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Recovering the Oromo Story in Ethiopia’s Fractured Past

8 min read.

Successive Ethiopian governments have tried to erase the history and culture of the Oromo people, but a recent conference held in Addis Ababa finally gave this marginalised community an opportunity to be heard.

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Recovering the Oromo Story in Ethiopia’s Fractured Past
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The “Ayyaantuu”, are a body of persons within Ethiopia’s Oromo people, whose life’s work is calculating time using a complex system of numerology and astronomy to predict everything from weather patterns for the use of agricultural planning, to moments of societal upheaval.

It is being slowly discovered that they maintained, in their antiquity, a series of astral observatories all along the length of the eastern Rift Valley, through which they had mapped the visible universe, named stars and planets, and developed a calendar system that recycles itself every three hundred and sixty-five years.

Their other tools were a forked sighting staff, still carried by Oromo herdsman today, and the string of a series of lakes along the length of the valley floor that curiously, lie in the pattern of a star system above them.

Perhaps the last of these observatories has been finally acknowledged as such at Namoratunga in northern Kenya, with most of the star-aligned stone pillars still intact.

They had observed a comet, and calculated that it was set to return every seventy-five years.

In 1682, the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742) using Newtonian laws of motion to compute its overall trajectory of the same comet even after it has departed, came to the same conclusion. The comet is now named after him, except in Oromo, where it is called “Gaalessa”.

Gems like this were part of a veritable avalanche of hitherto lesser-documented information that came flooding out during the thirty-third conference of the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) and after. The gathering, held between 26thand 27th July, was historic in many ways. It was the first time the OSA had ever been able to hold a conference on Ethiopian soil.

Out of over 100 papers submitted, there were some fifty-six presentations covering topics ranging from ecological management, history, constitutionalism, culture and economics.

OSA was founded by a group of exiled activists in 1986 in response to a crackdown that had driven those campaigning for greater recognition of the Oromo people and their culture murdered, tortured, jailed or driven out of the country.

There is a long and short background to this.

As a people, The Oromo number over thirty-five million in all directions from Addis Ababa, which also was Oromo territory before the founding of the modern Ethiopian state. They consist of a solid whole third of the country’s overall population.

Ethiopia has travelled its own uncolonized journey in the quest to build a modern, unified African country. Nevertheless, this quest has run into many of the same problems experienced by the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, namely what to do with those sections of the population that still defined themselves as other things, other nations even, predating the idea of the new state?

The Oromo number over 35 million in all directions from Addis Ababa, which also was Oromo territory before the founding of the modern Ethiopian state. They consist of a solid whole third of the country’s total population.

In post-European Africa, the story was quite straightforward. Those Africans argued that Africa must re-embrace its indigenous customs and institutions, and set aside the legacies derived from the long European colonial occupation.

The Ethiopian story allowed for the side-stepping of that question, for a while at least. The official argument has always been that the Ethiopian state is an independently-founded African institution, and that therefore those arguments do not apply.

The periods of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam (1974-1991) saw a fealty to the concept ideal firmly established by Selassie’s predecessor Emperor Menelik (1889-1911): that all of Ethiopia was to be assimilated into one Amharic-speaking Orthodox Christian culture.

The politics of the wars of resistance to Mengistu’s brutal Dergue rule, led to the ascension of a government obliged to make specific statutory recognition of the country’s ethnic landscape, despite the numerous schemes by the new strongman the late Meles Zenawi (1991-2012) to undermine this game-changing arrangement.

The April 2018 resignation of Meles’ successor Prime Minister Desalegn was a direct result of mass protests triggered by the government attempt to expand the boundaries of the already disputed city further into Oromo federal territory.

A reality now exists: a people mobilised in a political context where their previously hidden identities are now constitutionally recognised.

This is the political inheritance Desalegn’s own successor, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is currently grappling with.

From its founding, OSA has functioned as a de facto think tank, policy forum and perhaps virtual parliament for the aspired-for Oromiyya nation-state.

Finally, with this homecoming conference, the enforced diaspora was able to meet and encounter those who had never left home, and many in between.

The Oromo point of view is very straightforward: they say they are the largest colony in the Empire set in motion by Emperor Sahle Selassie in the 1840s, and massively militarily expanded by Emperor Menelik II, and then consolidated through a series of recognition treaties with the European powers. Assimilation, and cultural erasure were the particularly emphasized aspects of this process. The Oromo point to a long-standing need for effective decolonization. At the very least, they argue, this should mean the actual implementation of the full meaning of the 1995 Constitution that for the first-time recognized Ethiopia’s separate nations. At the most, it could mean secession (an option also provided for in the same constitution).

Within Ethiopian political discourse (and even beyond), this stance provokes a whole spectrum of reactions, from the deeply considered, to the nakedly visceral. It has been the primary driver of the culture of political intolerance in Ethiopia.

The Oromo point of view is very straightforward: they say they are the largest colony in the Empire set in motion by Emperor Sahle Selassie in the 1840s, and massively militarily expanded by Emperor Melelik II, and then consolidated through a series of recognition treaties with European powers.

Take the case of Ruda Kura, a Sayyoo clan elder, who lived between 1870 and 1974. He endured monstrous deprivations, including being chained to a tree in a public square for three years, and being publicly flogged due to his refusal to pay taxes to, or otherwise endorse the imposed Menelik state structures.

Much of such history is not widely known, not just in wider Ethiopia, but even among the current younger generations of Oromos themselves. And where it is known, there are often numerous academicized and historicized apologia seeking to explain it away.

This is where OSA’s relevance came in.

The first goal was to set the historical record straight, whatever the potential outcomes. This included the possibility of a consensus being arrived at that, despite the long-standing historical injustices, perhaps Ethiopia should just struggle on as a unitary, monolingual state.

But it is simply not possible to have a productive discussion on a way forward, if “half the story has never been told” as Bob Marley aptly put it.

And it is simply not possible to tell that half of the story if it has never been documented, and those carrying it in the hearts and memories are dismissed as unreliable, inauthentic sources, because they do not speak the language of academia.

This was a mission to re-define knowledge, and have it recognized as such.

It is a story with which many other native populations would be familiar. However, in the Ethiopia/Oromo case there was also a very longstanding, vigilant and meticulous system of censorship and policing within academia to prevent this other knowledge being produced in the first place.

OSA was established to carry out an “engaged scholarship” aimed at telling the full Oromo story, recovering and conserving the embattled indigenous knowledge, and researching the continued effects of what they see as a sustained colonial occupation aimed at erasing them.

The significance of the conference revealed itself only slowly, in many public and private moments. The appointed interim President of the Oromo federal unit he opening, and listened to some of the early presentations after making a short speech. This was followed by the mayor of Addis Ababa attending the opening of the last day, and giving his own speech. Neither had been on the programme, and never had Oromo natives holding office in the capital spoken so freely to an independent Oromo native gathering critical of the Ethiopian state. It was also a homecoming for many members after four-decade separations, such as among the Jalata family, whose member, the activist Professor Asafa Jalata, had been exiled in the United States.

It was triply significant for the American researcher, activist and academic Bonnie Holcomb, author of the 1991 book: The Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of a Dependent Colonial State in Northeast Africa, whose had been arrested and eventually banned from the country altogether back in the 1970s, for documenting the Oromo experience that informed the work.

She was able to finally return through this conference. In her time, she has seen the culture move from being essentially banned and demonised to nominally statutorily recognised, and the organisation she co-founded finally make its way home, to discover and connect with two generations of home-based activism.

A second major OSA goal was to generate reflection on what contemporary thinking on “Development” means for the Oromo people. This is partly because Oromo areas of Ethiopia constitute the breadbasket of the country, and as such, any objections to further development (read “eviction” and environmental destruction) projects were deemed as the thoughts of a backward people. Many native peoples can learn from this.

A new approach is needed to get beyond the crisis that five hundred or more years of dominant Western thought has now imposed upon the planet. The planet has reached a point where it may no longer be able to sustain human, and possibly other forms of especially mammalian life. Western thought’s underlying Abrahamic exhortation to “…multiply…fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis: 1:28) is about to kill us all.

Key to this new approach will be resetting humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature. For that to happen, humanity will have to reach deep into those areas of human knowledge hitherto marginalised and downgraded by the great White experiment, for answers. Only those peoples who, despite colonialisms and attempted genocides, still held on to their pre-Abrahamic knowledge systems or have the means of reconstructing them, can help.

The Oromo are a prime example of this.

Through their book: Sacred Knowledge Traditions of the Oromo of the Horn of Africa, essentially researched over a period of three decades, Dr Gemetchu Megerssa and Dr Aneesa Kassam have finally managed to capture the detailed outline of this thought system, aspects of which have been recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as part the intangible human cultural heritage.

Apart from astronomy and numerology, the Oromo offer much to learn regarding autonomous governance, democratic governance and the management of power (political authority is handed to a new age-set through elections every eight years), organic agriculture (the world-renown Boran bull species is a product of the indigenous breeding knowledge of the Booran branch of Oromo) and spiritual care.

This is a classic case of the re-definition of knowledge. The primary source for this great study was a series of initiation sessions that Gemetchu was inducted into as a young man, in search of a deeper understanding of the Oromo system. His key teacher was Bulee Gayoo. He agreed to pass on the teaching upon establishing that in fact, Gemetchu was Ruda Kura’s paternal grandson.

Apart from astronomy and numerology, the Oromo offer much to learn regarding autonomous governance, democratic governance and the management of power (political authority is handed to a new age-set through elections every eight years), organic agriculture (the world-renowned Boran bull species is a product of the indigenous breeding knowledge of the Booran branch of Oromo) and spiritual care.

Among his people, Bulee Gayyoo was an ilmaan korma, a first son born when his own father was forty years old. This meant he was “born within time”, and aligned with the Oromo Gadaa time system, giving him special responsibilities as a custodian of its knowledge.

In Kenya, he presented first as a night watchman, and then a cattle-labourer in Kariobangi market and lived in the slums of Mathare Valley, where the teaching sessions took place. He passed on in 2003. Now he lives on in the form of a deeply researched book. How much of the knowledge held by people such as him, never made this journey? How much is lost to the vanities and stricture of Western-inspired academia?

But there is more: the recovered Oromo story also offers the foundation for a greater study of the black Kushite civilizational system that gave rise to the black civilization of Khemet, better known as Ancient Egypt.

With Oromo, OSA may have found the place where the proper historical reconstruction of the actual African story may begin.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

Ideas

Re-imagining the African University

In relation to their knowledge production, African universities should acknowledge the importance of producing research in support of development, while retaining their liberal education focus, he advises.

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If they are not to be condemned to irrelevance, universities in Africa must strengthen their research and teaching and adopt a proactive stance in responding to the institutional and developmental demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

This is according to Paul Zeleza, the former the vice-chancellor of the United States International University-Africa, and at present the North Star distinguished professor and associate provost at Case Western Reserve University, a private institution in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States.

“Universities have a crucial role to play in pushing governments and the private sector to ensure that Africa has agency in the 4IR [Fourth Industrial Revolution] and, accordingly, derives significant benefits,” says Zeleza, giving warning that the continent may otherwise be “left behind or unduly exploited, as was the experience during the previous three industrial revolutions”.

“Instead of being what Kenyan pan-Africanist thinker Ali Mazrui used to describe as ‘pawns’ in the global system, Africans must become 4IR players,” he urges, citing the need for the continent to acquire sufficient high-performance computing capacity to undertake the complex data analytics and processing of big data sets that are required as part of the 4IR.

In the absence of such high-performance computing, Zeleza says, the continent will be indebted to external data processing and storage firms and “will not even receive the trinkets it was once paid [under colonialism] for its raw materials”.

In a parallel move, African universities should also make every effort to improve their research and pedagogic functions, seeking to support domestic development while also boosting their standing and the quality of their contributions at international level, he advises.

“The issue of relevance is a complex one,” Zeleza says. “It comes from the university’s anchoring in its society but that should not exclude being global … because, whether we like it or not, higher education is global.”

Indeed, he urges, “it is important that African universities do not surrender the global to others”.

Indigenisation vs internationalisation

“We also have to be global,” he says. “An appropriate balance has to be struck between indigenisation and internationalisation.”

However, Zeleza notes, higher education institutions on the continent are, at present, generally failing to make their mark globally, which is creating institutional harm in terms of their access to resources, students and staff.

For example, he says, Africa has yet to acknowledge the importance of research, including on critical issues such as climate change and health, in its funding priorities.

“A report produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in June 2021 indicated that the continent’s expenditure on research and development, which includes the universities, was very low at about 0.5% of GDP, compared with a global average of about 1.9%.

“Meanwhile, its share of total global research and development expenditure was about 1%, with most of this taking place in South Africa and North Africa, indicating the dire conditions for research elsewhere on the continent.”

Pedagogy at global standard

Zeleza also notes that, while African universities should be providing pedagogy at a global standard, “this is not [their] current reputation in general, as is illustrated by the relatively low number of international students at higher education institutions on the continent”.

“In addition, and notwithstanding the justified criticism of the international university rankings, African universities fare poorly on these tables,” Zeleza says. “In the Times Higher Education rankings for 2021, only 60 of the 1,500 ranked institutions were from Africa.

“Whatever the misgivings about the rankings, they are used as a marketing tool and, in this way, influence the flows of students, faculty staff and resources.”

In this regard, Zeleza cites a preference among the Kenyan elite for sending their children to universities abroad as an example of the depths to which the reputations of many African universities have sunk.

It is a dynamic that he is keen to see reversed, particularly given what he describes as the inappropriate and often damaging nature of the education offered to African students at universities in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.

“I used to see a lot of young students from Africa undertaking undergraduate studies in the United States and it was clear these kids were lost at a personal level and intellectually,” he says.

“They were not being developed in ways that were good for them. They were forced to deal with being treated as second- or third-class because of race issues; and they were not being equipped with any knowledge about their own countries, their own societies.”

However, African universities can reverse what Zeleza describes as their decline and reclaim their relevance by adopting greater agency and a more strategic approach in relation to their key functions, including their pedagogy and research, and their public-service and technological innovation roles.

The importance of research

In relation to their knowledge production, African universities should acknowledge the importance of producing research in support of development, while retaining their liberal education focus, he advises.

“Whatever particular questions the research is trying to answer, it should broadly seek to address fundamental social and community issues, as these are articulated in national, regional and global plans.

“The generation of knowledge for social impact is something that I think our universities should always have in front of them.”

In this respect, Zeleza is encouraged by the production of a new table for assessing the performance of higher education institutions according to their social impact – that is, in relation to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which is now being produced as part of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

“This produces quite different results from those produced by the traditional ranking methodology,” he says. “So, for example, these new rankings have recently listed Australasian universities at the top rather than your Oxfords or Harvards.”

In fulfilling their public service and engagement function, Zeleza stresses the importance of African universities trying to be intentional in building critical strategic and transformational relationships with multiple stakeholders, including the government; the private sector; intergovernmental institutions; community bodies; and philanthropic organisations.

“Universities have to engage their governments, partly in their role as major funders but also in order to provide the kind of research that can be translated into policy,” he says.

While advocating the establishment of mutually beneficial triple-helix arrangements among public- and private-sector partners and universities, he also urges higher education institutions to insist on a greater role in shaping international and continental initiatives.

For example, citing an ambitious African Development Bank programme to provide up to 50 million young Africans with digital skills that can make them employable, he notes the disproportionate influence of external consultants, who can typically hail from the Global North.

The problem, he says, is that African universities are then asked to bid to participate in the implementation of these schemes “but without having been involved in crafting the vision or the agenda for the initiative in the first place”.

Funding of universities

This also brings into sharp focus the ever-pressing matter of university funding. Zeleza advises university leaders to place a greater focus on seeking funding from African philanthropic organisations and high net-worth individuals.

“The data indicates that higher education is not a priority for giving among this group,” he says. This is quite contrary to experience in other parts of the world and among leading universities, such as Harvard and Princeton.

“So, the challenge for African universities as part of their mission of engaging society is to approach and cultivate these individuals in a strategic way.”

Zeleza also embraces the benefits that technology may bring to higher education, although, he says, “universities should avoid adopting a technologist kind of viewpoint in which technology is viewed as a thing and an end in itself”.

“The issue has to be the extent to which universities are enhancing their value proposition in terms of deploying and developing new technologies in support of digital learning, research and scholarship, and public service and engagement.”

In this regard, he advises that “universities must ensure that students are equipped with the appropriate digital skills, [which are] essential to employability”.

“There is also a need to equip students with information literacy so that they can navigate the huge and ever-increasing amount of information that is available, mostly online.”

The new technologies can further be deployed to facilitate competency-based educational practices, personalising learning, and allowing individual students to move at their own pace, Zeleza says.

Meanwhile, the more democratic access to knowledge facilitated by online technology is leading to new pedagogic approaches, he argues, and a change in the role of teaching professionals. “Teachers, lecturers and professors are no longer the fount of all knowledge.

“Increasingly, the teacher’s role is to equip the students with the ability to engage in critical enquiry and critical discourse. Thus, the lecturing method is giving way to a more interactive co-learning process – a kind of coaching relationship.”

Alongside this, Zeleza says, a new curriculum must be developed that can take account of technological development, including through the continuing establishment of new science degree courses but also through promoting a complementary role for some of the arts and humanities.

“The 4IR is not simply about technology in isolation, but also about how it is integrated with, contributes to, and is transformed by creativity,” he says.

“In this regard, I prefer the acronym STEAM, which includes an “A” for arts, to the acronym STEM, which refers only to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Creating a new African ‘library’

On the question of the role of indigenous knowledge in the African university, Zeleza envisages an increasingly sophisticated approach to indigenous and other systems of knowledge or ‘libraries’ as Congolese French philosopher and historian Valentin-Yves Mudimbe termed them.

“The tendency is to freeze the notion of indigenous knowledge to an imaginary point in our collective history … and, typically, this reference point is that of pre-contact knowledge, meaning before contact with Europe and colonialism,” he says.

However, he explains, this gives rise to a “banal” definition of African knowledge as an oral formation that stands in opposition to written European or colonial knowledge.

There are at least three streams in Africa’s ancient knowledges, which include the Christian library, the Islamic library, and the oral one, “for lack of a better term”. Zeleza argues that African academics and intellectuals need to claim these libraries which have co-existed for more than a millennium on the continent.

The real problem, however, is “the overwhelming nature of the colonial library in terms of its impacts on our political and intellectual economies”, he says.

“We have become so consumed – and rightly so, to some extent – by the colonial library that we have forgotten these other libraries.”

In response, a key mission for the African academy is to create “a new library out of the constellation of the continent’s diverse libraries,” he says, “so that we can provincialise, deconstruct and decolonise formerly centric knowledges and in their place create empowering knowledges that do not limit us to a formulation of our identities that, itself, is part of the Eurocentric episteme”.

This article is based on an interview conducted by Professor Crain Soudien for the ‘The Imprint of Education’ project, which is being implemented by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), South Africa, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. This project, which includes a series of critical engagements with experienced scholars and thought leaders on their reimaginings of higher education in Africa, investigates current and future challenges facing the sector, including best practices and innovations. The transcript has been edited for length and focus by Mark Paterson and Thierry M Luescher and the full interview will be available on the HSRC’s website.

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Ideas

Heckling: Political Fine Art or Mere Intolerance?

Tradition gives the politician the power to talk down to the public. But where is the citizens’ voice and platform to register their disapproval and displeasure? Is heckling inherently wrong?

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Heckling: Political Fine Art or Mere Intolerance?
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Hakuna! Ongee! Tawe! Gũtirĩ!

The human being is a heckler. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a polished and refined bureaucrat or a rusty hawker in some dark and desolate alley along River Road. The accountant, when home from work and in front of his 40-inch TV, will still heckle and chuckle when he hears a disagreeable comment from a politician. The prize goes to the hawker though, who will attend a meeting and courageously make his feelings known.

The question as to whether heckling is right or wrong falls within the realms of nature. And nature, you’d agree, is complex. Questions of nature have no simple or simplistic answers. Nature scorns soundbites and clichés. And nature is not just about majestic forests, clothed in death-like stillness—or the power and poise of lions as their roar echoes and re-echoes across the rugged expanse of the Mara.

Finally, nature is not just about atoms and electrons.

When correctly comprehended, nature encompasses the metaphysical. It deals with ideas and ideals as well as values and virtues. In antiquity and during the classical periods, natural philosophy was a big scholarly tent under which men studied astronomy and beauty, physics and ethics—all side by side.

This is to show that to study heckling—is to study ethics—and to study nature.

In less than six months, Kenyans are going to the polls for an election that will usher in a transition. Politicians have many tools and avenues to pass their message across to the populace: a few refined town hall-like meetings, a dash of carefully worded social media messaging through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and live TV interviews, where politicians and their apparatchiks smash phones and bang tables to emphasize their arguments.

Yet the truth is that a political rally remains the theatre of action and the real marketplace of political discourse. In a typical political rally, tradition gives the politician the power and prestige to talk down to the public. They clap and chant and then go home. The (un)settled opinion is that if a citizen does not agree with a politician or with his message, he should just stay away. Heckling, they are told, is immoral, uncouth, even criminal.

Fair enough.

However, where is the citizens’ voice and platform to register their disapproval and displeasure? Is heckling inherently and invariably wrong? Are there situations when heckling should be tolerated, even encouraged? What is the place of heckling in a free and democratic society? How does the law on heckling intersect and overlap with issues to do with free speech?

To understand anything, it’s important to travel back in time to its roots and origins. Before the 18th century, the word “heckling” as we now understand it meant an entirely different thing. A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp. Heckling involved drawing out the unwanted fibres from the flax so that it would be clean enough to be spun. A heckler therefore was an industrious worker, who, I should imagine, was dignified and respected.

It was not a coincidence that the Scottish town of Dundee, which was home to many heckler-workers, would emerge as the place where heckling was refined and transformed to become the proto-type of the heckling that we now relate to. Heckler-workers would choose one from amongst themselves to read the day’s news to the whole group. In response to politicians’ reported speeches that they deemed absurd or ridiculous, the rest of the heckler-workers would taunt and tease, scorn and sneer.

A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp.

In Scotland, even when the meaning changed with the times, it did not at first involve derisive catcalls, loud jeers, or disruptive boos. Instead, heckling referred to the intense questioning of politicians by the public. The Scottish story tells us that heckling is a legitimate tool that has the potential to improve the democratic tone and texture of a republic. In many other countries, heckling has been a successful device both as a political thermostat (to influence public opinion or government policy) and political thermometer (to reflect public opinion or government policy). Public speeches about the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons, clean fuel, apartheid, and civil rights have, for the same intent, involved some heckling-punctuated protests. This history is important. It shows us that heckling was a socio-political device invented by struggling industrial workers—the class we would call hustlers in Kenya’s current political jargon. Even more curious and exciting is the fact that, as a political device and innovation, it evolved in Scotland, the birthplace of John Stuart Mill, the foremost patriarch and prophet of civil liberty including free speech.

Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers. Nelson Mandela was heckled by Muslim adherents in 2001, when he paid a visit to the Grey Street Mosque in Durban, Kwazulu-Natal, because of his stand on the war on terror and the American military campaign in Afghanistan.

In Kenya, the most enduring story of heckling was President Jomo Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu in 1969 where he was met with shouts of “Ndume, Ndume”—the approving chants directed to elevate his then foremost political nemesis Jaramogi. When Kenyatta rose to speak, his unprintable expletives provoked the crowd. Chaos ensued. Police started firing randomly. Official government records put the death toll at 11.

Without being insensitive to the victims of this incident, this figure, in the weighing scale of fatalities—does not answer to the subsequent description of a massacre. Prof. Macharia Munene, in his book Historical Reflections on Kenya, alleges that the term Kisumu massacre evolved due to the push by historians such as William Ochieng and Bethwell Ogot. But that’s a story for another day.

Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers.

As we can see, the cost of heckling was paid in blood and tears. Most recently, thanks to the expanding democratic space, heckling is increasingly tolerated. While on the campaign trail recently, Raila was heckled some places in Meru. William Ruto has also been heckled in parts of the former Western Province.

There are convincing arguments against heckling. One very seductive argument is that heckling limits free speech.

The gold standard for free speech—in Western thought and civilization—is Mill’s Liberty. In this Tour de Force, the student of politics will find perhaps the most elegant arguments in favour of free speech ever penned. Listen to this:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

In issues to do with free speech, Mill argues, numbers mean nothing. The opinion and voice of a solitary man is equal to the voice and opinion of an impressive assembly.

When you silence a person, the cost to knowledge and social progress can be huge. And the person who “loses” is not just the person silenced. The loss is for the whole society, as Mill eloquently posits:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. [Emphasis mine.]

Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler. If you give one the benefit of an uninterrupted speech, you shut down and deny the other. It almost looks like a zero-sum game. You might argue that the meeting has been convened by the politician and therefore is technically the politician’s meeting, and that he should hold the exclusive keys of free speech.

This was William Ruto’s argument when he lost his cool in the face of sustained heckling during a Laikipia tour.

Granted, we are wont to view the heckler as the aggressor who wants to take a place belonging to someone else. That, moreover, the people who attend a rally or some other public meeting come purposefully to listen to the speaker and not the heckler.

Well, not quite.

In the Heckler’s Promise, Lee Campbell, argues in his paper that the heckler wants neither to be the official speaker nor silent mute. And that without the heckler, public speaking is not democratic as should answer to the meaning of participative democracy. Campbell also argues that if we muzzle the heckler, there’s no genuine encounter between the politician and the citizen.

Moreover, I tend to view heckling as social release—some form of catharsis—that is absolutely necessary in a living and breathing democracy. For how do you muzzle a citizen and subdue him with fake batons of decency and decorum—when he comes to listen to a member of parliament who has squandered the constituency’s allocations on girlfriends—by telling him to listen passively or to request for an impossible chance to speak? Or how can anyone really fault the crowd for heckling President Moi at the burial of Robert Ouko?

Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler.

You can say that he can register his disapproval through the ballot. And therein lies the problem. The politician has a vote, a voice, and a platform. Yet the voter only has the vote. And we’re not talking about legislation—which the citizen delegates to his legislator—according to the canons of representative democracy. Here, we’re talking about public discourse and/or expression.

You can also argue that the citizen can convene his own meeting. However, who knows him? If he calls a meeting, who will attend?

If we fully grasp the power dynamics between Prince and Pauper, to borrow the title of Mark Twain’s popular novel, then perhaps the heckler should be congratulated—not criticized.

Yet, the truth is that the prince and the pauper are not equal and never will be. Adam Smith, the celebrated classical economist and moral philosopher, even argues that social inequality is good for society. Without it, there cannot be any meaningful progress. Egalitarianism is utopia.

So, we should perhaps admit that a citizen will not have the voice and the platform like the politician. Yet even if the platform is the politician’s, it is wholly against nature to be passive like a pebble; even a stone causes ripples when it is thrown into water.

There can be a compromise: We don’t have absolute rights—even when it comes to the right of free speech or expression. So long as the speaker’s right to speak is not drowned out and completely halted, you have not interfered with his right to free speech. If you heckle him spontaneously or at intervals that do not make speech impossible, you may have just achieved the democratic ideal that the majority should decide—and the minority be heard. This is as it applies to the voice, separate to the vote.

So the point is: you should not heckle with the intention of disrupting—but only to register your displeasure. Otherwise, you’re limiting the speaker’s rights and the rights of others—who came to listen to what the speaker had to say. As celebrated jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes would memorably aver, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

Surprisingly, Kenyans have been practicing this kind of non-disruptive heckling as can be seen from video clips of Ruto’s and Raila’s meetings.

But some might still argue that it’s right to disrupt a meeting. Of course that’s correct—even if it’s illegal! This is because something can be legal but patently unjust and unconscionable. That is the field and sphere of civil disobedience in the tradition of such figures as Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said:

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

In any case, ideas are like commodities. For instance, if you found someone selling heroin to children, and if you had the strength, would you leave him right there, and go to report the matter to the police? You’d first disrupt the sale. It’s the right thing to do.

By that analogy, if someone is selling poisonous and dangerous ideas, you’d be duty bound to disrupt him or her by any means including heckling. The fundamental element of civil disobedience is that disruption must be civil.

Of course, violence and stone-throwing are acts beyond the pale and which the law and society should condemn.

While heckling is to a large extent acceptable, it can be used by political opponents to disadvantage rivals in the political marketplace. That’s the reason organized heckling is suspicious. However, organized hecklings are not created equal. For instance, I don’t believe that voters should not organize to heckle a politician.

“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

Politicians meet all the time to plan what they’ll tell us. This is organization. There’s nothing wrong if the people organize on how they’ll register their displeasure—provided they do this by themselves. The organized heckling that can’t pass muster is the one where a politician uses money to plan and heckle a rival’s meeting. This is corruption of political discourse which makes the political marketplace artificially un-even.

This treatise would not be complete without mentioning one other important function of heckling in a free and democratic society. Heckling tests the emotional intelligence and wit of a politician. It’s a bad sign for a democracy if a politician is easily rattled by hecklers.

The famous British parliamentarian John Wilkes was on the campaign trail when he met a heckler. This is how it went.

Heckler: Vote for you? I’d sooner vote for the devil.

John Wilkes: What if your friend is not vying?

Everyone, I can imagine, burst into uproarious laughter, while approving Wilkes witty response.

This is one area Deputy President William Ruto should probably work on.

Heckling can be fun, especially if it’s spontaneous. It can actually qualify as an artful form of expressing dissent.

So go and heckle—but don’t disrupt.

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Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?

Africans must enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution in a manner that upholds our human dignity, our liberty as communities and individuals, and our human agency.

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Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?
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“Welcome to tomorrow!” and “Tomorrow is already here!” are popular phrases often used in the context of the so-called Fourth Industrial revolution (“4IR”). Thus at the Sight Tech global Conference held on 2nd and 3rd December 2020, one of the plenary sessions was titled “Our AI future is already here”. In Profit and Prejudice: The Luddites of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Paul Donovan summarises the past three industrial revolutions as (1) steam power, (2) electric power, and (3) computer power. Nicholas Johnson and Brendan Markey-Towler speak of the four revolutions as the industrial revolution, the technological revolution, the digital revolution, and the fourth industrial revolution. They go on to note that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the current period of economic transition since the mid-2000s, characterized by a fusion of new digital technologies, rooted in advances from the Digital Revolution, with technological applications in the physical and biological domains. Similarly, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, formerly the European Management Forum, observes that the fourth industrial revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

Nancy W. GLEASON cites MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee as referring to 4IR as the Second Machine Age (“2MA”). According to them, while the first machine age was about the automation of manual labour and physical strength, the 2MA technological progress in digital hardware, software and networks is about the automation of knowledge. At the core of the automation of knowledge is artificial intelligence (AI). Johnson and Markey-Towler explain: “Artificial intelligence, especially when endowed with machine learning algorithms, is a technology which seeks to mimic the functioning of the human mind, and which can therefore mimic human action guided by a process that mimics human thought.” Johnson and Markey-Towler further observe that artificial intelligence has greatly enhanced the use of robots:

…, the 4IR moves the goalposts from automation to smartization, whereby intelligently programmed software and robots are able to collect new data during the regular course of their operation, share it with other approved devices on the network, analyse the data, and use the conclusions to update their course of action. The 4IR took “dumb” autonomous machines and made them “smart.” This step was essential to the development of technological marvels such as self-driving cars and trucks and next-generation industrial robotics.

During the December 2020 Sight Tech Global Conference which I referred to at the beginning of this article, Kai-Fu Lee, one of the world’s top scientists and top investors in the field of artificial intelligence and author of AI Superpowers: China Silicon Valley and the New World Order, observed that the current generation’s breakthrough in a type of AI called neural nets, sometimes referred to as deep learning, has enabled remarkable advances in areas such as computer vision and natural language processing. He went on to state that today’s AI capabilities are so great in this raw form that what is needed now are the engineers, and, most importantly, the data to make the most of all the possibilities. He explained:

… computers … can see and hear at the same level as people now. So with speech recognition for machine translation and for object recognition, AI is now at about the same level as humans. And AI is improving rapidly, based on its ability to take a huge amount of data whether it’s spoken language or recorded videos to really train itself to do better and better. So over time, it will be a better see-er and hear-er than humans.” Referring to what he calls the third wave of artificial intelligence as perception AI, Lee spoke of “… extending and expanding this power throughout our lived environment, digitizing the world around us through the proliferation of sensors and smart devices. These devices are turning our physical world into digital data that can be analyzed and optimized by deep learning algorithms.

Nevertheless, Donovan notes that the phrase “industrial revolution” entered common usage long after the first industrial revolution had begun. He explains that Karl Marx’s collaborator on The Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels, used the phrase in German in the 1840s, and the phrase was first used in English by Arnold Toynbee in 1882. This points to the fact that human beings often name something quite a while after they have experienced it, and the same has been true of 4IR, although we may have named it earlier than the first three because we are now more used to the idea of industrial revolutions than those who went before us were.

Klaus Schwab listed emerging 4IR technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing among the things that would drastically change our lives. Indeed, the lives of the peoples of Africa are already being touched by 4IR in ways that many of them are yet to perceive—their smart phones, with their “Location” function on, are beaming data about their movements to networks, and the data are then sold to high-tech transport companies desperate for information about traffic flow in cities; many of them unwittingly allow phone apps to access their microphones and cameras, with the real possibility of their conversations and actions being monitored; their emails and social media accounts are being monitored for information about them that is sold to marketers, advertisers and politicians who use it for “targeted messaging”; their faces are increasingly being scanned by cameras connected to face-recognition software ostensibly to enhance security, but with the real possibility of surveillance for purposes unknown to them.

Human beings often name something quite a while after they have experienced it

What is likely to be more alarming to many, however, is the fact that the combination of artificial intelligence and robotics supported by high-speed online connectivity is threatening to render jobless in a few years’ time those without requisite new skills.

In 2021, Rob Floyd informed us that the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), working with other institutional partners and nearly 40 data scientists and machine learning experts from around the globe, had completed the continent’s first “Artificial Intelligence Challenge”, ostensibly to help predict what infrastructure Africa will need in the future. According to Floyd, the exercise sought to identify machine learning tools and approaches that can inform policy decisions. The data scientists created models and designed methodologies that could help determine what infrastructure to build, where to build it, and what factors would have long-term economic impacts on the continent.

The fourth industrial revolution perpetuating western imperialism

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, imperialism is “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.” The peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand first bore the brunt of Western imperialism in the form of colonialism. In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe notes that “colonialism and colonization basically mean ‘organization’, ‘arrangement’. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the colonists (those settling a region), as well as the colonialists (those exploiting a territory by dominating a local majority) have all tended to organize and transform non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs.

Thus the politics, economics and systems of knowledge production in colonised territories were designed to imitate those of their Western colonisers. At independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, classical colonialism in Africa was replaced by neo-colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah, in the Introduction to his Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of imperialism, wrote: “THE neo-colonialism of today represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage. …. The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.”

In a chapter in The Disruptive Fourth Industrial Revolution: Technology, Society and Beyond, Rashied and Bhamjee observe that industrialisation in 4IR could easily continue along the path of coloniality, in which the wealthy countries of the Northern hemisphere exploit the resources of countries in the South, but that it could also result in some of the wealthier countries of the Global South exploiting their poorer counterparts. During the Third Industrial Revolution, the inequality between the wealthy countries in the North and the poor ones in the South was regularly referred to as “the digital divide” — a divide that is already finding its way into 4IR. Thus as Donovan observes, there are many people who cannot afford a smart phone and a data plan to enjoy the benefits of 4IR, so that “The democratisation of communication only applies to those above a certain income level.”

Indeed, the Digital Economy Report 2019, released by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, highlighted the disproportionate concentration of the digital economy in the United States and China, with the rest of the world trailing considerably, especially countries in Africa and Latin America. According to the Report, the United States and China accounted for 90 per cent of the market capitalization value of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms, over 75 per cent of the cloud computing market, 75 per cent of all patents related to blockchain technology, and 50 per cent of global spending on the Internet of Things.

“The democratisation of communication only applies to those above a certain income level.”

The report predicted that under current regulations and policies, this trajectory was likely to continue, contributing to increasing inequality. Yet, perhaps even more disturbing, is the digital divide right inside each of our countries in Africa, where the middle class enjoys virtually all the benefits of 4IR technologies that their counterparts in the affluent West and East enjoy, while the vast majority of their compatriots still grapple with lack of basic amenities such as access to piped water and electric power so that for them the issue of entering the digital world does not even arise. This latter digital divide significantly contributes to the perpetuation of the neo-colonial structures of domination for the benefit of the West and East.

Furthermore, in the edited volume The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Its Impact on Ethics, Geneviève Tanguay notes that disregard for factors such as cultural identity and political convictions is often reflected in the very design of 4IR products themselves. For example, observes Tanguay, machine learning algorithms, although designed to help in problem-solving and decision-making, are vulnerable to biases and errors arising either from their creators or from the datasets used to train the systems themselves. Tanguay goes on to write that Amazon’s time- and resource-intensive effort to build an Artificial Intelligence (AI) recruitment tool was shot through with bias against women: engineers reportedly attributed this bias to the AI combing through CVs submitted to the company over a 10-year period, most of which were submitted by men.

Donovan points out that consumers can now boycott companies that do not agree with their political positions: apps even suggest alternative products with better scores. However, he goes on to caution that, “With an app, the opinion that works out the details is someone else’s opinion. …. If the shopper has different priorities to the app designer, they may spend in areas they do not actually support.” In addition, observes Donovan, although it is often claimed that the communication technologies have democratized communication, “Algorithms give preference to some social-media users. They also will censor others. Government censorship was commonplace 300 years ago. The private-sector equivalent is the demonetisation, downgrading or banning of published content.” Such censorship from the so-called big tech has escalated in the era of COVID-19, ostensibly in a bid to fight the virus through scientifically-based information.

Disregard for factors such as cultural identity and political convictions is often reflected in the very design of 4IR products themselves.

Moreover, Western cultures are putting non-Western cultures under great pressure to allow themselves to be assimilated in the global (read “largely Western”) cultural pool on the false presumption that they are inferior to Western cultures. Thus in a chapter in African Values, Ethics, and Technology, Maleselo John Lamola points out that as the peoples of Africa use 4IR technologies designed with a Western cultural bias, they are negatively affected at a fundamental level:

The culturally disadvantaged user is … simultaneously mesmerised and alienated by an object that imposes itself as instrumental for the efficiencies of her life; during the same experience she must align her way of doing things to the intricacies of the operation of this device or machine, as well as to the social role it is cast to serve in her life.

A crucial aspect of human welfare is personal liberty, entailing rights such as those of free association, movement, expression and privacy. Yet 4IR is eroding these very liberties through surveillance: smart phones now easily “hear” and “see” much more than their users intend or know. Besides, governments are consolidating various databases (such as those on health insurance, births and deaths, voters’ lists, and criminal records) into single super-databases, so that at the click of a button those with access can view a citizen’s information in astoundingly fine details that can be used against him or her. Thus in the run-up to the 2020 US elections, some US citizens wrote a parody of the famous American civil war-period song “His Truth Goes Marching On”, part of which stated:

Our right to privacy is gone, devices are the spies.

For government surveillance those are now the ears and eyes.

They use the corporate data, no subpoenas, no surprise,

And still we don’t catch on.

All this calls to mind George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, in which the single party, embodied by the mythical “Big Brother”, deploys 4IR-type technologies to monitor not only the people’s actions, but also their thoughts. The “inner party” consists of an elite which wields power by getting the “outer party” members to do their bidding. The party has a “thought police” which deploys all manner of 4IR type technologies to keep tabs on members of the outer party, including “telescreens” in homes and in public places that “listen to” and “see” all that the citizens say and do round the clock. The thought police are even able to read the thoughts of the members of the “outer party” and unleash punishments on them for any dissenting ideas. The “proles” (short for “proletariat”) are the illiterate masses, deeply despised by both inner and outer party members, and hardly have any interaction with the political process.

Furthermore, the party constantly re-writes history to suit its immediate purposes, fabricates narratives about consistent and abundant economic growth, about a mythical enemy of the state called Goldstein, and about never-ending war with this or that foreign power. It is working on a language called “Newspeak” to totally replace “Oldspeak” (English as we now know it, with a view to reducing the number of vocabulary in the language in order to eventually make it impossible for anyone to entertain or express critical thoughts against the regime. The party’s three slogans are: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

Indeed, 4IR technologies now make a global dictatorship a much more conceivable possibility than it was for the first readers of 1984.

Kalundi Serumaga has illustrated how Africa’s land is “The Final Frontier of Global Capital”. This corroborates Mordecai Ogada’s assertion that “Conservation interests have built a cauldron into which the extremely wealthy are pouring startling amounts of money to subvert systems, grab lands, and plunder resources.” Yet the domination of Africa’s land that global capital seeks to achieve is being greatly aided by 4IR technologies that not only enhance the digitization of land records, but also detailed surveillance and high-tech warfare using 4IR-driven devices such as drones.

Which way forward?

We in Africa ought to urgently clarify our moral values, and based on them, formulate clear guidelines to restrain developers and marketers of 4IR technologies, serving the same old imperialists and some new ones, from dehumanising our people by manipulatively imposing technological innovations on them. Thus we ought to deeply reflect on the social visions of our forerunners such as that of Pixley ka Isaka Seme in his celebrated 1906 Columbia University speech titled “The Regeneration of Africa”. Seme spoke of a regenerated African civilization whose most essential departure “is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic — indeed a regeneration moral and eternal.” As Lamola explains, for Seme, “the surrender of human agency to machines is … not fathomed. His was a novel conception of the possibility of the symbiosis of scientific progress with human spirituality.” Thus in my recent journal article on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, I proposed four normative considerations that, in my view, ought to guide the initiatives of the peoples of Africa in their deployment of 4IR technologies, namely, inclusiveness to meet the needs of all human beings, affordability to bridge the digital divide, respect for the right to cultural identity to guard against cultural imperialism, and ethical orientation as the over-arching guide to building a truly human society.

The domination of Africa’s land that global capital seeks to achieve is being greatly aided by 4IR technologies.

In sum, as we the peoples of Africa enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we ought to do so in a manner that upholds our human dignity, our liberty as communities and individuals, and, as a result, our human agency. This will entail a conscious and consistent repudiation of Eurocentrism in the realm of technology in line with Frantz Fanon’s admonition in the final chapter of his The Wretched of the Earth, A book he diligently worked to complete during the last ten months of his life:

If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe …, then let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted among us.

But if we want humanity to advance a step further, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries.

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