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The Tech War between America and China and its Impact on Africa

8 min read.

The United States’ ban on American companies from using Huawei technology has resulted in a global tech war that will have an impact on African countries, which are heavily dependent on Chinese telecommunications technology. Could African countries use this tech war to their advantage?

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Over the past few weeks, the trade war between the United States and China rapidly escalated when President Donald Trump’s administration took an extreme and unprecedented step against Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. The US government declared a national emergency and issued an executive order banning American companies from using any technology that can pose a threat of espionage. The first foreign company that was included in this blacklist was Huawei, which was accused of acting on behalf of the Chinese government to undermine US national security.

Shortly after that, the American tech behemoth Google announced its decision to withhold its Android software from Huawei to prevent the Chinese company from exploiting vulnerabilities that could expose customers to serious cybersecurity and privacy risks. Other than just directly damaging Huawei’s smartphone business, this move set in motion the beginning of a technology Cold War that is quickly ramping up.

How is this global quarrel going to affect Africa?

Huawei is the largest cellphone provider in many African countries, such as South Africa, and has built at least 50 per cent of Africa’s 4G network, in addition to being a critical partner in many “smart city” projects. On the one hand, it’s in the best interest of African governments to maintain a good relationship with Google since this company is investing huge capital in developing Africa’s future artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. On the other hand, though, African countries’ dependence on China goes far beyond just telecommunications technology – today nearly 20 per cent of African governments’ external debt is owed to China, making this country the largest single creditor nation.

Huawei is the largest cellphone provider in many African countries, such as South Africa, and has built at least 50 per cent of Africa’s 4G network, in addition to being a critical partner in many “smart city” projects.

What does the future hold for Africa? Will this ongoing tech war force Africa to choose between the United States and China, or may it present an opportunity for this continent to play a relevant role in the global political scenario?

Trump’s trade war and the “national security threat” posed by Huawei

Why is Donald Trump barring US companies from engaging in telecommunications trade with Huawei and other foreign companies accused of jeopardising national security? And why did a global digital giant such as Google follow up by taking an even stronger position? There are a lot of reasons why the American president made such a bold and risky move, including curbing China’s apparently unstoppable technological advancement (especially in the AI field).

As Western societies, and America in particular, are facing a seemingly unstoppable cultural and political decline, it comes as no surprise that the global power balance is shifting in favour of the Russia/China axis. Many of the promises made by President Trump hold no substance so far, and many European forces see him as a threat to democracy and planetary stability. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, even went as far as comparing Trump’s language to that of “the fascists of the 20th century” just before the US president’s state visit to the United Kingdom. As the American giant is slowly crumbling under its own weight, Trump’s need for a new (real or perceived) enemy came in the form of a trade war against China, the only superpower that now threatens the US position as a global hegemon.

It all started in early 2018 when a team of government hackers from the Australian Signals Directorate had to evaluate the harmful potential of 5G. A powerful technology, 5G is able to allow users to move data up to 100 times faster than on current networks. It is a cornerstone of the upcoming Web 3.0 evolution that will integrate different devices, such as smart home appliance, driverless cars, and augmented reality (AR) devices.

However, all this new interconnectivity comes at a price: as the number of entry points in the network increases, the easier it is for a malicious group to gain access and conduct cyber warfare. Armed with all the offensive cyber tools they needed, the Australian cybersecurity forces had to test the damage they could inflict to a hypothetical target nation if they had access to malware and tools installed in the 5G network. The result was scary and unsurprising at the same time: exploiting 5G could expose the entire infrastructure of a country, providing a potential cybercriminal with countless opportunities for sabotage and espionage.

It all started in early 2018 when a team of government hackers from the Australian Signals Directorate had to evaluate the harmful potential of 5G. A powerful technology, 5G is able to allow users to move data up to 100 times faster than on current networks.

The former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shared this intelligence as well as his worries about the vulnerabilities of the 5G network with his country’s Five Eyes partners – New Zealand, the UK, Canada, and, obviously, the US. Among the members of this group, only the US one took this warning seriously enough, and decided to restrict the access the Chinese company Huawei, a world leader in 5G tech, had into their mobile networks. But President Trump took additional steps – at first, his administration threatened to withhold intelligence from any allied nation that allowed Huawei in. Later, on 15 May, the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted the Chinese telecommunications giant and other international firms. Now American companies need official permission before engaging in trade with them.

The consequences of the embargo and the beginning of the tech Cold War

After the sanctions were announced, Google responded by stopping all business activities with Huawei that involved the transfer of proprietary software, hardware, and services. The American digital company blocked Huawei’s access to Android, its Play Store, and other functions such as Maps, Search, and Gmail. Then Intel announced that it could no longer provide processors for Huawei laptops and for Qualcomm, the company that manufactures the wireless modems used in smartphones. Finally, it was the turn of ARM, a British chip designer that provides 95 per cent of the processors used in mobile devices in the world, who had to adhere to the embargo since it had many subsidiary companies based in the US.

It’s easy to understand how all these actions look and feel like a boycott that targets Huawei’s smartphone and laptop businesses directly rather than the alleged “national security risk” since 5G is completely irrelevant here. What’s the real game then? Global commercial dominance may be the reason behind these moves, since Huawei is one of the few global companies that have the numbers to compete, and even win, the technology race against the American hegemons Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. Boycotting it now may serve a simple purpose: to save the planetary dominance of the US hyperpower by crushing its sole rival before it grows too strong. One way or the other, Google-less Huawei smartphones now represent the symbol of the new technology war between the two world giants – America and China.

Huawei replied that “restricting Huawei from doing business in the U.S. will not make the U.S. more secure or stronger”, explaining that this move is only forcing “customers in the U.S. to [purchase] inferior and more expensive alternatives.” The Chinese company had anticipated it could be the target of American whiplash and built up massive stocks of components. They also plan to launch a new operating system that is going to substitute Android before spring 2020 – the (allegedly) faster and more efficient Hongmeng. The new system will be fully compatible with all Android apps and functions, which were already banned in China.

Meanwhile, it is a known fact that the Chinese 5G giant is backed by Beijing, and Trump’s ban will not come without consequences. When Australia enforced a similar ban last year, its coal exports to China experienced all kind of disruption, including unnecessary delays at Chinese customs. And right now, the situation is especially delicate, as the trade war caused by the increased tariffs imposed by Trump on Chinese imports is just escalating. The tension is growing even among members of the Five Eyes, since the UK government doesn’t seem keen to removing Huawei from its networks. On the other hand, America’s choice to ban Huawei for national security reasons rather than admitting that it’s a commercial move to put China’s economy under pressure is a diplomatically dishonest move that damages the United States’ credibility with its peers. And while these nations are busy with their own in-fighting, a new global threat is emerging in the form of a Cold War that is fought with apps and smartphones rather than with soldiers and bombs.

How the tech war will impact Africa

The relationship between Huawei and the West is strained at best for reasons other than just commercial competition or superpower rivalries. And the conflict started before Trump’s trade war against China. The US Justice Department has been investigating links between Huawei and Iran that involved none else than Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder and the company’s chief financial officer at least since 2012. In January this year, US officials requested the Canadian government to detain and extradite Wanzhou for a variety of crimes ranging from bank and wire fraud to stealing trade secrets, and conspiracy to defraud the US.

Meanwhile, it is a known fact that the Chinese 5G giant is backed by Beijing, and Trump’s ban will not come without consequences. When Australia enforced a similar ban last year, its coal exports to China experienced all kind of disruption…

Recently, a red flag that points to how Huawei (or China for that matter) may have a darker secret agenda was raised in Ethiopia. In January 2018, the African Union found the computer systems in its headquarters in Addis Ababa compromised by a security breach that had apparently lasted for years. Investigators found that the computers, which were installed by Huawei, sent data every night from midnight to 2 in the morning to some servers in Shanghai. Both the African Union and Chinese officials denied the allegations, but many still question the reasons behind such a generous gift from the Chinese telecommunications giant. Google’s ban is going to have a very limited effect on the US market, where it holds a minor position on the mobile devices market. But in Africa, the situation is very different. Huawei’s influence in Africa is enormous, given the fact that it built at least 50 per cent of this continent’s 4G network, and it undoubtedly is the lead competitor in rolling out the upcoming 5G network.

Recently, a red flag that points to how Huawei (or China for that matter) may have a darker secret agenda was raised in Ethiopia. In January 2018, the African Union found the computer systems in its headquarters in Addis Ababa compromised by a security breach that had apparently lasted for years.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A huge proportion of the African population is currently using Huawei smartphones, and the digital company has already provided the technology used for smart city projects, autonomous vehicles development, and research partnerships. For example, together with its partner Safaricom, Huawei signed a deal with the Kenyan government in April to build a $175 million data centre at the Konza technocity. China itself has provided well over 20 per cent of the total money lent to African governments between 2000 and 2017 ($143 billion of loans), and 80 per cent of this money came from the Chinese government rather than from private investors. But the bond between Africa and China does not just involve the past, but the future as well since the Chinese government has pledged to invest another $60 billion by the end of this year.

Africa and the war between Google and Huawei

The most obvious and immediate consequence for the many African Huawei smartphone owners is that they will end up with an expensive device that has lost many of its key functions. The Chinese company is also one of the principal global partners of Android, which has substantially contributed to the development and growth of the popular operating system. If they develop a new system, the online world will be eventually split in two – a Chinese-led Internet on one side, and a non-Chinese one on the other side led by US companies. Once again, a huge technological barrier will be raised, and since Africa will stand in the middle, it’s hard to imagine that it will be able to stay neutral. The IT economy of way too many African countries requires them to work with Chinese companies and Huawei may exploit the current situation to change the game in its favour.

The African tech market is quite large, and if Huawei decides, it can be used to turn the tables against the Americans. The most likely scenario will see China and the US facing a potential battle for the control of global telecommunications. Africa can provide both of them with all the human, technological, and market resources to gain the edge they need against each other. If this wave is ridden correctly, the whole continent may attract the investments required to reduce the current digital divide.

African governments, however, must understand how to stand their grounds against the exploitation of the unsustainable burden of debt. They need to know how to exploit the added value Africa can provide to these two sides without becoming a pawn in this global war. But if the Africans play their cards correctly, this scary Cold War scenario may become a huge opportunity to bridge the gap with the Western world.

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Dr. Claudio Butticè, Pharm.D., has written on topics such as medicine, technology, world poverty and science. Many of his articles have been published in magazines such as Cracked, Techopedia, Digital Journal and Business Insider. Dr. Butticè has also published pharmacology and psychology papers in several clinical journals, and works as a medical consultant and advisor for many companies across the globe.

Ideas

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.

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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.

You can find Lords of Impunity at Nuria Bookshop in Nairobi and on Amazon.

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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.

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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.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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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.

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“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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