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The Death of LAPSSET and Kenya’s Poverty of Imagination

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The Kenyan government’s misguided and costly investments in big infrastructure projects are compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Meanwhile, elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.

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The Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project was officially launched at Magogoni, the site of the new Lamu port, in 2012. The two heads of the coalition government attended.

At the launch, President Mwai Kibaki told the people of Lamu that they had a new constitution and that they should familiarise themselves with its provisions to protect their land rights. Prime Minister Raila Odinga said something to the effect that the train is now leaving the station and either you Swahili can get on board and go forward with the rest of us, or you can remain behind as is your usual custom.

After the launch, LAPSSET progressed in fits and starts. A modern building to house the secretariat was built in Mokowe, an official website came online, and construction of three of the 32 planned berths began.

LAPSSET is by far Africa’s most ambitious project. Its description on the website is a testament to Kenya’s central planners’ imagination:

This mega project consists of seven key infrastructure projects starting with a new 32 Berth port at Lamu (Kenya); Interregional Highways from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba (South Sudan), Isiolo to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and Lamu to Garsen (Kenya), Crude Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba; Product Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Addis Ababa; Interregional Standard Gauge Railway lines from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba, Isiolo to Addis Ababa, and Nairobi to Isiolo; 3 International Airports: one each at Lamu, Isiolo, and Lake Turkana; 3 Resort Cities: one each at Lamu, Isiolo and Lake Turkana; and The multipurpose High Grand Falls Dam along the Tana River.

During the interim, the local community fought back through Save Lamu, a coalition of community organisations. Their objective was to make the Kenyan government hear their voices and to facilitate local participation.

Save Lamu was ignored, harassed, and accused of opposing the region’s development. The organisation constantly repeated they were not against the project, but rather, they were fighting for the right of the local community to be consulted over its impact on the environment and local livelihoods. At one point, the office holders were summoned to Nairobi by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). For two days, CID officers interrogated them about their imputed involvement in the horrific Al Shabaab attack in Mpeketoni. They returned safe but frazzled by the experience.

Several months later, the coalition extended its advocacy to the Lamu power plant, a 1,050 Mw coal-fired electricity project to be built next to the port at enormous cost and protected by Treasury-sapping guarantees for payment of the power whether the electricity was used or not. Although some people in Lamu supported the new port for the prospects of the jobs it would create, the community in no uncertain terms did oppose the coal-fired plant.

Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention. The lack of acclamation reflects the simple fact that the tide has been going out on LAPSSET for several years.

Kenya left holding the baby

In 2016, the Ugandan government announced plans to build a railroad that would connect Juba to another planned rail line from Kampala to the port of Tanga in Tanzania. Kampala explained that although the Tanzanian route was longer, the lower cost of construction justified the decision to withdraw from the planned link-up with the LAPSSET route through Kenya. In September, Ethiopia set in motion plans to build a 1500-kilometre railway to Khartoum and Port Sudan. The planned rail line effectively removing Ethiopia from the LAPSSET equation added another nail in the project’s coffin.

In 2009, major Western and Asian governments were queuing up to finance the diverse components of LAPSSET. South Sudan, or more correctly, the oil in South Sudan, was the main prize. At the time of LAPSSET’s initial conceptualisation, the country was forced to export its oil through Port Sudan. Newly independent South Sudan was exporting over 350,000 barrels a day in 2012. Although the supply was expected to decline over the decade, exploration held out the promise that much more crude oil would be coming, complementing the even larger deposits found in northern Uganda and eastern Congo.

Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention.

The sea of oil reportedly floating underneath the long neglected region made the grandiose infrastructural investment appear sensible at the time. The peak oil theory was making waves. But a matrix of factors, including climate change, the discovery of new oil reserves across the planet, and the falling cost of renewable energy, shifted the calculus. The financiers slowly melted away, leaving the Government of Kenya holding the baby.

This was also due to the other usual suspects: unreliable state partners, the fickle nature of investment capital, and the multiple problems that come with big projects in this and most parts of the world – all of which was compounded by the fact that exporting the thick crude required building the supporting superstructure from scratch, including heated pipelines to prevent coagulation en route. The pipeline to Lamu was estimated to cost US$ 8 billion circa 2012. China, the primary purchaser of Sudan’s oil, told Salva Kiir they would loan him the money for the pipeline but would not pay for it as many local stakeholders had assumed.

LAPSSET was already losing its shine at that juncture, and even before the pandemic, Kenya’s investment in big infrastructure (epitomised by the financially challenged Standard Gauge Railway project) was proving to be a debt spinning mirage. If this is not a concern for those playing the front-end game, the Big Project mentality should be a concern for everyone else.

Colonial conquest and economies of scale

The expanding powers of Europe invaded the continent when the age of industrial capitalism was taking off. Material progress and the conquest of nature became the measure of man and nations. During the first half of the 19th century, world trade doubled; between 1850 and 1870 it expanded by 260 per cent.

Coal and iron fueled industrial commerce. Steamships and railways provided the sinews. The length of European railway tracks increased from 1,700 miles in 1840 to 63,000 miles in 1870, and passed 100,000 miles ten years later. Progress in other infrastructural domains followed a similar trajectory.

The unification of countries, new constitutions, and an increase in civil liberties preceded these developments in Europe. The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.

The contrast accounts for why the British colonial administrator, Charles Eliot, found little to recommend in the socio-economic domain during his tour of the East African Protectorate. The country’s future, he opined, “lay in the vegetative kingdom”, but it was infrastructure that led the way. Eliot’s comment, “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country”, conveyed not only the inverted logic of colonialism, but also the outsized impact of the Uganda railroad.

The establishment of industrial capitalism redirected the pathway to include investment in public goods like education and scientific research. The knowledge creation enabling the imperial surge came from a different mindset. The work of Charles Babbage in informatics, the engineering audacity of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Alexander von Humbolt’s quest to map the planet’s geographical features all stemmed from an outsized imagination.

The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.

The process supported a complicated system dedicated to the maintenance of growing armies of labourers and soldiers while erecting monuments, heroic statuary, and grandiose houses of worship. For generations, communities bought into the idea because it improved their security and facilitated trade.

The scale of such intellectual agendas is different than the Thinking Big model of development. Expanding vistas of science and the imagination is not the same as building a gigantic dam or assembling the King of Bahrain’s new robot bodyguard. Such toys and vanity projects, like Dubai’s artificial islands, represent one endpoint set in motion by the capture of surplus, the rise of elites, and the formation of states.

Once upon a time the rise of the state offered a pathway out of a world of fear, superstition, conquest by neighbours, and punishments ordained by the gods. Half a millennium later, the Leviathan became the new god of economic rationality that substituted hierarchy for cooperation, replaced the commons with capitalist extraction, and generally raised the quality of life in exchange for the mega-accumulation benefitting a small group of individuals. All this was done in the name of efficiency and progress.

For five hundred years, the state expanded, culminating in big government experiments, such as the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s China. Its post-1989 retreat left us with Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Water, Big Data, Big Finance, Big Retail, and even Big Foreign Policy in the guise of Xi Ping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The skewed rewards of stardom has made competition a Winners Take All game across the board, from corporate salaries, sports, to social media.

The Big State was colonialism’s parting gift to Africa and the neoliberal economy now incentivises its agents to transact resources and to cash in on their geopolitical location.

Mentalities of scale

The United Kingdom’s Whitehall model replicated itself across the Empire’s colonies. Everything from the formal school system, the conventional assumptions of developmental policies, and the inability of the colonial-designed African nation-state to remake itself following the unsuccessful post-independence alternatives championed by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and Julius Nyerere reinforces this state of mind.

Historically, infrastructural development takes care of itself once the factors of production, exchange, security, and basic rights are in place. No one planned or financed the Great Silk Road but it sustained Central Asia’s contribution to world civilization from the pre-Christian era until about two hundred years ago. Even the succession of invasions, conquests, and dynasties that swept over the region did little to disrupt the underlying system that supported the trade network until Russia’s colonial ambitions instigated the 19th century imperial great game in that region.

Now China is seeking to build a grander Great Silk Road spanning the Eurasian Steppe as part of the Communist government’s Belt and Road Initiative. It remains to be seen if the outcome will work the way XI Ping’s planners anticipate. In the meantime, the mega cities built on the country’s margins remain uninhabited and many of the centrally-planned BRI projects are experiencing cost overruns and other problems. The New Silk Road may yet set in motion a revival of the complicated oppositions and conflicts characterising the region’s history.

Back in this part of the world, where the historical template is totally different, it is still mind-boggling that big failures, from the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme to LAPSSET, the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation scheme and the Jubilee government’s faltering Big Four agenda, continue to propagate themselves. The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.

There is a difference between tapping economies of scale and scalability. This also applies to the world of ideas. We live in a world where the critique and testing of concepts and beliefs that long underpinned human processes is being reduced to the circulation of memes. This is reducing political discourse in the democratic West to the capture of single-issue constituencies and battle lines based on memetic tribes.

In Kenya, the political arena has long been dominated by a dynamic based on the control of the monolithic state. In these conditions, the problem of scale is not a function of small-to-large, even though the educated elite have been conditioned to think in these terms. Politics in these conditions descended into a monetised exercise based on ephemeral ethno-linguistic coalitions.

The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.

This approach has proven to be poorly suited to the challenge of fitting together multiple units of different sizes into a synergetic economic configuration. The history of the pre-colonial era provides an alternative political economy template. Kenya’s constitutional reform marked a step in this direction, but replicating the dynamics patterned on regional initial conditions will remain a work in progress as long as the power concentrated in the centre works to break creative devolution and participatory development.

We are witnessing shifts in workplace and settlement patterns that make it possible to envision the process reaching an equilibrium point where entities based on the old clan and new tribe continuum may reemerge as an asset. But who is thinking about the future in terms that question the conventional assumptions about organisation, or that tap into the co-evolutionary potential inherent in Kenya’s cultural mosaic?

Kenya’s superstructural poverty

In social science, superstructure refers to the ideational domain – the world of concepts, languages, myths, ideologies, science, religion, superstitions, beliefs, and shared assumptions that define the societal mind. Culture is an overlapping concept that is typically defined in terms of a population’s superstructural orientations and the behavioural patterns they generate.

The influence of superstructure and the cultural domain occupies a secondary role in materialist and evolutionary analysis. For example, the use of tools and fire resulted in the reduction in the size of early human beings’ jaws because they no longer had to use their mouths to rip and chew meat. This in turn led to the rise of language, a primary enabler of cultural development.

Things were simpler during the Paleolithic. Today societies are complex systems where prediction based on infrastructure variables, such as the development of roads and communications, is confounded by the influence of non-linear dynamics and unpredictable forces. This is because superstructure is a mutable domain. It acts as both a critical source of both system maintaining and system changing feedback. This is a key element of societal transitions that allows us to translate our collective experience into resilience. Once deemed an epiphenomenon, evolutionary ecology studies now document the role of culture in accelerating the slow process of biological evolution.

The colonial model superstructure worked to stabilise Kenya’s development during the first decades after independence. When the rigid organisational order began changing due to a release phase during the Moi era, the ground began to shift under the received paradigms of development. Before that the socialism versus capitalism dichotomy contributed to the intellectual debate about Kenya’s and the developing world’s progress in general. Both sides of the discourse acted as mechanisms selecting for the regional ideological convergence we now take for granted. Promoting integration is a good idea but the utility of the current top-down approach is debatable.

A recent journal article examining LAPSSET and three other similar infrastructure corridors described the political economy of corridors as “contests over the framing of development interventions influenced by a range of social and technical imaginaries”. Kenya’s politicians’ and policy makers’ embrace of large-scale centralised planning comes with high costs; the benefits of Kenya serving as Eastern Africa’s hub are slipping away. Kenya’s reputation of maintaining an even-handed regional foreign policy has also been marred.

The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind. Preachers, social media, and identity politics expanded into the vacated superstructural space. The influence of the Chinese model contributed to passive acceptance of the techno-infrastructural developmental pathway. Behind-the- curtain dealings have generated the funding.

As a result, Kenya’s public-private cartels continue to benefit from a succession of revenue-draining projects and a succession of massively overpriced feasibility studies that render local stakeholders invisible. The Infrastructural Master Plan for the LAPSSET Corridor and Lamu Port, for example, is a thousand-page document that does not mention the regional population and communities affected. The attempt to build a technologically obsolete pollution-belching coal plant next to one of the planet’s most unique near zero-carbon urban settlements and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is proof of what can happen in the absence of a countervailing developmental narrative.

The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind.

This is not to say the objectives of projects like LAPSSET will not be realised. The issue is not so much thinking big but the actors and incentives behind it. The corporate-empowered developmental state many African governments aspire to be should not be conflated with the moonshot mentality behind so many of humanity’s greatest achievements. The regional links will coalesce over time, Old Silk Road style.

In the meantime, Kenya’s superstructural deficit is compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate and multicultural vibrancy that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. Unlike infrastructure, investment in the exchange of ideas is not costly. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.

We will discuss the some of the concepts and practices framing the new developmental narrative emerging across the world in the second part of this epistle—which will also locate Kenya as an important player in our collective transition to the Anthropocene.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

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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Ideas

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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