounding.

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Battered but Not Broken: Resurrecting the Pan-Africanist Ideal
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Since the eras of Edward Blyden, W.E.B. Dubois, Chancellor Williams, George Padmore, Marcus Garvey and Kwame Nkrumah, the idea of Pan-Africanism has exercised the minds of blacks seeking to hurl off the yoke of racism and oppression. Each major advocate of the Pan-Africanist creed ended up inflecting it with different personal significations but its over-riding goal of black emancipation and unity remains intact.

Some, like Blyden, advocated a form of classism that demarcated continental Africans from diasporan blacks, with the former relegated to a lower socio-political status on account of their “lack” of modern skills and also their relative unfamiliarity with the Christian faith.

Times have since changed.

Arguably, Pan-Africanism could only have emerged beyond the shores of Africa. The continent’s riotous diversity, comparatively as dense as its famous jungles, aided the divide-and-conquer tactics of its numerous enemies. The multitudinous nature of its languages, historical traditions, customs and ethnicities meant that Africa never learnt to speak with “one voice” as it had historically spoken with cacophonies of voices. Its diversity in all things was simply astounding.

However, blacks in the diaspora – under the shared horror of slavery and plantation cruelty – were forced to unite through the creolised languages and cultures they had to develop. In essence, their shared experiences thrust them together rather than divided them. The abjection of their lives in which they were losing their original languages, cultures and spiritualities pointed in only one direction: the white oppressor. Out of those unimaginable depths of misery, their primal cries of agony struck a chord of unity. Expediency must have dictated that their collective pain could only be assuaged through the forging of unified black bonds.

Psychic freedom

Sometimes the notion of freedom within the definition of Pan-Africanism acquires metaphoric connations; freedom is not merely the release from forms of physical bondage; it can also attain subtler and deeper levels, including psychic freedom; a connection with, and an unrestrained exploration of the fact of blackness, which ultimately ends in the acquisition of more potent spiritual meaning.

The slave ship, rather than being merely a vessel of physical bondage, becomes a pilgrimage into the meaning of blackness, the eternal struggle for its recovery amid elemental oppression in which a hard-won strain of blackness is received as a prize of victory that comes at enormous cost, and which subsequently serves as a beacon for all those seeking freedom in whatever form.

Sometimes the notion of freedom within the definition of Pan-Africanism acquires metaphoric connations; freedom is not merely the release from forms of physical bondage; it can also attain subtler and deeper levels, including psychic freedom…

In this historical and precise moment, Pan-Africanism finds its essence, which it can only retain momentarily, for it must delve below to rescue numerous victims of oppression, thrusting and thirsting for the purity of its strength most often without relief. And when it descends from its enormous spiritual height, when it sheds ineffable spiritual sustenance for realpolitik, it also finds itself needy without its former spiritual glory. It must contend with the practicalities of gaining electoral votes, problems of inadequate and poor housing, chronic poverty and unemployment, teenage pregnancy and single-headed households, widespread alcohol and drug abuse; problems with severe cancerous impact on black communities.

The crisis within Pan-Africanism

Pan-Africanism needs to learn to deal with these myriad problems in order to acquire more power, the sort of power that divests it of its strain of purity and which also denudes of it of evocative power. Indeed the power of Pan-Africanism is largely evocative, which brings us to a problem within Pan-Africanism.

The problem stems from Pan-Africanism’s indecision to transit from its pure strain to its abstract identity. Undoubtedly, from the perspective of realpolitik, both the pure strain and the abstract identity are not of much practical utility. Pan-Africanism had been compelled to be an ideology as well as a religion at the same time, which led to its crisis.

In Africa and in the diaspora, slavery and colonialism left in their wake utter wreckage and chaos. The effort to re-build chaotic black communities all around the world entailed more than just the slogan of Pan-Africanism. It was akin to thrusting one’s head into a tunnel in order to cope with a multitude of practicalities. It meant, in many instances, a disavowal of the global in favour of the local, a severance from the beatitudes of the spirit for the urgent demands of the body, a re-configuration of the contest between ideological imperative and metaphysical comfort.

At the end of the day, Pan-Africanism had to recede to make way for shoring up shattered black communities; it entailed a retreat into the soul-crushing labours of the local.

And necessarily, the retreat into the local meant a diminution of the Pan-African appeal. By orientation, Pan-Africanism is global; it had sought to end the oppression of blacks in the world wherever it existed, and so it had to over-reach itself in order to gain a desirable degree of ideological purity.

But this over-reaching tendency has had some disastrous consequences in the field of politics. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, a noted apostle of Pan-Africanism, is often criticised by Ghanaians for not paying enough attention to them. A common assumption is that there were more Nkrumahists who were non-Ghanaians than Ghanaians themselves. Arguably, the Ghanaian leader struggled to no avail to strike the appropriate balance between the local and the Pan-African.

More recently, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has labelled himself a scion of the African Renaissance and has sought, amid great difficulties, to realise the Pan-African dream in a territory tragically rife with Afrophobia. Afrophobia (fear of other Africans) is on the rise in South Africa as the country battles chronic crime, massive unemployment and its economic “junk” status. In such a context of political and economic meltdown, Pan-Africanism would obviously be a hard sell.

At a crucial political moment, Nkrumahists were probably better off being Ghanaian citizens than were non-Ghanaians in order to perform the gruelling local work of clawing inch by inch towards the Pan-African apex. Similarly, Mbeki’s political routing at Polokwane in 2007 spelled a major setback for the Pan-African initiative in South Africa. Within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Mbeki’s supporters were muscled out of political reckoning and hounded into submission or institutional exile. And so there was virtually no base upon which to build from the bottom up, hence the frequent violent outbreaks of Afrophobia and other officially sanctioned forms of social exclusion.

Among the generation of the so-called South African “born-frees” (born post-1994), a disconcerting form of political parochialism has taken root, encouraged by older political opportunists. Often downplayed is the fact that the anti-apartheid movement had to acquire a global appeal fostered by a robust Pan-Africanism to be truly effective. In moments of insane xenophobic rage, this history suddenly vanishes as if the South African liberation effort had occurred in total isolation from the rest of the world.

There have been innumerable international conferences organised around a basic Pan-African intent or initiative where most of the delegates appeared to be grasping at vague, illusionary cosmic straws. But the real task lies in re-modelling local institutions, politics and aspirations to align more directly with the Pan-African dream.

Among the generation of the so-called South African “born-frees” (born post-1994), a disconcerting form of political parochialism has taken root, encouraged by older political opportunists. Often downplayed is the fact that the anti-apartheid movement had to acquire a global appeal fostered by a robust Pan-Africanism to be truly effective.

There always seems to be a discernible disconnect between dream and reality and these international platforms seemed to be opportunities to indulge in the lambent mirage of the unattainable before we returned to the grim and drab realities of our everyday lives. In chasing after the dream, we get to experience the fleeting joys and headiness of spirituality and ideology all at once.

It appears Pan-Africanism would have loved to work like Zionism, which has a politically, linguisitically, culturally and spiritually unified Israel as its home base. On the other hand, blacks, dispersed as much as ever all around the world, can only claim an Africa splintered as ever by several languages, cultures, faiths, politics, ideologies and (neo)colonialisms, as a possible homeland and even more problematically, an imaginary homeland of the mind.

Embracing our ethnic others

Yet, we cannot afford to succumb to the myopia the situation encourages. The Pan-African dream is a necessary dream and not a costly one. Any appreciable knowledge of African and black diasporic history would immediately reveal this fact.

It is necessary to saddle ourselves with the labours of the local; ensuring that our communities are safe and functional, our schools and health systems work, and that our homesteads are havens of care, decency and productivity. All of this involves unquestionably hard, grinding work. But as we build according to the dictates of the local, we must also ensure that our communities provide comfort and opportunities for our ethnic “others” and black brethren from elsewhere.

The inability to recognise, empathise with, and accept our ethnic others invariably leads to the Hutu-Tutsi genocidal context of 1994 or more recently, Darfur in the 21st century.

And so the conceptual challenge is to locate the cosmopolitan potential deep within the labours of the local. The Indian community activist working assiduously in the traditional Indian settlement of Chatsworth in Durban, South Africa, might be consciously or inadvertently pursuing the Pan-African dream when she embraces racial and ethnic others in the bid to strengthen her community for the good of all.

Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian author and polymath of Yoruba culture never fails to affirm the almost boundless territorial expanse of humanity even as he energetically explores the uniqueness of the Yoruba, his ethnic group. The Yoruba – like the other great West African nationalities, such as the Ibo, Fulani, Asante, Fon, Hausa, Malinke, Wolof, Mende, among others – had been dispersed globally via the transatlantic slave trade. So their descendants can be found in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Honduras, Colombia, Trinidad and Tabago, Barbados, Brazil and the United States, amongst other countries. During the course of this global dispersal, they bore with them knowledge of their spiritualities and cultures, a considerable part of which continues to thrive until today.

Due to this kind of history, Pan-Africanism ought to be viable and necessary, but the pursuit of the Pan-African dream must be done in conjunction with the labours of the local; that is, building each little community piece by piece until it links up with the next, and the next, always bearing in mind the links between the local and the global, and that in attending to the tortuous demands of the local, the Pan-African dream will only become possible through the empathetic embrace of our ethnic others.

Perhaps the much-trumpeted Southern African humanistic concept of ubuntu has a lot to offer by way of explanation here. Pan-Africanism has always been over-burdened by the imperative of a strategic vision, or the propulsive romanticism of its dream, or else, the purity of its spiritual antecedents. All of these combined largely account for its abstract identity, which is not always what is required to build communities from the bottom. Only when it attains a balance between tactical drudgery and strategic ambition can it acquire renewed significance.

Due to this kind of history, Pan-Africanism ought to be viable and necessary, but the pursuit of the Pan-African dream must be done in conjunction with the labours of the local; that is, building each little community piece by piece until it links up with the next, and the next, always bearing in mind the links between the local and the global…

It is likely that once this balance is struck, life would probably be lived without the sloganeering, braggadocio and the perhaps understandably excessive spiritualism of Pan-Africanism. Perhaps it would then be possible to attain a state of Pan-Africanist nirvana without the rabid ideologisation of Pan-Africanism.

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Sanya Osha is a philosopher, novelist and poet living in Pretoria, South Africa. His most recent publications include the novels, An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012), and On a Sad Weather-Beaten Couch, the volume of poetry, A Troubadour’s Thread (2013), and the work of scholarship, Dani Dabudere’s Afrikology (2018).

Ideas

Africa’s Land Use Problem: Is Green Revolution Agriculture a Solution or a Cause?

It is a myth that the only way to increase productivity on existing agricultural lands is through Green Revolution programmes and evidence shows that they are among the principal causes of unsustainable land use.

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Africa’s Land Use Problem: Is Green Revolution Agriculture a Solution or a Cause?
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By all accounts, food and agriculture were barely on the agenda at this month’s UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. They should have been. Food production, distribution, consumption, and waste contribute an estimated one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. In production, the majority comes from unsustainable livestock production with another large share coming from unsustainable production and use of synthetic fertilizers. But a significant share also comes from “land use change”, a neutral term for the destructive expansion of agriculture onto new land.

That sort of “extensification” of agriculture can have serious environmental consequences – deforestation, soil erosion, unsustainable water use, etc. Those in turn have important implications for climate change, as a recent UN report highlighted. Land use changes due to agricultural expansion increase carbon emissions from land clearing, eliminate carbon dioxide-absorbing plants such as rainforests, and create greenhouse gases with incoming modern farming methods. According to the UN, they account for about 30 per cent of agriculture-related emissions.

The simplifying neo-Malthusian perspective attributes extensification to growing populations exerting pressure on scarce natural resources. Increasing farmers’ productivity on existing lands in regions such as Africa where yields are relatively low is the mainstream solution. The goal is to foster “sustainable intensification” – growing more food on the same land. With commercial inputs such as commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers, farmers can intensify their exploitation of existing agricultural land, raising productivity and easing pressures from growing populations to bring new lands into cultivation.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded 15 years ago to address the productivity problem. With generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations, the alliance set out to reduce chronic hunger and poverty by increasing yields in key food crops through the expanded use of commercial seeds and fertilizers. This is the “technology package” credited with raising agricultural productivity in what came to be known as the first Green Revolution in India and other parts of Asia and Latin America in the 1970s.

Africa’s Green Revolution has largely failed to promote either sustainability or intensification. Evidence suggests that the initiatives, which include high levels of government subsidies for farmers to use Green Revolution inputs, are both failing to raise productivity and contributing to the unsustainable expansion of farming onto new lands.

My research shows that excessive incentives to maize and a few commercial crops have persuaded farmers to shift land out of other nutritious crops while expanding production onto new lands. The result is higher maize production but without significant productivity increases. Meanwhile, we see rising levels of malnourishment and undernourishment as poor farmers fail to benefit from rising productivity but see their families’ diet diversity decline as the diversity of food crops in their fields declines.

Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa. The worst dangers of famine are in areas of conflict such as Ethiopia, but hunger is more widespread. The United Nations has recorded a 50 per cent increase in the number of severely undernourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2006. Underlying that deprivation is a model of agricultural development that is encouraging unsustainable land use and undermining crop and diet diversity.

These alarming outcomes have prompted African food producing organizations to call on donors to end their support for AGRA and other Green Revolution programmes. They call for a shift to agroecological initiatives that have been shown to generate sustainable productivity improvements across a range of food crops, addressing the need for more food and more nutritious diets while easing pressures on unsustainable land use.

Redoubling climate damage

Neither evidence nor entreaties have persuaded Green Revolution leaders that their strategies may be misguided. In October, Mr Hailemariam Desalegn, former Prime Minister of Ethiopia and current Chair of the Board of AGRA, acknowledged the problem. “Over the last two decades, the African continent has registered the most rapid rate of agricultural production growth of any region of the world,” he wrote in an opinion column for African Arguments. “Unfortunately, most of this growth has been through the expansion of agricultural land, not an increase in productivity. With our population expected to double by the middle of the century, our farmers need to continue growing more, while using fewer resources.” He went on to argue that the intensive use of Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers could achieve that. He has urged governments and donors to redouble Green Revolution efforts.

Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa.

The evidence suggests otherwise. In 2020, I carried out a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of Green Revolution programmes in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. AGRA refused to share its own impact data, so I used national-level data on crop production, productivity, and area expansion to determine whether AGRA was meeting its stated goal of doubling productivity for 30 million small-scale farming households by 2020. Because 30 million represent the vast majority of farms in AGRA’s programme area, national-level data from 2006-2018 would reveal whether such a productivity revolution was occurring. I also assessed progress toward AGRA’s stated goals of doubling incomes for those same farmers and cutting food insecurity by half by 2020.

I found the Green Revolution was failing on its own terms. Productivity growth was slow, even for heavily supported and subsidized crops such as maize. More traditional staple crops such as millet and sorghum showed stagnation or decline. My estimate of productivity increases for a basket of staple crops in AGRA’s 13 focus countries showed just 18 per cent yield growth over 12 years, a rate barely higher than the preceding 12 years. Not surprisingly, poverty remained endemic, particularly in rural areas. And rather than cutting food insecurity by half, the number of undernourished people increased 31 per cent in those 13 countries.

The data also revealed that Green Revolution initiatives were not only failing to achieve sustainable intensification, they were promoting the opposite. As the graph shows, between 2006 and 2018 maize productivity rose by only 29 per cent while the area planted to maize increased by 45 per cent in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. Overall, production increased 87 per cent, but mainly because of extensification rather than intensification. Meanwhile, land planted to other staples such as millet and sorghum declined or stagnated, as did yields. My composite staple yield index showed just 18 per cent yield growth. (All data cited here, unless otherwise indicated, are from the United Nations, cited in my Tufts University Working Paper.)

AGRA Progress Report: Productivity and Food Security
This outcome will come as no surprise to those living in AGRA countries where incentives are heavily concentrated on maize. In most AGRA countries, governments provide large subsidies to farmers to buy and use commercial maize seeds and fertilizers. AGRA itself has spent one billion dollars in its 14-years of work, but African governments have been spending up to one billion dollars per year on such Farm Input Subsidy Programmes (FISPs). Some governments also pay above-market prices to farmers for their maize to maintain public grain reserves.

As any agricultural economist can attest, land and investments flow to crops that are subsidized or otherwise supported. That has been true in the United States for decades. Farmers make complex calculations to gauge the relative returns to corn, soybeans, wheat, and other crops based on market conditions and relative levels of government support.

In Africa, maize has received the lion’s share of the support in most AGRA countries, so land and investment have moved more heavily into maize production. Farmers are incentivized to switch out of existing crops like millet, which has seen an alarming 24 per cent decline in production and a 21 per cent drop in yields, and into maize. Hence the decline in crop diversity under Green Revolution programmes. Farmers with access to land are also incentivized to bring new land into production, which allows them to reap the benefits of government support programmes. Hence the extensification of production.

As any agricultural economist can attest, land and investments flow to crops that are subsidized or otherwise supported.

Across AGRA countries, there was a 13 per cent increase in land under cultivation from 2006 to 2018, the majority of it in AGRA’s two principal supported crops, maize and rice. More than 7 million more hectares of land were planted in maize in 2018 than in 2006. Another 3 million more hectares were planted in rice. Those 10 million hectares accounted for nearly all of the expansion in land planted to cereal crops in that time period.

It is hard to argue that Green Revolution programmes did not contribute significantly to this problem of agricultural extensification. That is especially problematic when such input-intensive agriculture is failing to generate the promised productivity gains or reductions in hunger.

Studies in extensification: Zambia and Rwanda

Zambia and Rwanda have both expanded maize production dramatically, but both illustrate the ways in which Green Revolution incentives have led to undesirable outcomes. Zambia was one of AGRA’s focus countries until a few years ago. It left the alliance but has re-joined recently. Zambia provides extensive subsidies for maize production and also buys maize at supported prices for its food reserve programme. As a result, it has the highest levels of fertilizer use among AGRA countries. Between 2006 and 2018, Zambia increased maize production by 150 per cent, making it an apparent Green Revolution success story.

Zambia Progress Report: Productivity and Food Security
But, as the graph shows, only a small share of the added maize came from productivity growth. Yields grew just 27 per cent while the area planted to maize doubled. Millet and sorghum production and yields declined and farmers moved land out of those traditional staples into maize in response to Green Revolution incentives. Two-thirds of Zambia’s 32 per cent increase in land planted to crops was attributable to new land planted to maize. Staple yields overall increased just 20 per cent in that 12-year period. And all that maize failed to stem hunger or reduce poverty. The number of undernourished Zambians increased 29 per cent while extreme rural poverty remained at 78 per cent.

Rwanda has been a poster child for AGRA for years. AGRA’s current president, Agnes Kalibata, ascended to that position in large part due to her success in increasing maize production as Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture. Between 2006 and 2018, maize production increased 300 per cent thanks to a well-funded and heavy-handed Green Revolution initiative. Seeds and fertilizer were heavily subsidized and farmers were fined if they did not agree to use the inputs.

Rwanda Progress Report: Productivity and Food SecurityAs the graph shows, Rwanda achieved higher maize yield growth than Zambia, increasing productivity by 66 per cent. But as in Zambia, most of the added maize came from a 146 per cent increase in new land planted to the crop, not from productivity. Similarly, rice production doubled, but yields actually declined 19 per cent, with land planted to rice increasing 147 per cent. In this small, densely populated country, some of that land came out of other staple crops, with the government reportedly banning their cultivation in some areas. Sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, and other roots and tubers were more important food crops than maize before AGRA, providing nutritional diversity in addition to benefits to the land. Land in cassava fell 16 per cent, while sorghum land declined 17 per cent.

Millet and sorghum production and yields declined and farmers moved land out of those traditional staples into maize in response to Green Revolution incentives.

My more comprehensive Staple Yield Index captures Rwanda’s poor performance across all staple crops. Compared to the much-touted 66 per cent increase in maize yields, we see just a 24 per cent increase in yields for key staples – maize, millet, sorghum, roots and tubers. Since 2006, extreme poverty remained high, falling just three percentage points to a still alarming 60 per cent. As in Zambia, all that extra maize did not help the hungry; the number of undernourished Rwandans has increased 40 per cent since 2006.

Far from being a Green Revolution success story, Rwanda offers an example of the ways in which the imposition of such a model on a relatively diverse farming landscape can disrupt more nutritious and sustainable cropping patterns. Rwanda does not have a great deal of uncultivated arable land, so most of the area expansion for maize and rice came from other crops rather than new lands. Still, Rwanda highlights how heavy incentives for Green Revolution crops create outcomes at odds with the goals of sustainable intensification for food security.

“Time to change course”

AGRA Board Chair Hailemariam Desalegn is correct to identify the problem of unsustainable expansion onto new lands in Africa, but he is wrong to think that his Green Revolution will solve that problem. Evidence shows that Green Revolution programmes are among the principal causes of unsustainable land use. Incentives for a narrow range of supported crops entice farmers and investors to open new lands for cultivation. Meanwhile, those commercial inputs are failing to generate any sort of productivity revolution or address the alarming 50 per cent rise in the number of undernourished Africans since AGRA was founded in 2006.

Seeds and fertilizer were heavily subsidized and farmers were fined if they did not agree to use the inputs.

As representatives from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa state in their published response to Mr Desalegn, it is “time to change course: the future is in agroecology.”

It is a myth that the only way to increase productivity on existing agricultural lands is through Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers. Examples abound across Africa of farming communities that are increasing both the diversity and productivity of their fields. In Africa and other developing countries, some 15 million small-scale farmers interplant so-called green-manure cover crops alongside their food crops to fix nitrogen in the soil, reduce weeding, add another food or forage crop to their fields, and increase the carbon sequestered in the soil. Scientists recommend appropriate cultivars from a range of more than 100 proven cover crops.

The Lablab bean native to East Africa, for example, has been shown to fix very high levels of nitrogen in the soil through its roots, improving soil fertility and water retention. The added nitrogen can raise maize yields threefold in those same fields, eliminating the need for inorganic fertilizer. And farm families get another nutritious food crop from their fields.

Such approaches are documented in a new UN report from its High Level Panel of Experts. Farmers are getting far better results, growing more food on existing land in sustainable ways that increase soil fertility over time. One University of Essex study surveyed nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects across more than 50 poor countries and documented an average 79 per cent increase in productivity with decreasing costs and rising incomes. This is far higher than AGRA’s 18 per cent yield growth in staple crops.

Agroecological farming can also achieve sustainable extensification. With the support of some governments, West African farmers are expanding onto uncultivated lands but in a way that builds rather than compromises the environment. In long-term land rehabilitation projects in the drylands of West Africa, farmers in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, and Niger are leading “another kind of green revolution.” They regenerate tree growth on deforested lands then diversify production as part of agro-forestry initiatives that are increasingly supported by national governments. This restores soil fertility, increases water retention, and has been shown to increase yields 40 to 100 per cent within five years while increasing farmer incomes and food security. According to one study, farmers rehabilitated at least 200,000 hectares of degraded land in Burkina Faso, enabling farmers to grow cereals on land that had been barren.

Farmers are getting far better results, growing more food on existing land in sustainable ways that increase soil fertility over time.

Land reclamation is a desirable form of extensification, avoiding the negative environmental impacts of the input-intensive farming of monocultures of Green Revolution crops. Similarly, agroecology programmes intensify the production of diverse food crops on existing lands in ways that rebuild soil fertility and resilience to climate change.

Such strategies stand in stark contrast to Green Revolution programmes that are failing to help solve Africa’s unsustainable land-use issues. In fact, they are making them worse.

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Ideas

Imagining Kenyan Futures Through Kenyan Pasts

The grievances of this generation are disturbingly similar to those of the generation of the 1940s who took up arms in the Mau Mau movement. For both, it is about land and freedom.

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Mau Mau has always been a dangerous topic in Kenya. Marked by the brutality of the British counterinsurgency against it, Mau Mau is acknowledged by historians to have been simultaneously a nationalist war of independence, a peasant revolt, a civil war within the Kikuyu ethnic group, and an attempted genocide of the Kikuyu people. This plurality of meanings, which successive generations of citizens, politicians and historians have attempted to smoothen out and fit into neat categories, refuses to be tamed. Instead, the struggle for Mau Mau’s memory continues unabated, with little sign of a ceasefire.

The general contours of the Mau Mau war are widely accepted. On 20 October 1952, the Colonial Office declared a state of emergency in Kenya in response to the growing threat posed by the Mau Mau, a revolutionary military group, who had taken up arms in the forests of the central highlands, demanding “land and freedom”. Primarily involving the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru ethnic groups, but also the Maasai, the Luo and Kenyan Indians, among others, the uprising tore through central Kenya, sweeping up not only the guerrilla fighters hidden in the forests and their British adversaries, but entire communities. Forced to pick between Mau Mau adherence and “loyalist” British allegiances, both of which carried immense personal and ideological risks, rural communities were set ablaze – sometimes literally – as the war ripped families apart and forced people to choose sides in an increasingly complex and violent conflict.

By the most conservative estimations, tens of thousands of people died, mainly Mau Mau fighters and supporters, but also African “loyalists” and a few white settlers. Many hundreds of thousands more were forcibly displaced by the fighting, and by what was termed “the Pipeline”, a systematised network of concentration camps and forced villagisation that set out to quash the movement by “converting” Mau Mau adherents into loyal colonial subjects by any means necessary. By 1957, after the capture and execution of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, and with the majority of the forest fighters dead or interned, the war was officially over. However, the violence continued.

Shaken by Mau Mau’s surprising military and ideological resilience, and determined to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again, the colonial government doubled down on the Pipeline system, detaining, and often brutally torturing anyone suspected of harbouring Mau Mau sympathies. In the ensuing decade, it became clear that the rebellion had been quashed. But the writing was on the wall, underlined by the scandalous revelations of the colonial government’s conduct, Kenya’s independence was inevitable and urgent.

As one struggle was ending, however, another was just beginning. Now, the race was on for ownership of Mau Mau’s history. For the British, that meant Operation Legacy, a systematic destruction and removal of all evidence of their criminal conduct during the war. For the incumbent post-independence government, it meant carefully curating a Mau Mau narrative marked more by silences and omissions than by commemoration of the events of the war.

By the most conservative estimations, tens of thousands of people died, mainly Mau Mau fighters and supporters, but also African “loyalists” and a few white settlers.

For the hundreds of thousands of citizens who were survivors of the war, it meant finding ways outside of the public history-making to process the trauma and preserve the memories of the war. While the British government has been rightly condemned for its attempts to cover up the atrocities they committed and commissioned during the war, far less has been said of the Kenyan government’s complicity in the public silences around Mau Mau. For Jomo Kenyatta and his government, the past was a politically dangerous topic that needed to be carefully managed. Mau Mau, he proclaimed, was not to be discussed, and the organisation remained a banned terrorist group. The last holdouts in the forests were rounded up and persuaded to surrender, or arrested, and those who spoke about the movement publicly outside of officially sanctioned narratives often ended up in prison, in exile, or in the morgue.

Mzee Kenyatta’s mandate was clear: Mau Mau was to be forgotten, and not to be discussed publicly. The organisation remained an illegal terrorist group throughout the Kenyatta and Moi eras, and was only legalised after Mwai Kibaki’s inauguration in 2004. The “forgive and forget” policy of Kenyatta and his successor had several interlinked purposes. A generous assessment is that Kenyatta wished to promote national unity and to focus on a shared future rather than a divided past. However, this is only part of the truth. Personal interests needed to be protected, especially those of former loyalists who now held top government positions. In addition, land justice and redistribution, the key demand of the Mau Mau, and later the Kenya Land and Freedom Army – which emerged after the war, and named among its members many Mau Mau hold-outs – would not be a cornerstone of the post-independence political policy. In fact, many veterans returned from forests and camps to find that what little land they did have had been taken from them, and that the only recourse for them to regain it or acquire new land would be to buy it from the government.

Since Mau Mau had been a full-time commitment, and concentration camps did not award salaries, while loyalist Home Guards were paid, an inequity emerged between those who were able to afford land and those who weren’t, which fell along lines of allegiances during the war. A final reason for Kenyatta’s desire to silence any public discussion of Mau Mau was that British interests still needed to be protected. If Kenya wanted to emerge from the 1960s as part of the global economy, it would have to dance to the tune of its former colonisers, which meant not embarrassing them with tales of their past atrocities. All in all, it would be better to forget the whole sorry affair.

Personal interests needed to be protected, especially those of former loyalists who now held top government positions.

In practice, this meant a careful selection of which fragments of the truth of Kenya’s Mau Mau past could be discussed and by whom. As a student of Kenya’s national curriculum, if you learned anything at all about the history of decolonisation, it adhered to a specific narrative: colonialism came to an end when Jomo Kenyatta and other brave constitutional nationalists came to an agreement with the British. Depending on your age, you may also have learned the names of some long-dead Mau Mau heroes and heroines who helped win Kenya’s freedom.

Certainly, there would not have been any discussion of the ideological roots of the Mau Mau movement, rooted in land justice and economic freedom or a critique of the betrayed promises and the land-grabbing by the post-independence political elite. The issue is not that these things are untrue – although from a historical perspective, some of them are inaccurate – but that they are presented as complete truths. While it is true, for example, that Jomo Kenyatta was tried and imprisoned along with five other nationalist activists at Kapenguria for being a Mau Mau ringleader, historians now agree that Kenyatta’s conviction was based on trumped up charges that did not align with Kenyatta’s ambivalent relationship to the militant guerrilla movement.

Kenyatta was an African nationalist, but he was not a Mau Mau leader. Outside of the national curriculum, selective amnesia could most clearly be observed on national holidays, particularly Independence Day and Kenyatta Day. On such occasions, speeches glossed over the painful past, and focused on the economic development of the future. President Kenyatta and his successor Daniel Arap Moi seldom spoke explicitly about the history of the Mau Mau movement, instead alluding to the vague need to “commemorate Mzee Kenyatta and the blood that was spilled in our struggle for independence”. The careful ambiguity about whose blood that was, and why it might need to be commemorated speaks to the fact that Kenya’s Mau Mau past remained politically dangerous. Veterans could be used to mobilise voters in specific regions of the country, but would otherwise remain nameless, and, more importantly, silent.

My research as a historian has focused on what happened to the memories of Mau Mau in the face of this public silencing, and seeks to understand what grassroots memorialisation looks like in the face of political amnesia. Working with oral histories from veterans and their families, alongside archival material, I have been consistently struck by the plurality of experience that characterises the Mau Mau war. There is no one definitive historical truth, and a key part of the mishandling of Mau Mau histories in the decades since independence has been rooted in the ill-fated attempts to discipline the complicated and fragmentary history into something that might fit neatly into tales of heroes and villains.

Through my research, I have found that a rich material culture of Mau Mau has existed in rural communities since the end of the war, one that was astutely aware of the history-making endeavours, but did not adhere to them. While the archival material on Mau Mau was systematically destroyed at the national level, it was carefully preserved by thousands of individuals across Kenya, for whom forgetting the war was never an option. Veterans pulled out boxes of photographs and documents, personal archives carefully preserved far from the censorial eyes of public history-making. Many pulled up their sleeves or skirts to reveal scars, offering their very bodies up as living monuments to the war. Away from the ceremonial lip service of national holidays and hero-worship of the official narratives, these veterans found ways of memorialising Mau Mau on their own terms.

If Kenya wanted to emerge from the 1960s as part of the global economy, it would have to dance to the tune of its former colonisers.

For many years, Mau Mau history was marked more by what is not said in public than by what is said. It has, for successive generations of Kenyans, been characterised by profound silences: family members who never came home, land that was lost, unmarked graves, and gaps in family trees. However, this should not be confused with forgetting. In fact, the silences around Mau Mau and who was permitted to speak of it have often served to amplify the unhealed traumas of the past, which sit just below the surface of everyday life.

In 2003, President Kibaki’s un-banning of Mau Mau allowed veterans to organise publicly for the first time, and saw the beginning of attempts to memorialise the conflict and to portray Mau Mau fighters in a positive light, as heroes of independence. However, there is still no national museum dedicated to histories of the struggle, and national institutions remain reluctant to address the complexity and unhealed traumas of Kenya’s Mau Mau past. This period in the early 2000s coincided with the emergence of a new generation of urban youth, enlivened by stories of the ferocious fighters and their brave struggle for land and freedom, who created their own myths and memorial cultures of Mau Mau.

In Nairobi today, Mau Mau sightings are a frequent occurrence. Yes, there are a few national monuments, and a small display at the National Museum of Kenya, but, more importantly, Mau Mau appears in more quotidian forms. Dedan Kimathi sits astride a matatu, weaving through traffic, sandwiched between Tupac Shakur and Bob Marley. The words “Mau Mau” are spray-painted on walls and on the mud flaps of trucks. Young men wear dreadlocked hair and t-shirts with Kimathi’s face.

These representations of Mau Mau history have a lot to say about how memories of the war have come to take on new meanings for Kenyan futures. Mau Mau in general, and Kimathi in particular, have entered into an iconography of revolutionary history that holds a strong sense of continuity for young urban Kenyans today. After all, the grievances of this generation are disturbingly similar to those of the generation of the 1940s who took up arms in the Mau Mau movement. For both, it is about land and freedom. The slum demolitions and police brutality that animates young people in Nairobi and Mombasa and Kisumu have their roots in a not-so-distant colonial and post-colonial past. Increasingly expensive and precarious living situations, lack of economic opportunities, and a government more interested in accruing wealth and resources for a small elite than in ensuring the welfare of all citizens led to the Mau Mau war, and this struggle continues.

In this sense, contemporary popular representations of Mau Mau speak to the fact that Mau Mau cannot be neatly placed in the box marked “distant past” only to be opened under governmental supervision on Mashujaa Day, when veterans are wheeled out to recite carefully crafted histories of heroes and heroines. Mau Mau is still a living present. Despite their best attempts to bury the bodies, they lie in very shallow graves.

The lack of public history has led to a grassroots memorial practice that is as imaginative as it is true. The material cultures they have created around Mau Mau speak to an active attempt to reclaim histories of the struggle. What archival material has been revealed and declassified in the UK and in Kenya is coloured by the colonial gaze, so that there are still questions of authorship that remain to be answered by national historical institutions. What does addressing these archival inequities mean? Ignored by institutionalised history-making and, at times, actively silenced, new generations have continued the veterans’ practice of personal histories, crafting their own living monuments to the war. The model of a museum is unsuited to such histories, which are marked by their strong emotional truth more than their historical accuracy, and which need to live defiantly within communities, not cloistered behind the guarded gates of national museums.

The careful ambiguity about whose blood that was, and why it might need to be commemorated speaks to the fact that Kenya’s Mau Mau past remained politically dangerous.

This rejection of the conventions of public history, often characterised by material cultures produced by the elite, has liberated Kenyans to imagine their pasts, and, in turn, their futures. Following in the tradition of writers and artists of the 1970s and 80s, who often paid dearly for their representations, Kenyans use fashion and hip hop and graffiti to write into the decimated historical archive, harnessing their imaginative power to unravel the silences and reawaken a revolutionary sentiment.

National history projects like clear lines and straight narratives of heroes and heroines, but Mau Mau cannot and will not fit into such simple constraints. Mau Mau historical plurality reminds us that there is an urgent need to redress the injustices of the past, not by presenting a simple counter-narrative to the official sanctioned myths surrounding the war, but through embracing the plurality of experiences around Mau Mau pasts, presents and futures. These histories were never forgotten. They were deliberately obscured, but have lived active lives throughout the years of political forgetting. They are infused into our national consciousness, into our knowledge of who we are and were and might be.

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The Art of War by Other Means: Books as Propaganda

Louis Allday writes how book publishing from the 1960s became an important weapon of strategic propaganda by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The new website Liberated Texts aims to provide a platform for reviews of works of ongoing relevance that have been suppressed or misinterpreted in the mainstream since their release. Allday argues that books remain powerful tools that have the ability to fundamentally transform one’s worldview.

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The Art of War by Other Means: Books as Propaganda
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‘Brecht said, “hungry man reach for the book.” Why? Because to get rid of hunger, you have to get rid of the system that produces hunger, and to get rid of that system you must understand it and you can only do that by reaching for the book.’ ~ Prabhat Patnaik

In November 1965, the Deputy Director of the CIA was sent an in-house book review by the curator of the Agency’s Historical Intelligence Collection. Its subject was Kwame Nkrumah’s seminal work, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialismfirst published in London earlier that year. The review largely focussed on “The Mechanisms of Neo-Colonialism”, the chapter in Nkrumah’s book that was said to have most “caught the eye of the press” and was “of greatest interest to the CIA”.

Within the book, Nkrumah analyses in detail the techniques through which modern imperialist powers achieved the objectives they had previously accomplished through overt colonialism and identifies the United States as the worst offender in this regard. In doing so, Nkrumah named names and drew attention to the neo-colonial role of, among others, the CIA, US Peace Corps, USIA and USAID. The tenor of the review is largely neutral, but the author’s concern with both the book’s contents and Nkrumah as a figure more broadly are not hard to discern beneath its superficially objective tone. It concludes by reporting that copies of the book had been sent to a number of CIA departments including the African Division of the Deputy Directorate for Plans (DDP), the Agency’s clandestine service and covert action arm, for study and “whatever action these components consider advisable”.

Only three months later, in February 1966, Nkrumah was deposed as President of Ghana in a coup that was engineered by the Agency. The late June Milne, Nkrumah’s editor, literary executor and long-time confidante, believed that because Neo-Colonialism had demonstrated the workings of international finance capital in Africa in such detail, the exposure its publication constituted was “just too much… the last straw” and led directly to the decision to depose Nkrumah in a coup.

Milne’s speculation is well-founded, not only because of the undeniably explosive content of Nkrumah’s book, but because senior figures within the CIA were already well aware of the dangers of such material to US interests. In the words of its Covert Operations Director in 1961:

Books differ from all other propaganda media, primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium… this is, of course, not true of all books at all times and with all readers – but it is true significantly often enough to make books the most important weapon of strategic (long-range) propaganda.

As such, the Agency acted accordingly and developed an extraordinary level of control and influence within the publishing industry. Details of the extent of this reach were revealed to the public in 1975 by the Church Committee, a US Senate investigation into the activities of a number of US intelligence agencies, including the CIA. The most well-known revelations of this committee include details of the now infamous CIA-run programmes MKULTRA, COINTELPRO, Family Jewels and Operation Mockingbird. Less well known are the details it contains on the Agency’s clandestine control over book publishing and distribution which, as per the committee’s findings, enabled it to:

(a) Get books published or distributed abroad without revealing any U.S. influence, by covertly subsidizing foreign publications or booksellers.

(b) Get books published which should not be “contaminated” by any overt tie-in with the U.S. government, especially if the position of the author is “delicate.”

(c) Get books published for operational reasons, regardless of commercial viability.

(d) Initiate and subsidize indigenous national or international organizations for book publishing or distributing purposes.

(e) Stimulate the writing of politically significant books by unknown foreign authors-either by directly subsidizing the author, if covert contact is feasible, or indirectly, through literary agents or publishers.

Utilising this immense influence, before the end of 1967, well over 1,000 books had been produced, subsidized or sponsored by the Agency. Of these works, 25 percent were written in English, with the remainder in a number of different languages published around the world. Sometimes these books were published by organisations backed by the CIA without the author’s knowledge, while others involved direct collaboration between the Agency and the writer.

Frequently, books were published in order to bolster the US imperialist narrative about enemy states, for example, the Agency produced a number of works about China that were intended specifically to combat the “sympathetic view of the emerging China as presented by Edgar Snow”. As the committee’s official report stated, an American who read one of those books, purportedly authored by a Chinese defector, “would not know that his thoughts and opinions about China are possibly being shaped by an agency of the United States Government”. The Agency’s concern extended to book reviews which it utilised to refute the attacks of critics and promote works that it had sponsored. On at least one occasion, a book produced by the CIA was then reviewed in the New York Times by another writer also contracted by the Agency.

In the time that has passed since the revelations of the Church Committee, technological developments have transformed the way in which people consume information globally. The internet has become a new battle ground of propaganda and has been subject to comparable levels of infiltration and manipulation by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The idea that books remain the most important weapon of strategic propaganda, as determined by the CIA in 1961, would now be contested by many.

However, the terrain of contemporary publishing implies that US intelligence agencies have not ceased to be concerned with the power and influence of books as objects of propaganda. Take one example, since the US’ proxy war against Syria began a decade ago, a raft of books supporting the imperialist narrative have been published, many of them by ostensibly radical and leftist publishers. In many cases, these books are then endorsed and reviewed by an affiliated network of magazines and podcasts, while other works that go against the hegemonic narrative are reviewed negatively or simply ignored entirely.

It is with this historical context and lamentable present reality in mind that the website Liberated Texts was recently established. The site aims to provide a platform for reviews of works of ongoing relevance that have been forgotten, underappreciated, suppressed or misinterpreted in the cultural mainstream since their release. Of course, not all of the works reviewed on the site will have been subject to overt suppression or silencing by imperialist intelligence agencies – the reasons why books that go against prevailing ideas usually do not receive the attention and readership they deserve are countless – but all remain relevant and deserve a wider readership. The same is true of works that do not get translated into English for political reasons, such as the late Domenico Losurdo’s study of Stalin, which his English language publishers, Verso Books, have refused to translate and publish in spite of repeated requests for them to do so.

The life stories of prominent revolutionaries and thinkers are littered with references to how reading individual books or authors changed the trajectory of their life, and notwithstanding the dramatic shift in the educational and media landscape that has taken place in the decades since the publication of Neo-Colonialism, books remain powerful tools that have the ability to fundamentally transform one’s worldview.

Liberated Texts seeks to provide a home for all those people who still believe that to be the case and want to write about books they feel passionate about and believe – whether they were published 100 years ago or in the last few years – remain relevant to the issues of the present moment and deserve to be read and discussed more widely.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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