Whenever there is a crisis of the magnitude of the current COVID-19 pandemic, people are forced to inspect their most basic assumptions. In Philosophy and Education in Africa, R.J. Njoroge and G.A. Bennaars noted that we get the English noun “crisis: from the Greek noun krisis, denoting separation, decision, or judgment. Among the things that many have often taken for granted, but that are worth inspecting, is the belief that democracy is all about elections, after which the executive, the legislature and the judiciary run the country. This is the liberal democratic framework that deserves a fresh look, alongside the many other things that we can no longer take for granted.
The woes of liberal democracy
For many, “democracy” simply means “liberal democracy” – characterised by individual freedom (which entitles citizens to the liberty and responsibility of charting the course of their lives and conducting their own affairs), equality before the law, the right of everyone to vote (“universal suffrage”), universal education, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.
Many of these features have been proclaimed in historical documents, such as the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence, which asserted the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which affirmed the principles of civil liberty and of equality before the law, and the 1941 Anglo-American Atlantic Charter, which affirmed the “four freedoms”, namely, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear of physical aggression.
Liberal democracy is the political expression of liberalism – an ideology that emphasises the pre-eminence of the autonomy of the individual over the authority of society. In 1859, John Stuart Mill classically articulated the centrality of the autonomy of the individual in Western liberal thought in his On Liberty, in which he argued that the individual ought to be protected against the tyranny of the majority in the same way as he or she ought to be protected against political despotism. For him, society is only justified to limit the individual’s freedom in instances where his or her actions result in harm to others.
In “The Case against Democracy”, C. Crain notes that proponents of liberal democracy contend that it has several strengths, among which are that countries that subscribe to it very rarely go to war with one another, rarely murder their own populations, nearly always have peaceful transitions of government, and respect human rights more consistently than other systems of government do.
However, since most African states attained political independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the back of constitutions that were by and large liberal democratic, they almost immediately faced major challenges in their efforts to put this imported model of governance into practice. Thus there were numerous amendments of constitutions to perpetuate incumbent regimes, often leading to autocratic one-party states, military coups, contested elections, and violent inter-ethnic conflicts.
Furthermore, in a masterly book chapter titled “Western Modernity, African Indigene, and Political Order: Interrogating the Liberal Democratic Orthodoxy” in Electoral Politics in Kenya, the Kenyan political scientist Ludeki Chweya pointed out that the re-introduction of multiparty democracy in several African countries from the early 1990s met with challenges very similar to the ones experienced at the dawn of independence. From the early 1990s, newly elected governments were overthrown either through military coups (Sierra Leone, Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire), or at the hands of armed guerrilla movements (Congo-Brazzaville). Further, adulterated multiparty elections resulted in the retention and legitimisation of the continent’s long-standing authoritarian civilian regimes (Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Kenya). Even where there was a successful change of guard through multiparty elections, new, ostensibly democratic regimes quickly assumed an authoritarian character typical of their predecessors (Zambia and Malawi). A few others remained aloof to these democratisation initiatives (Sudan).
In “The Case against Democracy”, C. Crain notes that proponents of liberal democracy contend that it has several strengths, among which are that countries that subscribe to it very rarely go to war with one another, rarely murder their own populations, nearly always have peaceful transitions of government, and respect human rights more consistently than other systems of government do.
Consequently, an increasing number of African and Africanist political theorists are now convinced that what is often called “the failure of democracy in Africa” is really “the failure of liberal democracy in Africa”, and that this failure is doomed to be witnessed in our continent again and again until we stop trying to implement this foreign model of governance and design our own home-grown models of democracy instead.
For Ludeki Chweya, the development of a stable and enduring democracy in Africa is contingent upon a fusion of elements from two civilisations that make up the continent’s socio-political heritage, namely, the abiding indigenous African forms of democracy and Western liberal democracy, so as to produce a special variant of democracy for the continent.
On the basis of the decentralised political structures in a considerable number of pre-colonial societies in Africa, the Kenyan philosopher Aloo Osotsi Mojola, in a chapter in the edited volume, Law and the Struggle for Democracy in East Africa, prescribes a restructuring of the global system through radical decentralisation that no longer has the “nation-state” at its core.
On his part, the renowned Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, in Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, prescribes a no-party consensual democracy for contemporary African states, averring that many pre-colonial African communities were effectively governed through this form of governance. He is emphatic that while unanimity might be the perfection of consensus, it need not be achieved in every instance. Instead, quite often, it will be enough to ensure that all views are adequately articulated in the course of decision-making in order to secure the goodwill of those whose wishes are not adopted for implementation.
Moreover, in his 2002 conference paper, “Democratic Governance and New Democracy in Africa: Agenda for the Future”, the late South Africa-born scholar, Archie Mafeje, proposed that African scholars abandon the Western debate between liberal democracy and social democracy, and adopt a new approach to democracy instead, entailing three crucial components. First, the sovereignty of the people ought to be recognised as both a basic necessity and a fundamental right. Second, social justice, not simply formal rights, must constitute the foundation of the new democracy. Third, the livelihood of the citizens must not be contingent on ownership of property, but rather on equitable access to productive resources.
On his part, the renowned Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, in Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, prescribes a no-party consensual democracy for contemporary African states, averring that many pre-colonial African communities were effectively governed through this form of governance.
Tatah Mentan’s 2015 book, Decolonizing Democracy from Western Cognitive Imperialism, seems to capture the spirit of the views of the foregoing African theorists.
In line with the foregoing African thinkers, I hold the view that there is no reason for giving liberal democracy a third chance instead of exercising our creativity to come up with alternative models of democracy that take cognisance of our socio-political realities instead of attempting to override them as experiments with liberal democracy have done for almost six decades now. In “Liberal Democracy: An African Critique”, I argued that from an African perspective, the almost hegemonic status of liberal democracy can be challenged on at least five grounds:
- Logical inconsistency – liberal democracy advocates for the autonomy of the individual, and yet no individual is born with an awareness of liberal ideals; these can only be taught to the young and old in a social context.
- Impracticability – while liberal democracy lays emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, many Africans have a largely communalistic outlook based on their conception of family as extending beyond their immediate household to a broad range of kinship relations that extend all the way to their ethnic groups. Besides, due to the large amounts of money required to effectively compete for elective positions, liberal democracy marginalises the masses to mere voting pawns.
- Inconsistency between affirmation and action – Western societies that emphasise the liberal ideals of the dignity of the individual and his/her various freedoms have been some of the greatest violators of those very ideals through the slave trade, colonialism and neocolonialism.
- Violation of the right to ethnic identity – the ethnically-blind vision of liberal democracy unjustifiably criminalises the right of the individual to enjoy associating with his/her ethnic group, and even to desire that this loyalty be recognised and respected in the management of public affairs.
- The moral imperative to assert the right to cultural emancipation – genuine political independence requires that the cultural orientation of African peoples find expression in their political organisation instead of such organisation being designed to reflect the ideals of their erstwhile colonisers.
Three Grounds for an Ethnically-based Federation for Kenya
According to the advocates of liberal democracy, post-colonial African states ought to minimise, if not entirely get rid of, the multiplicity of ethnic identities and loyalties. In other words, they advocate for ethnically-blind polities, where states focus on the demands of the individuals in them rather than on those of cultural groups.
However, there are at least three reasons why Kenya ought to be re-structured into an ethnically-based federation.
First, freedom of association ought to include the liberty of the individual to associate with people with whom he/she shares a cultural heritage, and this can find considerable room for expression in an ethnically-based federation. Western liberalism strangely fails to see that criminalising the free expression of ethnic loyalty amounts to a violation of the right to free association, and is a case of liberalism itself being illiberal in practice. Furthermore, social scientists attest to the fact that the individual’s views regarding the good life are significantly influenced by his or her social environment whose major feature is often ethnicity.
The 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights had a distinctly liberal democratic orientation, envisaging rights as strictly belonging to individuals and not to groups. However, due to pressure from non-Western communalistic cultures, current discourse on human rights within the UN framework acknowledges three categories of entitlements, referred to as “generations of rights”, namely (1) civil rights (entailing the well-known personal liberties, such as freedom of movement, association and conscience), (2) economic welfare rights (including entitlements to food, shelter, medical care and employment), and (3) what may be broadly termed “rights of cultural membership”.
Thus the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares that third-generation rights ought to be protected: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”
Second, recognition and protection of the right to ethnic identity through an ethnically-based federation would be an antidote to perpetual cultural, political and economic domination. In unitarist ethnically plural post-colonial African states, ethnic groups that enjoy numerical advantage, or, more importantly, that have managed to hang on to political power, configure the state to reflect and support their own worldviews, and this has a direct impact on access to economic and political influence. For example, in “Kenya: Minorities, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Diversity”, Maurice Odhiambo Makoloo pointed out that just like their colonial predecessors, post-colonial Kenyan regimes have defined the economic potential of the country strictly through agro-ecological zones, thus retaining the colonial fixation with highland agriculture. Central Kenya and the highlands are defined as high potential areas, while the Lake Basin and Ukambani lowlands (Eastern province) are defined as medium potential and the rangelands, which comprise 70 per cent of the country’s land mass, are defined as lowest potential.
Consequently, as John R. Campbell observed in “Ethnic Minorities and Development: A Prospective Look at the Situation of African Pastoralists and Hunter-Gatherers”, a hierarchy has developed based on unequal political power which translates into unequal access to, and control over, land. Campbell went on to note that from colonial times, alien Western capitalism has encroached on land, whether it belongs to agriculturalists, pastoralists or hunter-gatherers; agriculturalists have moved into pastoralist lands, and agriculturalists and pastoralists have taken over hunter-gatherer territories.
For example, in “Kenya: Minorities, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Diversity”, Maurice Odhiambo Makoloo pointed out that just like their colonial predecessors, post-colonial Kenyan regimes have defined the economic potential of the country strictly through agro-ecological zones, thus retaining the colonial fixation with highland agriculture.
Except for alien Western capitalist encroachment, numerical strength or weakness has been pivotal to this hierarchical process of socio-political dispossession, as the agriculturalists are more numerous than the pastoralists, and the latter have a demographic advantage over the hunter-gatherers. Consequently, entrenching the right to the recognition and protection of ethnic identity into the country’s constitution would significantly enhance efforts to address these injustices.
Third, in “Nationhood and Statehood: The Impact of a Conflated Discourse on African Polities and their Non-Dominant Ethnic Groups”, I argued that constitutional protection of ethnic identity would address the need to mitigate the harmful effects of the discourse on the nation-state. From the days of the so-called nationalist struggle for independence, the idea was popularised that Kenyans are “one people”.
However, the formation of the Kenyan state was an act of gross violence, commencing with the formal inauguration of the Imperial British East Africa Company rule in 1888, but more officially with the declaration of the British East African Protectorate on 1st July, 1895. The 1886 Anglo-German agreement delineated the sovereignty of the Sultan of Zanzibar from the country’s coastline to ten miles into the interior. In 1895, the Sultan of Zanzibar leased the administration of the strip to the British.
These events set in motion the violent process of placing different ethnic communities with their diverse systems of government within one large and new area of central administration. The territory beyond the ten-mile coastal strip was declared to be “Kenya Colony” in 1920. Thus while the ten-mile coastal strip continued to be referred to as a Protectorate, the rest of the territory was henceforth referred to as the Kenya Colony.
Nevertheless, the British administered the Protectorate and the Colony as a two-in-one unit out of expediency. Is it any wonder then that our people display greater loyalty to their ethnic identities that are centuries old, while giving lip service to the Kenyan identity which, very loosely speaking, is only a century old this year? Consequently, like most post-colonial African polities, Kenya is a multi-national state, not a nation.
While current geopolitics make it impossible for our various peoples to revert to their pre-colonial political formations, we can mitigate their pain considerably by setting up an ethnically-based federation in which ethnic identity is recognised and respected instead of being criminalised, as it has been thus far. Thus, in the place of the nationalist discourse, we need to build a polity in which our various peoples can organise their local spaces in a manner consonant with their worldviews. This point becomes clearer when we recognise the fact that politics is part and parcel of culture, so that a political formation enjoys greater legitimacy when it reflects the cultural milieu of its inhabitants. Regarding this, A.S. Narang, in “Ethnic Conflicts and Minority Rights”, wrote:
People invariably retain an attachment to their own ethnic group and the community in which they were brought up. There is an interdependence between the individual and collective processes of identity formation. Thus individuals expect to recognise themselves in public institutions. They expect some consistency between their private identities and the symbolic contents upheld by public authorities, embedded in the social institutions, and celebrated in public events. Otherwise, individuals feel like social strangers, they feel that the society is not their society.
Many people in Kenya, especially in the rural areas, still cherish their indigenous systems of governance. This is perhaps most evident during electioneering seasons, when politicians go around the country receiving politico-spiritual “honours” from elders of various ethnic groups in a bid to enhance their popularity in those communities. It is therefore high time we took the rampant loyalty to indigenous governance models seriously by giving the people space to utilise them at the local level through an ethnically-based federation.
In “What is the Problem of Ethnicity in Africa?”, the late renowned Nigerian social scientist, Claude Ake, stated:
… ethnicity supposedly epitomizes backwardness and constrains the development of Africa. This presupposition is misleading, however, for it is development rather than the people and their culture which has to be problematized. Development has to begin by taking people and their culture as they are, not as they might be, and proceeding from there to define the problems and strategies for development. Otherwise, the problematic of development becomes a tautology. The people are not and cannot be a problem just by being what they are, even if part of what they are is ethnic consciousness. Our treatment of ethnicity and ethnic consciousness reflects this tendency to problematize the people and their culture, an error that continues to push Africa deeper into confusion…The point of course is not to romanticize the past and be captive to it but to recognize what is on the ground and strive to engineer a more efficient, less traumatic, and less self-destructive social transformation.
Many people in Kenya, especially in the rural areas, still cherish their indigenous systems of governance. This is perhaps most evident during electioneering seasons, when politicians go around the country receiving politico-spiritual “honours” from elders of various ethnic groups in a bid to enhance their popularity in those communities.
Ake went on to warn that the usual easy judgments against ethnic consciousness are a dangerous luxury at a time when long-established states are decomposing under pressure from ethnic and nationalist assertiveness, and when the community of independent states is shrugging off their demise. For him, the enormous implications of this for Africa, where hundreds of ethnic groups are squeezed chaotically and oppressively into approximately 50 states, are easy enough to imagine.
Are there successful cases of ethnically-based federations in Africa? The answer to this question is not straightforward, but the Ethiopian case is worth careful study. While in “The Trouble with Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism” Mahmood Mamdani dismisses the Ethiopian experiment on the basis of the ethnically-blind liberal vision of society, Kalundi Serumaga plausibly replies to him in “Speak of Me as I Am: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa”.
Yet, whether or not there are successful cases of ethnically-based federations is neither here nor there: the hypocritical nationalist discourse in Kenya, in which politicians speak about their commitment to a Kenyan identity while mobilising their followers along ethnic lines, can only be slain by finally acknowledging our ethnic diversity and factoring it into our socio-political engineering. We can achieve this by granting constitutional protection to the right to ethnic identity, and on its basis creating an ethnically-based federation.
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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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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