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Kenya: A Question of Land

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Kenya is moving inexorably in the direction of significant political upheaval and a long-delayed backlash unless reforms to address economic inequality are implemented.

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Kenya: A Question of Land
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Not too long ago, musician John Mũigai Njoroge was summoned by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) for uploading the song Ĩno Mĩgũnda to YouTube. Ĩno Mĩgũnda may be translated to mean “These Parcels of Land”, or, as translated in the song’s sub-titles, “This Land”. Increasingly, and amidst stifling economic stagnation at the citizen level, the spotlight is beginning to shine on the contentious matter of land. In this piece we to look at how economists have treated (or ignored) land, the economic dynamics of land in reality, the current status of our nation, and offer three possible solutions to the current state of affairs.

In one sense, land can be defined, as by Dr Josh Ryan-Collins et al in Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing, as “space, and the occupation of that space over time”, and indeed this is the most common understanding of land as we have it. However, we would do well to include in the definition of land, as Henry George did in his seminal book Progress and Poverty, not merely the surface of the earth as distinguished from air and water, but also as, “. . . in short, all natural materials, forces and opportunities”. This definition would include mineral resources such as oil, natural gas and coal; water and related resources; the electromagnetic spectrum; etc. In fact, we can think of land loosely as “that naturally-occurring wealth that man cannot produce”.

Increasingly, and amidst stifling economic stagnation at the citizen level, the spotlight is beginning to shine on the contentious matter of land

Definitions are very important and as we shall see, defining or mis-defining land can lead to economic theories/practices that are either unrealistic, unjust or (as is often the case) both.

Is land important economically speaking? The French physiocrats and the classical economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill all recognised the importance of land in understanding economics. Building on their work, Henry George wrote Progress and Poverty, a book that was second in circulation only to the Bible in the 1890s.

(Although he was not the first to state it, Henry George wrote that the factors of production are land, labour and capital. He added that, this being the case, the returns from production must necessarily be shared between/among these three factors. It seems to me that on this simple premise one could base/found the whole realm of economic study or even economic history (together with vast swathes of history proper): what proportion, if any, of the returns from production should – rightly, justly, properly – accrue to each of the factors of production: to land, to labour, and/or to capital?

We shall examine Henry George’s solution to the land problem later. At this point we shall merely state that so forceful was the power and the logic of George’s writing that, according to the late Professor Mason Gaffney, it generated a scholastic reaction that grew into neo-classical economics. Neo-classical economics chose to base itself on principles of free choice, rational actors, and “free markets” that naturally self-equilibrate through the forces of supply and demand. This brand of economics came to dominate learning, and still does. Eventually, it succeeded in conflating land and capital as factors of production. In this way, the importance of land as a factor of production was lost to the academic world and to the realm of economic theory. The results of this disastrous omission reverberate all the way up to the global financial crisis (which perhaps should more accurately have been named the North Atlantic financial crisis), but we are not on that today.

The truth is that land and capital are radically different factors of production. Crucially, the supply of land is fixed; i.e. the stock of land cannot increase as a result of rising demand for it. Only its price can rise – and it does. The market in land, therefore, cannot (justly) self-equilibrate via the forces of supply and demand. As we consider this, we stumble upon the reality that the private ownership of land, and indeed of all natural-occurring resources, is at once freedom and theft; while it is freedom for the owner of the land/resource, it is also theft from the public, because of what economists call economic rent.

(Economic rent is defined as any payment to an owner or factor of production in excess of the costs needed to bring that factor into production. In lay terms, we may define economic rent more simply as “unearned income”.)

As far as land is concerned, economic rent comprises: a) the capital gains that arise from the ownership of land and/or the private ownership of what Henry George called naturally-occurring “materials, forces and opportunities” and b) what the owner of that land can charge as rent simply because of the positioning of the land (or the value of the natural resource).

As Adam Smith stated, “As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed [i.e. become the recipients of unearned income], and demand a rent even for its natural produce”.

The result of this is a well-known phenomenon in the Kenyan economy: one buys a piece of land and hopes that soon the government will build a road nearby. The government builds a road and the land increases in value, sometimes by several factors. This increase in the value of the land is unearned income. It is economic rent. Further, not only does the land gain in value, but the rent a landowner can charge also increases without the landowner applying an iota of effort. This too is unearned income.

In fact, as Henry George points out, no government improvements are necessary in order for the value of a parcel of land to rise. The mere settling of a community in and around a parcel of land can in and of itself raise that parcel’s value – with not a stroke of work done by its “owner”. City centre land (or land in Upper Hill or in Westlands), for example, takes this to extremes.

The result of this is a well-known phenomenon in the Kenyan economy: one buys a piece of land and hopes that soon the government will build a road nearby

Any society/economy that allows a select few to earn an unworked-for income – of any form – is an inherently unjust economy. To see this truth is to begin to recognise a grave injustice: unearned income is the bane of socio-economic equity. Further, an unjust economy will naturally result in an unjust society. This is what it was about George’s writing that generated such a reaction in the halls of academe: it laid bare these inequities and proposed solutions to bring them to an end.

Without the equitable distribution of land, and without the extraction of unearned income from the hands of private interests into the hands of the public, inequalities in income – and very shortly thereafter inequalities in accumulated income, i.e. wealth – rapidly manifest themselves. Such a society very swiftly descends into that morass of wealth disparity characterised by vast differences in resources between the haves and the have-nots. There then arises that situation so succinctly described by Adam Smith, in which “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all”.

To see this truth is to begin to recognise a grave injustice: unearned income is the bane of socio-economic equity

If all this be true, then it ought to be the case – empirically, not in abstract formulaic or merely academic terms – that a more equitable distribution of land should lead to more widespread prosperity. This is indeed the case, although other factors must necessarily support such a redistribution. We shall revisit this in the proposed solutions to our current situation. Suffice it to say at this point that that which we know in our bones to be true; that which causes our Luo brothers to call their daughters Nyar-Ugenya, or their sons Ja-Kisumo; that which inspired Wahome Mũtahi, in his Whispers column, to call himself “Son of the Soil”; that indefinable intuition! certainly is true: that we are from here; that this land – all of it – is rightly, justly, and collectively ours; that each of us deserves some of it; that none of us deserves disproportionately more of it, and that very certainly nobody deserves most/all of it. This truth, try as the crashing waves of fraudulent social science might to repudiate it, stands firm, and it is corroborated by that social science of the more honest variety.

Does everybody need land?
A captious economist planned
to live without access to land.
He nearly succeeded,
but found that he needed
food, water, and somewhere to stand.*

Having established in the foregoing section that the equitable distribution of land is critical for economic justice, we wish to more certainly determine: should everybody have land? The limerick above, in whimsical fashion, answers the question – showing that while land can be put to any one of a hundred uses, it is impossible to function as a human being – to live – without the use of some land. Therefore, everyone should have some land.

How much land is equitable?

In his important book How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region, Joe Studwell found that “Output booms [in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan] occurred in conditions in which farming was essentially a form of large-scale gardening. Families of five, six or seven people tended plots of not more than one hectare”.

(Studwell does an excellent job of showing that large-scale, mechanised agriculture maximises merely profit, while small-scale, labour-intensive agriculture maximises output per acre, and thereby economic growth.)

Does Kenya currently have enough land?

While Kenya has an area of roughly 582,646 square kilometres (58,264,600 hectares), “only 20 percent of the land surface can support rain-fed agriculture (medium to high potential). About 75 percent of the country’s population lives in these areas, with population densities as high as 2,000 per square kilometre in some parts”. Further, even within this narrow arable area, the distribution of land is inequitable, for “more than half of the nation’s arable land is in the hands of only 20 percent of the population.” Such was the situation in 2006. By 2016, according to the World Bank, just 10 per cent of Kenya’s land was arable.

From the 2019 census, Kenya has a population of 47.6 million. We have a median age of about 19 years. From these figures, we can assume that the number of non-dependents requiring land for basic economic activity such as smallholding agriculture is 23.8 million people or (in a utopian situation) about 12 million families. Going by the World Bank’s statistic that 10 per cent of Kenya’s land is arable, that would leave 5,826,460 hectares (14,397,496 acres) of arable land, or about 1.2 acres per family.

While land can be put to any one of a hundred uses, it is impossible to function as a human being – to live – without the use of some land

Taking Studwell’s one hectare (about 2.5 acres) as the family unit for land, we see that there are two problems: i) that there is not enough arable land (i.e. 1.2 acres vs 2.5 acres), and ii) that what arable land does exist is not equitably distributed.

(The fact that our median age is 19 demonstrates that our unemployment situation – already utterly tragic – will only deteriorate with time. It is the single most significant problem we need to solve. Land reform – as shown below – would go a long way towards solving it.)

Which solutions are available to us to resolve these problems?

Land redistribution (land reform)

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines land reform as “measures designed to effect a more equitable distribution of agricultural land especially by governmental action”. In order to more meaningfully convey the object of land reform, this article uses the term land redistribution.

What problems would land redistribution solve? At present, the ownership of land is highly concentrated. This concentration of land ownership has a direct impact on the minimum wage. If land were more equitably distributed, so that each family unit had about 2.5 acres for agricultural use, then the minimum wage would not need to be set by government. The minimum wage would instead default to the return available to the average farmer for working their 2.5 acres of land. Any industrialist would have to offer better than that to attract workers from rural Kenya to the city. The absence of a fair distribution of land leads directly to the current “city dwellers” situation, in which we have masses of workers who walk daily from Kangemi to Nairobi city centre and back (or from Kibera to Industrial Area and back) to do back-breaking work – all for a pittance.

Joe Studwell traces the origins of the economic take-offs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to the redistribution of land among citizens, noting that “In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, household-based land redistribution programmes were implemented peacefully, and sustained. It was this that led to prolonged rural booms that catalysed overall economic transformation”.

Which leads us to: how did they do it? Japan, in particular, implemented land redistribution by imposing a maximum 3-hectare limit for farms in almost all areas of the country. This was implemented by creating land committees on which local tenants and owner-farmers outnumbered landlords. The local aspect of these committees was of critical importance – more centralised, authoritarian redistributions, such as those that took place in Korea seemed less effective. In addition, the composition of these committees was critical for ensuring that fair redistributions took place. A situation where land is redistributed to different, already-wealthy new owners (such as members of county assemblies), or one in which the wealthy generate proxies to “redistribute” their land to, is not difficult to imagine in Kenya. Ensuring that currently landless locals (or those locals with too little land) benefit from redistribution by placing local individuals of individual integrity and probity on the land redistribution committees would be critical to ensuring that land redistribution lasts.

In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, household-based land redistribution programmes were implemented peacefully, and sustained

It is important to note that land redistribution, while monumental, cannot work on its own. It must in turn be supported by: i) strict restrictions on the future sale of land; ii) Investment in rural infrastructure (for example irrigation infrastructure, grain-drying facilities, roads to food-basket areas, etc); iii) the provision of agricultural extension services (it was once noted that Kakamega was twice as poor as Nyeri mainly because Nyeri farmers used certified seed); iv) the provision of low-interest credit; and v) marketing support (of a vastly different nature to that hitherto provided by Kenya Planters Cooperative Union, for example) – or liberalisation of marketing.

Lastly, within a society, the ownership of wealth naturally becomes concentrated over time. One-off land redistribution would not solve this perennial problem. Land redistribution must be done periodically – every 50 years being the prescriptive interval.

Land taxation

The taxation of land is Henry George’s elegant solution to the conundrum of allowing the private ownership of land while at the same time preventing the private individual from keeping to himself/herself the public benefits of this private ownership. To recap, George’s central premise is that people own the earth and its resources in common, and that returns to land (itself a metaphor for the earth and all its resources) should therefore be realised in common. This would appear to negate the concept of private ownership of land or property; Mr George’s elegant solution to allowing the private ownership of land while causing the returns to land to be commonly realised was a land-value tax – i.e. the taxation of privately-owned land based on the market value of the land alone (excluding any improvements and buildings upon it). This solution, he wrote, would take the enjoyment of unearned income arising from landownership (i.e. economic rent) away from private hands and place it in the hands of the public.

It might be worthwhile to think, for a moment, about just a few of the implications of this simple “remedy”, as he calls it. First, implementing a land-value tax would immediately make owning idle land unprofitable. Living, as we do, in a country where vast tracts of land are “owned” without being put to optimum use – indeed, to any use at all – taxing the ownership of such land would in short order cause the sale, or the lease, or the use of that land; anything to enable the payment of the land-value tax. All of these outcomes would be nationally, economically beneficial.

Placing local individuals of individual integrity and probity on the land redistribution committees would be critical to ensuring that land redistribution lasts

Second, if only land ownership were taxed, it would imply that labour and capital would not be taxed. Mr George states that to tax anything is to discourage it. This is one of the reasons why taxing land values would discourage private land ownership (unless the landowner was doing something with that land that would enable them to pay the land-value tax). Applying this principle of taxation to the other factors of production, to tax human endeavour (labour) is to discourage it, and therefore such endeavour should not be taxed. Imagine the effect on any economy of allowing people to realise the full benefit of their labour. Would this not be just?

Third, that the benefits from ownership of naturally occurring wealth, for example, should be publicly realised is another implication of Mr George’s remedy. Implementing this would mean that there would be no more private fortunes in oil, or gold, or diamonds, or the electromagnetic spectrum…

Fourth, implementing a tax based on the value of land, insofar as the value of land was determined accurately, would mean that landowners – including the owners of the most prime real estate in New York, or Nairobi, or London – would realise from their ownership of land only such benefit as accrues from their improvement of that land (e.g. by building upon it); they would not be able to benefit merely from “owning” it.

Fifth, Apple and Amazon and Google and Microsoft would not be able to evade federal taxes any longer by pretending to be operating out of Ireland, so long as they had offices (campuses!) in the United States. In other words, a land-value tax is not as easily evadable as many of the forms of taxation we have today.

Land value taxation as a single tax has not been implemented anywhere in the world, for political reasons. In as far as a land-value tax captures the economic rent arising from the private ownership of land, however, an example of the efficacy of this can be seen in Singapore, where the government owns the majority of the land and uses land-based taxes (leases and development uplift) to fund the development of that nation’s infrastructure.

Increase of arable land

Before we began to review our solutions, we noted that we have two main problems: a shortage of arable land, and an unequal distribution of what arable land we do have. The first two solutions we have looked at would redistribute what arable land we do have more equitably. We now look at how we can increase the quantum of our arable land.

Bishop Dr Titus Masika, father of the well-known gospel singer Mercy Masika, and founder of Christian Impact Mission, has done some work in this area that is at once illustrious and illustrative. Bishop Dr Masika launched what he called Operation Mwolyo Out (OMO) in the Yatta sub-county of Machakos County (mwolyo is Kamba for relief food). Yatta, home to about 150,000 people, is classified among the arid and semi-arid areas of the country. OMO saw families encouraged to excavate 20ft-deep water pan to harvest rainwater, and then use the water collected during the rainy season to farm year-round. As a result of these interventions, a community that once had food deficits now generates food surpluses.

Bishop Dr Masika’s OMO initiative demonstrates that we do not need to accept the World Bank’s “10 per cent arable land” as just another nail in our nation’s economic coffin. Amidst much injustice and inequality, we can start with what we have right now. Bishop Dr Masika emphasises the importance of changing a people’s mindset before you can change their outcomes . He states that a change in mindset is the most important step in bringing about permanent change. A radical change of mindset is as necessary in the way we think about economics, land and poverty as it was for the people of Yatta before OMO became a success. For water harvesting, while important, would not have been enough.

The late, great Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once stated that the first job of government is to equalise opportunity. An economically undeveloped society with an inequality of opportunities is a society that is ripe for land reform. An economy/society that allows the accumulation – for a select few – of an unearned income arising from the private ownership of land is an unjust economy/society. Indeed, even where unearned incomes such as capital gains are shared quite broadly across the economy (as has happened through the democratisation of home ownership in the UK, for example), as this situation is allowed to persist, wealth concentrates among those who first had the opportunity to privately own land. Eventually this leads to inter-generational differences, where the young experience a “failure to launch” into their own homes because home ownership/tenancy becomes too expensive for young people working their first jobs.

A society that allows the accumulation of an unearned income arising from the private ownership of land is an unjust society

Typically, however, it takes moments of immense political upheaval in order for land reforms to be implemented. In Japan, land redistribution was carried out under General MacArthur’s reconstruction programme (on the advice of the great Wolf Ladejinsky) during the US occupation of Japan immediately after the Second World War. In South Korea, the US’s favoured political stooge, Syngman Rhee, enacted redistribution laws, but dragged his heels in implementing them. Matters came to a head during the 1950-53 Korean civil war; after the war, land redistribution was implemented.

In Taiwan, the Kuomintang, fleeing from mainland China, realised they would have to deal with economic inequality by implementing land reform, or perish politically. Songs like Ĩno Mĩgũnda, coupled with our current unemployment metrics (5.3 million of our young people i.e. 39% of our youth, are unemployed), and the fact that our median age is 19, are indicators that our own nation is moving inexorably in the direction of significant political upheaval.

It is incumbent upon us to implement these reforms before economic injustice is obliterated in excruciating fashion as the forces of economic inequality now acting upon our nation’s youthful population give birth to a long-delayed backlash.

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The author is a Christian, a patriot and a financial professional. He tweets at @Chrenyan

Ideas

Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.

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In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.

Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.

Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.

But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.

When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.

Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.

For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”

The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.

Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.

In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.

Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.

The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.

Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.

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

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Ideas

Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

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“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”

Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.

When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?

Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.

It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.

And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.

Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role  in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.

So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.

Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.

And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?

Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.

The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.

And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement

The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
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Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.

What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.

In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.

Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.

Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.

This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.

The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.

Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”

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