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Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities

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The quality of education in African universities has been steadily declining in the face of financial instability. This is having an impact on the employment prospects of graduates.

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Money Matters: The Financial Crises Facing Universities
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Over the past several months, there have been numerous conferences on the state of higher education in Africa and around the world, some of which I’ve participated in and even given keynote addresses. From these conferences, and the increasingly frantic higher education media, it is clear that the spectre of financial instability and unsustainability haunts many universities in the developed and developing countries alike, from the United States to Kenya. The challenges are, of course, mediated by local contexts embedded in levels of development and socio-economic inequalities, prevailing political cultures and ideologies, institutional histories and capacities, and a confluence of other forces.

In the United States, the outlook for universities has largely been negative over the last decade. According to Moody’s, in its 2019 higher education outlook, “Increasing expenses outpace constrained revenue for most universities and colleges…owing to constrained tuition revenue growth, the main revenue stream for most universities and colleges…Colleges and universities will look to further control costs, which will lead to longer-term challenges related to programmatic and capital investment. For most colleges, rising labor costs, which are roughly 65%-75% of expenses, will remain the largest hurdle.”

Moody’s forecast for 2020: “The outlook for the US higher education sector has been changed to stable from negative,” underpinned by “revenue growth in the 3%-4% range over the next year or so, driven mainly by larger, comprehensive universities.” It continues: “Over the longer term, social risks will continue to transform the US higher education sector, with demographic changes presenting both challenges and opportunities…Governance will remain a key differentiator among higher education institutions…Those that are able to identify their strengths and weaknesses and take appropriate action where necessary will fare better than those that remain reactive.”

In 2016, a report by Ernest & Young found that 800 institutions (largely concentrated among small universities and colleges excessively dependent on tuition) were facing the most serious risks. Some experts predict up to a quarter of American colleges will become extinct within a decade. Whether such predictions come to pass or not, the rate of closures has accelerated. Equally troubling is the staggering growth in student loan debt. In 2018, it reached $1.5 trillion, encompassing 44.2 million borrowers. This was higher than credit card debt. In fact, student debt is the second biggest source of household debt after mortgages in the United States.

The growth in student debt reflected changes in the financing model of American higher education, which is fueled by the neoliberal ideology unleashed by the Reagan administration and followed by successive administrations. Increasingly regarded as a private rather than public good, state funding for education declined, and student aid support shifted from grants to loans. Cash-strapped universities resorted to several strategies, including raising tuition and diversifying their revenue streams. On the expenditure side, they embraced cost-cutting, especially on tenure-stream (permanent) faculty employment, one of the largest expenses for universities.

Between 1980 and 2018 tuition grew by 213% at public institutions and 129% at private ones. This was higher than the growth in wages or the rate of inflation. Up to 70% of American students currently graduate with debt. According to Business Insider, the average student loan debt per graduating student who took out a loan reached $29,800 in 2018. More than a hundred people owed over $1 million compared to 14 people in 2013! And more than 3 million people aged 60 and above owed over $86 billion. The crippling burden of college tuition has risen to the top of the political agenda in the Democratic Party’s primaries for the 2020 US presidential election. As can be expected in such a racialised society, black graduates have more debt than their white counterparts.

As for faculty, the proportion of tenure-track faculty declined precipitously while that of contingent faculty rose, reaching 73% of all faculty in American colleges and universities in 2016, according to data from the American Association of University Professors. The remuneration and working conditions of contingent faculty are often abysmal; they typically don’t have benefits and some make less than the minimum wage. The academic media is full of heartbreaking stories about some contingent faculty subsisting on food stamps and making less than teenagers working in fast food joints.

Up to 70% of American students currently graduate with debt. According to Business Insider, the average student loan debt per graduating student who took out a loan reached $29,800 in 2018.

The expansion of the lumpen-professoriate of contingent faculty weakens the academy as a whole. It hurts students because these faculty are often hired by the hour, not given institutional support, and tend not to participate in departmental affairs, all of which deprives students of robust faculty engagement. It also undermines all faculty by threatening the integrity of faculty work, limiting the distribution of faculty service responsibilities, creating hierarchies among faculty, and eroding academic freedom, which vulnerable contingent faculty are hardly in a position to exercise.

The case of the US underscores the fact that financial challenges and their implications for students and faculty and the entire higher education enterprise are not confined to the Global South. This should be both a source of solace and sobriety for African universities. Solace because it shows that the challenges are not peculiar to African countries and higher education institutions. Sobriety because we cannot import turnkey solutions from elsewhere. Rather, we must think strategically, smartly, and systematically and devise solutions that will ensure financial stability and sustainability for our institutions.

Kenya’s bankrupt universities

In Kenya, it is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of the country’s universities are virtually bankrupt. Many are unable to pay salaries on time, remit statutory obligations for health and pensions, or provide adequate faculty, teaching and learning facilities, as well as student accommodation and support services. The Kenyan media is replete with stories about the billions of shillings public universities, including some of the largest and oldest ones, owe in statutory obligations and to their service providers.

The financial challenges facing most African universities, including those in Kenya, arise from the fact that they are primarily dependent on tuition. There is a mismatch between the rising demand for education, which is escalating because of the continent’s youth bulge, and the ability of students to pay the full costs of a quality university education, as well as the absorptive capacity of institutions to provide student aid. As public funding per university student has generally declined, while instructional costs have increased, both the universities and students suffer, which is reflected in falling quality and standards.

It becomes a vicious cycle: poor quality education undermines graduate employability, which burdens families and undermines their capacities to recover investments already made in education and to cover any future costs. This serves to reinforce questions about the value proposition of higher education. It helps explain the extreme sensitivities about tuition increases among students and their parents or guardians.

The fact of the matter is that notwithstanding the hype about Rising Africa/Africa Rising, one of whose indicators is ostensibly the expansion of the middle classes, the majority of students in African universities are from lower middle income, working class and peasant backgrounds. Upper middle income and rich families tend to send their children abroad—to Europe, North America, and the emerging economies of Asia, such as India, Malaysia, and China—because they have little confidence in the quality of local universities. This is well articulated in a story in the Business Daily of May 6, 2019, entitled “Local universities are facing serious crisis of confidence.” Those who vote with their wallets for their children’s education abroad often includes parents who were educated at local universities, at least for their first degrees.

It becomes a double jeopardy for Kenyan universities: they are unable to attract students from their own countries and foreign students with the ability to pay for the full costs of high quality university education. African universities are not serious players in the lucrative international student market. Out of the 5.09 million internationally mobile students in 2018, Africa accounted for a mere 4.39% per cent of inbound students, but 10.26% of outbound students. The financial situation of universities in Kenya has been compounded by student demographics in terms of the number of students qualifying for university entry. For the past four years, the pool of Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) students qualifying for university entrance has been historically low.

In 2018, out of the 660,204 candidates who sat for KCSE examinations, only 90,755 (13.74%) scored C+ and above, the minimum grade for university entry. In 2019, out of the 697,222 candidates, 125,746 (18.05%) got C+ and above. The available capacity in the country’s 74 universities in 2019 was 145,338, and in 2020 it is 193,878. Thus, the proportion of qualified students from the 2018 and 2019 KCSE results was 62.44% and 64.86%, respectively, of available capacity. As late as 2015, before the clampdown on cheating and other fraudulent behaviour in national exams, out of the 521,240 candidates who sat for the KCSE examinations, 32.52% or 169,492 got C+ and above. This has resulted in fierce competition among the country’s universities for the limited pool of qualified candidates, which affects their financial bottom line.

Financial constraints affect the ability of Kenyan universities to train, attract and retain qualified faculty. The core business of universities is teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and public engagement and service. Recruitment and retention of top-rate academics is, therefore, imperative. Kenya suffers from acute shortages of faculty and the graduate student pipeline is severely limited. The yearly production in Kenya of PhDs is about 700, below the government target of 1,000. Not surprisingly, only 34% of faculty in Kenyan universities have terminal degrees (my university, USIUAfrica, is an outlier with 73%). The Cabinet Secretary of Education was quoted in the Daily Nation on May 8, 2019 saying that “less than 10 per cent of PhD holders are qualified”. This was attributed to the prevalence of academic fraud, in which contract cheating is rampant. In fact, Kenya reportedly enjoys the dubious distinction of being a leading global centre of contract cheating.

In 2018, out of the 660,204 candidates who sat for KCSE examinations, only 90,755 (13.74%) scored C+ and above, the minimum grade for university entry. In 2019, out of the 697,222 candidates, 125,746 (18.05%) got C+ and above.

Even more critical is the growing discrepancy between the growth in student enrolments and faculty. Between 2011 and 2018, while student enrolments increased fivefold, the number of academics teaching in Kenyan public universities only grew by 13%. Consequently, faculty-student ratios have risen, which in some public universities are close to 1:70. This has severely affected the quality of education and research productivity. In most universities, many of the often overworked and poorly paid faculty are forced into adjuncting, and they rely on outmoded pedagogical practices and curricula. Moreover, student learning is frequently interrupted by employee strikes and student demonstrations.

Higher education is critical to the development of high-level human capital essential for economic growth and sustainable development. Two measures of the contribution of higher education are especially important. One is the employability of university graduates, and the other is research productivity and impact. In African Economic Outlook 2020, the African Development Bank provides a sobering reading on Africa’s unpreparedness for the jobs of the future because of the low quality of its educational systems. The problem cuts across the educational ladder. According to the report, “Many African countries have yet to catch up with the rest of the world in basic skills and education…African students have lower average test scores than students in other world regions. Against global harmonized test scores ranging from 300 to 625, the average African student scored only 374 in 2017.” It is universally acknowledged, that human capital is a key driver of economic growth, but “Human capital contributes less to labor productivity and economic growth in Africa than in other developing regions. This is due partly to the low quality of education, lack of complementary physical capital, and widespread skill and education mismatches.”

The report urges African governments (advice that applies to universities as well) to make strategic choices to build the workforce of the future. “African countries will need to anticipate and build a flexible and productive workforce to meet future challenges. To strengthen worker employability, firm productivity, and inclusive growth, African countries need a national strategy for education and skill development.” The report notes, “A poorly skilled and educated labor force is typically the top constraint mentioned by global executives when considering manufacturing investments in Africa.”

Furthermore, “Because ‘soft skills’ are likely to become increasingly important, education and training institutions should be encouraged to inculcate and reinforce positive values, starting with young children. These attributes include a strong work ethic, honesty, tolerance, respect for authority, punctuality, and pursuit of excellence. These are the intangible characteristics of a high-quality workforce.” Massive investments are required for building educational infrastructure, and in addition to soft skills, the development of critical future skills includes job-specific digital skills, job-neutral digital skills, and ancillary skills related to manufacturing.

Reports on graduate employability in Kenya, as elsewhere across East Africa and the continent, show that there are glaring mismatches between what universities are producing and what the economies need, resulting in graduates spending years “tarmacking” ( a term used in Kenya to refer to the unemployed and underemployed). In fact, in much of Africa, graduate unemployment and underemployment tends to be higher than for secondary school and vocational college graduates. According to one report, a survey by the Federation of Kenya Employers laments, “at least 70 per cent of entry-level recruits require a refresher course in order to start to deliver in their new jobs.” Further, it notes a study by the Inter-University Council for East Africa that “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63 per cent of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61 per cent of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55 per cent and 52 per cent of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51 per cent of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.”

The conundrum African countries face is that they have low levels of tertiary enrollments, yet their graduates have limited employability opportunities. In 2017, the gross enrollment ratio of Kenya stood at 11.7%, which was below the African average of about 14%, but above the sub-Saharan average of 9%. North Africa accounted for 45% of all African students in tertiary institutions, giving the region an enrolment ratio of 34%, just below the world average ratio of 38%. The enrolment ratio of high income countries was 77%, for middle income countries 52%, and lower middle income countries 24.4%. The enrolment ratios for South Korea and Singapore were a staggering 93.8% and 83.9%, respectively. Kenya hopes to reach a gross enrolment ratio of 15% by 2030. Essential employability qualities (EEQ) go beyond subject knowledge and technical competence.

Reports on graduate employability in Kenya, as elsewhere across East Africa and the continent, show that there are glaring mismatches between what universities are producing and what the economies need, resulting in graduates spending years “tarmacking”…

Acquisition of soft skills is paramount. Graduates with EEQ are good communicators, critical thinkers and problem solvers, inquirers and researchers, collaborators, adaptable, principled and ethical, responsible and professional, and continuous learners. Cultivation of employability skills raises questions about curriculum design, assessment, and teaching methods. It entails the intersection of the classroom, campus, and community as learning spaces for a holistic educational experience.

The classroom requires a transforming pedagogy, adequate learning resources, curricular relevance, balance between theory and practice, passionate and enthusiastic teachers with high expectations, and motivated students. The campus needs robust career services, extra-curricular activities, student engagement, employer involvement, and innovation incubators. And the community contributes through the provision of internships and service learning opportunities.

Low R&D levels

The second mission of universities, through which they make invaluable contributions to the economy and society, is knowledge production through research and scholarship. The low levels of research and development (R&D) among African countries are well known. On average African countries spend 0.5% of their GDP on R&D, compared to a world average of 1.7%, and account for less than 1.5% of global R&D expenditures. Unlike other world regions, much of the R&D in Africa comes from foreign agencies and foundations, not national governments and the local private sector.

Other research indicators are no less disconcerting. According to UNESCO’s Science Report: Towards 2030, in 2014 Africa accounted for 2.4% of the world’s researchers (compared to 42.8% for Asia, the world’s highest), and 2.6% of research publications (compared to 39.5% for Asia, also the world’s highest). The other glaring challenge of research in African countries and universities is its external orientation in terms of focus and outlets. While the world average of publication with external authors was 24.9%, for Africa it was 64.6%

(compared to 26.1% for Asia). Thus, like our dependent economies, African scholarship suffers from what I call epistemic extraversion. No wonder the rankings of African universities are the lowest in the world.

Kenya spends about 0.8% of its GDP on R&D, which is among the highest on the continent. The country’s research output is also relatively high compared to other African countries. In 2018, citable documents per one million inhabitants was 565.1, higher than Ghana’s 565.1, and Nigeria’s 366.2, but far below South Africa’s 4,233.5. Much of this research comes from the numerous research agencies and networks located in Kenya and a few universities.

According to UNESCO’s Science Report: Towards 2030, in 2014 Africa accounted for 2.4% of the world’s researchers (compared to 42.8% for Asia, the world’s highest), and 2.6% of research publications (compared to 39.5% for Asia, also the world’s highest).

It is critical for African countries and universities to develop effective research policies, and support and reward systems. Also critical is promoting modalities of research collaboration that are transformative in terms of interdisciplinarity, interprofessionalism, and internationalization. No less important is ensuring a productive balance between pure and applied research, and addressing theoretical and analytical issues, as well as pressing challenges as identified in national, regional, and global agendas, such as Kenya’s Vision

2030, East Africa’s Vision 2050, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

In many of the developed and leading emerging economies, research grants constitute an important source of revenue for universities. It is also quite common for such institutions to have endowed professorships held by some of their most distinguished research faculty, which further brings additional resources and relieves the operational budget of significant employee costs. As far as I’m aware, endowed professorships or chairs do not exist in most African universities. Also, research grants that not only bring administrative overheads, but also supplement faculty income, do not constitute a major source of institutional revenues.

Clearly, Kenyan and universities in other African countries need to develop more reliable and robust revenue streams.

In the second part of this article, I will discuss the various revenue-generating options that African universities are or should be adopting.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Ideas

Boda Boda Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Name has been changed to protect the rider

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Ideas

Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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