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African Economies, Societies and Natures in a Time of COVID-19

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Reginald Cline-Cole provides an analytically rigorous understanding of the differentiated spread and impact of Covid-19 around the world. In so doing he returns us to what ought to be our core concern: the political economy of uneven incorporation of African economies, societies and natures into the world economy.

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African Economies, Societies and Natures in a Time of COVID-19
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Several correspondents of mine have suggested that it makes a nice and welcome change that something this big, this bad, this scary and this seemingly predictable is not coming out of Africa. ‘This’ and ’it’ being, of course, the all-encompassing and still evolving phenomenon of Covid-19 or coronavirus, which ROAPE has been covering in the journal and online. And with good reason for, as others have already observed, the time of coronavirus is not just leaving an indelible mark on the year 2020 but might well be transforming neoliberal capitalism in previously unimaginable ways. The virus continues its inexorable advance  and, having taken some time to reach Africa from Europe and Asia, has spread rapidly since its reported arrival in mid-February, with confirmed cases numbering some 4300 people spread across  (African Arguments 2020), and more than 9000 people in  (ACSS 2020). As elsewhere, increasing infection numbers (and, sometimes, rates), imploding economies and disrupted social interactions have fuelled mutually reinforcing health and economic crises, precipitating sometimes.

And this despite, or sometimes because of, high-level policy and other discussions about, and adoption of, frequently exceptional measures which aim to slow the transmission and spread of the virus and prevent the worsening of what is already considered by many as a global crisis of unprecedented threat, impact and uncertainty In the process, as Bird and Ironstone note, ‘[p]ower structures are being radically re-arranged in our societ[ies] right now and if we lose our capacity to criticize the future may be beset by new, even more damning ones.’

It is thus vital that Theophanidis clarifies that his call for ‘distancing’ aims to create space for critical thinking and careful reflection, notably in a context in which digital, mostly social, media connectivity is helping to counter the isolation of ‘physical social distancing’. As numerous and varied examples of radical digital activism and solidarity which have emerged demonstrate, it would be regrettable if far-reaching lessons were not learned from crises precipitated by the pandemic and the varied responses to them.

Does Covid-19 discriminate?

Available data on age–sex distribution of confirmed cases for the WHO African Region indicate that, overall, older men would appear to be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 with a preponderance of males (1.7:1 male-to-female infection ratio) across all age groups and a median age of 36 years (range of 0–105). Further instances of disproportionate impact based on religion, class, occupation or ethnicity will no doubt emerge in time, notably as readily available details on the demographics of coronavirus victims extend beyond the fundamentals of age, sex, nationality, residence and travel history. In the UK and USA, of course, such metrics have been invaluable in identifying the overrepresentation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) health and care workers and volunteers among coronavirus fatalities. Similar racial and ethnic disparities characterise wider BAME community and hospital in-patient infection and death data from coronavirus, with black people (four times), Bangladeshi and Pakistani (three and a half times) and Indians (two and a half times) more likely to succumb to Covid-19 than white people in England and Wales. The phenomenon has attracted extensive media and other coverage which has focused on health inequalities and risk factors, deprivation, affluence and racial discrimination, and in the absence of acceptable causal explanations for the overrepresentation.

But it has been left to organised labour and popular mobilisation to extract hard-won concessions from state actors and the public–private healthcare complex to institute an official enquiry, provide adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health, care and allied workers and expand coronavirus testing opportunities for these workers and their families (NHS Confederation 2020). Special compensation programmes for families of NHS staff (and, in England, social care workers) who die from coronavirus have also been announced, although the level of compensation is considered inadequate by some, and labour unions, among others, have called for the scheme to be extended to cover all key workers who die from the disease.

And yet, as tardy, reluctant, inadequate and reactive as these state interventions have undoubtedly been, it is social mobilisations which have ‘forced the state to take on its responsibilities’. These have included medical professionals and cross-party campaign MPs ‘breaking silence’ over Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on particular sections of society, which itself speaks to the promise of social action and emancipatory politics in influencing (post-) Covid-19 politics and realities.

But as the coronavirus BAME casualties and fatalities include Africans and people of African descent whose remittances are often integral to the livelihoods and survival strategies of family at home, their existential struggles have not been lost on Africans at home and in the diaspora. Indeed, as social media exchanges were quick to indicate, for countries like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, among others, the earliest known coronavirus deaths were of their (often dual) nationals in the diaspora rather than at home, where the continent’s first fatality was a German tourist in Egypt. For many, family, friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances would eventually succumb to the virus, in my case across three continents.

Thus one of my acquaintances regretted what he saw as a ‘lamentable waste’ of African medical and health expertise which was going to be both sorely needed and badly missed on the continent, if the worst predictions of Covid-19 were ever realised. A second drew a comparison between these coronavirus deaths and the often tragic demise of undocumented migrants along trans-Saharan and Mediterranean routes to Europe, suggesting that both groups had paid the ultimate price in their respective attempts to escape the poverty of opportunity in Africa.

These have included medical professionals and cross-party campaign MPs ‘breaking silence’ over Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on particular sections of society, which itself speaks to the promise of social action and emancipatory politics in influencing (post-)Covid-19 politics and realities

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, frontline medical staff followed up on a protest strike which had been observed jointly by the Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) and Professional Nurses Union (ZPNU) in mid-March to highlight the shortage of PPE for health workers in the country’s hospitals. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) sued the government in the High Court in early April to compel it to provide adequate equipment and supplies to enable frontline medical practitioners and healthcare workers to tackle the Covid-19 crisis safely and professionally and, in the process, to significantly improve public access to functioning quarantine and isolation facilities.

Similar protests have been widespread across the continent, many representing a continuation of long-running dissatisfaction with public health provision predating coronavirus. In one of the more recent of these, coronavirus frontline workers in Sierra Leone who announced they were going on strike in early June were joined at the start of July by doctors refusing to treat coronavirus patients in quarantine or isolation facilities in protesting government failure to pay outstanding bonuses, ‘hazard pay’, promised as incentive to persuade health workers to agree to treat Covid-19 patients during the outbreak, often with inadequate PPE, diagnostic and therapeutic equipment and supplies.

Thus, a government with the foresight and presence of mind to draw up a Covid-19 response plan before the outbreak of the pandemic, and probably earlier than anybody else on the continent, stands accused of not only reneging on the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in April with the Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Association (SLMDA) to facilitate this Covid-19 response, but also of failing to renew the MOU before it lapsed three months later (Inveen 2020a). Recalling that disasters like pandemics are influenced by human ‘decisions, attitudes, values, behaviour, and activities’ one cannot but wonder whether there is indeed merit to the SLMDA’s claim that the government does not appear to be particularly interested in resolving the dispute, and if so what the political reasoning behind such a choice might be.

Protests have been widespread across the continent, many representing a continuation of long-running dissatisfaction with public health provision predating coronavirus

Clearly, the ZHDA/ZPNU, SLMDA and NHS struggles share more than just a generic similarity. There are recognisably Zimbabwean and Sierra Leonean names on published lists of NHS and care worker coronavirus fatalities. And in all three cases, albeit in noticeably different ways, the struggle to pressure the state to assume its responsibility in relation to public health and wellbeing is rooted in austerity, long predates Covid-19 and is fuelled by perceptions of official inefficiency, neglect and corruption. In addition, as recent SARS and Ebola epidemics have shown, potential risks and opportunities for corruption are significantly increased during major health crises, most commonly in drug and equipment procurement, leading to calls for increased oversight, accountability and transparency during the coronavirus pandemic

Thus, a major grievance of the SLMDA, for example, is a perceived ‘misuse of funds for the coronavirus response’, a reaction to official procurement priorities which have seen 20% of Sierra Leone’s total coronavirus budget being spent on new SUVs and motorbikes, with only a tenth as much on medical equipment or drugs, leaving PPE in constant short supply and contact tracers seemingly unaffordable. The national Coronavirus Response Team, for its part, justifies the delay in disbursing promised bonuses by citing the necessity to both establish the identity of frontline health workers and ensure that hazard pay went only to those entitled to receive it But as improperly disbursed hazard pay was one of several examples of mismanagement of funds by public officials during the Ebola crisis with its high health worker mortality rates SLMDA impatience and suspicion do not appear entirely unfounded. And, at nearly 11%, Sierra Leone’s ratio of health worker infection to total reported infections is among the highest on the continent.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean health professionals have also embarked on the latest in a series of strikes, partly to protest at the erosion of local purchasing power and living standards by hyperinflation and demand payment of their salaries in US dollars, but also to highlight both police harassment of striking nurses and the perennial shortage of PPE at a time of rising incidence of Covid-19.

But whereas SLMDA appear to be contending with seemingly misplaced procurement priorities, their Zimbabwean counterparts are confronted with alleged criminality, which has seen the sacking of the country’s minister of health, who has also been charged with corruption and abuse of office for the illegal award of a large contract (since revoked by government) for PPE, testing kits and drugs to a company which would deliver these supplies at hugely inflated cost.

The combination of a worsening economic crisis and sharply increasing coronavirus infection totals (including of health workers) has seen opposition politicians make common cause with the media and popular forces to decry corruption and demand greater accountability, while calling for a national day of protest against ‘corruption and political challenges’ at the end of July.

The authorities refused permission for the 31 July protests to take place, on the grounds that it would be subversive, unconstitutional and anti-democratic (BBC 2020d), as well as violating Covid-19 pandemic regulations at a time when there has been a spike in coronavirus infections. As a result, they claimed, a dusk-to-dawn curfew and tighter restrictions on movement had to be imposed.

It is presumably also in the common good that leading organisers/supporters of the proposed protest have been arrested, charged to court and refused bail.The example of state officials rewriting coronavirus reality to suit a favoured narrative is a recurrent and intensely political one, to which we return later.

Philanthro-capitalism in coronavirus times

An earlier prolonged doctors’ strike over pay and conditions in Zimbabwe had been called off only in January this year, when the ZHDA accepted an offer of funding for a fellowship programme for its members which would guarantee a monthly subsistence allowance of up to three times their salary for a period of six months from Strive Masiyiwa, the country’s wealthiest individual.

Following the PPE protests in March, funding to cover the cost of PPE for doctors and other health workers was added to the original offer, which was also extended to all nurses, as well as doctors in non-state hospitals, and expanded to include health and life insurance cover with cash or lump-sum benefit in the event of ‘hospitali[sation], … permanent disability or death from the virus’. Although he is Zimbabwean born, Strive Masiyiwa presides over his Econet Group from London, where he currently lives and from where he has undoubtedly been monitoring the wide variety of local responses to the pandemic worldwide, or at least in those world regions in which Econet has a presence.

But while nothing in the way of private donations to Sierra Leone’s coronavirus response effort is likely to have come anywhere near the sums certain to have been involved above, reports from Nigeria indicate that Masiyiwa’s fellow billionaires have also been making substantial donations to the (federal) Nigerian Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) and their state equivalents, as have corporate entities (often fronted by the same individuals). Is it likely, then, that we might have a case of transnational capital ostensibly contesting state in/action as part of a wider coalition while still acting in its own long-term interest?

Masiyiwa’s conglomerate Econet, for example, combines telecom, mobile phone, fintech and power distribution enterprises which operate across large parts of Africa, but also in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Europe. The funding/fellowship programme for health workers is to be established and run by the Higherlife philanthropic family foundation, while Ecosure, the insurance arm of one of the Econet Group companies, will underwrite the insurance component of the offer.

Similarly, Nigerian media reporting of the private coronavirus response donations by individuals and corporate entities gives as much prominence to the identities of donors and their net worth as to the size/purpose of their donations and sources of wealth, thereby fulfilling invaluable public relations and/or corporate social responsibility (CSR) functions, as well as playing a commercial advertising role. Consequently, while donor state of origin or residence tends to be the primary beneficiary of private philanthropy, corporate donations often favour populations and institutions in states and regions of direct commercial importance. Thus Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest individual, has provided a fully-equipped and staffed Covid-19 testing facility, as well as part-funding a wide range of vital public interventions in coronavirus prevention and containment via private and corporate donations in his home state of Kano (and, to a lesser extent, Lagos State, where the Dangote Industries group has its head office).

He also assumed shared national leadership of CACOVID’s quest to raise funds from private and corporate sources for federal and state Covid-19 response; and, by making the largest corporate donation to the fund to date via the Aliko Dangote Foundation (ADF), triggered something of a ‘giving war’ of donations and pledges among his fellow billionaire donors. He also made a further multi-million-dollar donation to the Nigeria UN COVID-19 Basket Fund which aims to provide support to individuals and households trying to rebuild livelihoods disrupted and/or undermined by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the end he and his fellow donors are publicly thanked by President Muhammadu Buhari (who encourages other high-net-worth individuals – HNWIs – to follow their example). Dangote is also thanked by the governor of Kano State for his services to coronavirus prevention and response, with which his name becomes inextricably linked in media reports, which almost invariably also mention his equally sterling contributions during the earlier Ebola epidemic. Like Strive Masiyiwa, with whom he earlier collaborated on regional and continent-wide Ebola response efforts, then, this enhances his reputation as one of Africa’s biggest philanthropists and, as CEO of ‘Nigeria’s most profitable company’ (Augie 2020), one of the continent’s most successful business people. Is this what capitalist philanthropy in a time of coronavirus looks like? And is it as accommodating in its business practices as it is in its public giving?

Zimbabwean health professionals have also embarked on the latest in a series of strikes, partly to protest at the erosion of local purchasing power and living standards by hyperinflation and demand payment of their salaries in US dollars, but also to highlight both police harassment of striking nurses and the perennial shortage of PPE at a time of rising incidence of Covid-19.

While philanthropy is not restricted to wealthy individuals and profitable corporations, their role can be strategic and decisive. UBS and TrustAfrica (2014), in a jointly published study, document and seek to analyse how and why this is the case for African philanthropists/philanthropy during ‘normal’ times. But as the Dangote and Masiyiwa examples and numerous others like them illustrate, this is also largely the case during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with its varied, changing and often expanding demands/appeals and frequently inadequate – if improving – philanthropic responses (Julien 2020). Experience with previous epidemics and pandemics, supplemented by emerging insights from Covid-19, have informed the design and implementation of emergency coronavirus plans and strategies worldwide, including for dealing with voluntarism and managing donations (Alexander 2020). In emergency coronavirus planning scenarios, responsibility for external donations and government/state resource commitments is routinely combined with administrative oversight for internal donations of various kinds.

In practice, this creates a pressing, possibly overwhelming, need to coordinate appeals for assistance while managing a diversity of resources earmarked for coronavirus response in an accountable and transparent way (Transparency International 2020). Notably, the circumstances surrounding the previously mentioned sacking of Zimbabwe’s minister of health, and ongoing legal and media challenges to UK government officials against the lack of transparent and competitive tendering in the award of Covid-19 related contracts (Monbiot 2020) remind us that expectations of resource governance, transparency and accountability are not just ethical and moral, but frequently political and legal too.

And that, like the good governance agenda as a whole, these expectations can be heavily neoliberal in tone and intent, and as process. Significantly, however, expectations of transparency and accountability in how donations are managed or used have not historically been routinely extended to how the wealth which makes corporate and HNWI Covid-19 philanthropy possible is generated in the first place. How best to explain such imbalances in what has been described as the power of process and practice in philanthropy (Mahomed and Moyo 2013)? And how best to prevent its use in, say, ‘offset[ing] reputational damage or exploitative practice’ (Mahomed 2014)?

The point is that African philanthropy is increasingly seen as indispensable to the emergence of a self-reliant continent, with corporate philanthropists looking to strengthen links between business and philanthropy, considering ‘investments with a social impact’ a suitable means for achieving this. Aliko Dangote Foundation  and Higherlife Foundation, for example, thus function as CSR units of Dangote Industries Ltd and Econet, respectively. Their donations or pledges in both cash and kind undoubtedly give a significant boost to the overall coronavirus response effort, to include staff recruitment, training and remuneration. Equally, and particularly noticeably, they also impact directly on local and import markets in specialised medical equipment and supplies, as well as in two- and four-wheeled motor vehicles, among other commodities. Yet, these markets might well be dominated by manufacturers and/or intermediary suppliers which are subsidiaries of corporate partner organisations to the charity foundations through which philanthropy is dispensed by conglomerates in the first place.

More directly, how have corporate philanthropists reacted to the disruptive effects of Covid-19 and the varied responses to it on the factory floor, behind the bank counter, at the plantation gate and in front of the computer screen? Specifically, were business practices adequately adjusted to reflect the new normal in a time of coronavirus? Did they readily and effectively incorporate workplace Covid-19 preparedness planning and response strategies, including testing facilities where appropriate? Were adequate supplies of PPE, relevant equipment, water, soap, sanitisers, etc. made available to employees? And where, as with several of the corporate donors in question, their businesses operate across national boundaries, were common standards maintained across the board or did arrangements differ between ‘home’ and ‘foreign’ sites and workforces (and, if so, why and with what consequences for workers)? Overall, do philanthro-capitalists lead by example here in a way reminiscent of their public giving and pledging? As Mahomed (2014) notes, ‘the ethics of how philanthropy money is made (especially if made in an endeavour that disadvantages those it now seeks to support) must be called into question.’ That we are in the middle of a pandemic is no reason not to at least raise the question of the often differentiated nature of the process by which donated wealth is made or, indeed, of how coronavirus has been (or is likely to be) exploited for capitalist investment and profit accumulation.

But the lesson of Covid-19 need not involve either depoliticising philanthropy (it has after all contributed actively to the long-term process of privatising and commercialising formerly public health systems on the continent) or underestimating the complex dynamics of emergent solidarity between often conflicting and competing class interests. Take the following two parallel and competing but interrelated phenomena. On the one hand we had Donald Trump’s largely futile attempts to encourage wider use of the labels ‘Wuhan Virus’ and ‘Chinese Virus’; his still unfounded but periodically repeated claim that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a Wuhan laboratory; his insistence that the WHO is so severely compromised by links to China that its handling of the pandemic was tardy, grossly inadequate and ineffective, as well as lacking transparency; and his threat to withhold American funding for the organisation – a political stance which has not won widespread or unqualified support from other major WHO donors who have publicly supported the agency and its director-general, if not necessarily China’s reported handling of the initial stages of the virus outbreak.

On the other hand, there are official Chinese state objections, denials and counter-accusations; and the skilful ‘weaponisation’ of the material and symbolic significance of its carefully cultivated (self-)image of generosity to, and solidarity with the world’s needy and oppressed, particularly in coronavirus times. So, alongside Chinese government support in cash, kind and personnel provided to selected African and other countries under threat from coronavirus, we also have worldwide donations of medical equipment and supplies in support of Covid-19 response efforts by private philanthropic foundations linked to Jack Ma, China’s wealthiest man, and member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Ma’s corporate philanthropy has extended to donations to New York authorities and the WHO in the wake of Trump’s de-funding threat, as well as to all of Africa, and has included an online training manual for clinical treatment of coronavirus based on first-hand experience of doctors in Zhejiang and the Global MediXchange for Combating Covid-19 programme with its International Medical Expert Communication Platform. But while Jack Ma’s donations have been widely celebrated in Africa as promptly and efficiently delivered, Chinese government donations have not been universally welcome, partly because of reported poor quality and questionable reliability of donated supplies and equipment.

Ma’s philanthropy has made him as newsworthy at home and abroad as President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party leadership, who see Chinese state and private Covid-19 philanthropy as part of a wider coronavirus diplomatic strategy designed to distract attention from Chinese state contribution to the initial ‘escape’ or spread of the virus, while positioning their country as champion of the fight against the pandemic. This assumes heightened significance in places like Europe and Africa where, in contrast to Jack Ma and his private foundations, the Chinese state has suffered Covid-19-related reputational damage. Indeed, the arrival of Nigeria’s allocation from Jack Ma’s Covid-19 donation to African countries via the African Union’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was a major prompt to local media and popular commentators to challenge local HNWIs to emulate Ma’s philanthropy. In contrast, the Nigerian Medical Association, Trade Union Congress and main opposition party strongly opposed federal government approval for a team of Chinese medical professionals funded by the state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation to provide direct support for the government’s Covid-19 response efforts, citing rumours of an upsurge in coronavirus infection and mortality in other countries following the arrival of Chinese medical personnel.

While Jack Ma’s donations have been widely celebrated in Africa as promptly and efficiently delivered, Chinese government donations have not been universally welcome, partly because of reported poor quality and questionable reliability of donated supplies and equipment

There was also residual popular resentment at the widely reported scapegoating of African migrants in China at the outbreak of the pandemic which had drawn official protests from the Nigerian and other African governments. But as the donation which also included a consignment of medical equipment and supplies had been announced as a fait accompli, government officials and spokespersons would spend media appearances trying to justify the decision, pacify local doctors, rebut opposition claims and win public support through a fascinating mix of obfuscation, mendacity, petulance, deflection and insinuation in a desperate attempt to deliberately downplay Chinese state involvement and thus avoid a diplomatic incident. So in their different ways, and like the Zimbabwe government’s desperate bid to silence internal dissent and protest which we encountered earlier, Trump’s assault on WHO handling of the pandemic, official Chinese and Nigerian government public relations and propaganda assaults on their respective (and wider) publics indicate active involvement in what Carrie Gracie has described, with specific reference to the Chinese ruling class, as rewriting Covid-19 facts to suit their narrative.

Politics must not be allowed to stand

The world is still in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic; that Africa might or might not be its current epicentre; and that nobody knows for sure how Africa’s many ‘other’ or local epidemics will evolve over the next few weeks, months or even years. Yet this has not stopped multilateral institutions and multinational corporations from outlining a variety of options for exiting lockdowns and, ultimately, the entire or whole pandemic; or indeed predicting and modelling the contours of post-coronavirus ‘new normal’ continental and/or global economies. As an increasing number of countries exit lockdowns (and enter new ones), this should awaken an urgent desire among progressive forces to redirect the focus of attention to a determined pursuit of an analytically rigorous understanding of the differentiated spread and impact of, and state and other responses to Covid-19 – and in so doing to return also to what ought to be our core concern: the political economy of uneven incorporation of African economies, societies and natures into the world economy, the accompanying implications for social, spatial, structural and other forms of differentiation, and the latter’s manifestation within and between population, place and space/territory. For, as Philip Alston reminds us, ‘[t]he coronavirus has merely lifted the lid off the pre-existing pandemic of poverty. Covid-19 arrived in a world where poverty, extreme inequality and disregard for human life are thriving, and in which legal and economic policies are designed to create and sustain wealth for the powerful, but not end poverty. This is the political choice that has been made.’  It is a political choice that cannot and must not be allowed to stand unchallenged either in the current coronavirus times or in a post-Covid-19 world.

This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal

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Reginald Cline-Cole is an editor of ROAPE and teaches at the Department of African Studies and Anthropology, School of History and Cultures, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK.

Ideas

The Souls of White Folk Revisited

At another historical inflection point, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized white Americans’ delusions as the property of the West more broadly.

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The Souls of White Folk Revisited
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When US Congress members resumed deliberations on the Electoral College vote after a pro-Trump mob violently stormed and temporarily occupied the Capitol building on January 6, many of them expressed shock and dismay that such an event had occurred in the United States. The scene was certainly abominable. More than fifty people were injured, and five people died in the attack, including a Capitol police officer. But the greatest damage had been inflicted upon the feeble facade of American exceptionalism and white innocence.

In a revealing display of historical delusion, the mantra in Congress that evening and throughout the following day was that the barbaric attempt to subvert the outcome of the election was an aberration in US political history and culture. “This is not who we are,” members of congress repeated. Instead of introspection, there was deflection. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic,” former President George W. Bush related through a formal statement, without any apparent awareness of his own irony and racism.

And there were even boasts. Vice-President Mike Pence, in his address to the reconvened Senate envisioned a world in awe of the US. “The world will once again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy,” he said. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, revealing the limits of his historical literacy, was aghast that this aberrant event will stain America’s image. “Unfortunately,” he said to his colleagues, “we can now add January 6, 2021 to that very short list of dates in American history that will live forever in infamy.”

A half a century ago, at another historical inflection point, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely recognised these delusions as the property not simply of the United States, but of the West more broadly. The US, he discovered, shared with European states and their imperialist outposts in Africa and the Caribbean a near pathological determination to dress up labour exploitation, gross materialism, militarism, and white supremacy as democracy. We are at a similar historical moment.

This myth of exceptionalism and white superiority continues to yoke the white working class in the US and elsewhere—France, Britain, Brazil, and in South Africa, among other places—to an economic system that is destroying them. King, in his time, implored us to recognize this fact. Today, he would remind us that what Americans saw on January 6 was a domestic variant of a world problem of persistent adherence to white supremacy casually cloaked in political and economic grievance.

The US, like South Africa, needed collective myths to fuel its national pride, and allow its leaders the self-assurance they displayed. Their myopic sense of exceptionalism fueled their claims to superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The same internal inhibitors to self-reflection allowed Donald Trump to label country’s “shitholes” and former President Bush to dismiss others as “banana republics.” This absence of self-reflection compounded by delusion inspired the pro-Trump white-nationalist mob to attack the US Capitol building in an act of domestic terrorism.

We can learn from King’s prescient admonition for white Americans, Western Europeans generally, to recognise the inevitable calamity that will result from the ease with which they hold aloft the banner of racial superiority, while they trod aggressively toward an all-encompassing conflagration. King offered an alternative path forward borne of his engagement with non-violent movements in Asia and Africa to end of European imperialism, and the movement in the US against racial segregation and economic exploitation.

King’s analysis of global white supremacy grew increasingly astute in the early 1960s, through his involvement in initiatives to end white-minority rule in southern Africa. King was not alone in his thinking. He espoused a philosophy that was in the tradition of the Black social gospel theologians who mentored him, such as Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman, and King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr. The inspiration they derived from Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence was immense, first in his struggle for Indian rights in British-ruled South Africa and then, after 1915, in India, toward its independence from Britain. Others, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, and South Africa’s Albert Luthuli, shaped the rich, internationally-oriented intellectual and political environment that nurtured King and shaped his political outlook.

King’s goals for the Civil Rights Movement were also consistent with those of his contemporary radical activists who were unsatisfied with arguments for integration into an unaltered American society. His Black social gospel predecessors, as would King himself, insisted that the US social and economic system be understood in its global context, which would evince the necessity of a radical reordering. The global perspective that King and his contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement gained through their involvement in the struggle against white-minority rule in southern Africa, equipped them to discern the global dimensions of capitalism, white supremacy and resulting forms of creeping authoritarianism.

Part of King’s brilliance and his usefulness for understanding the current political moment was his capacity to link culture, philosophy, and national politics within broad, global economic and political structures. In his speech to the First Conference on New Politics Chicago in 1967, King derided the persistent myth of the US as a paragon of justice, equality, and freedom. He diagnosed America’s social malady as a “triple-prong sickness that has been lurking that is the sickness within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism. Not only is this our nation’s dilemma, it is the plague of Western civilisation.”

King did not issue diagnoses without prescriptions for a more healthful body politic. He strove toward the realisation of what he referred to as the “Beloved Community,” built on justice and equality. Toward that end, we must be honest about and learn from our own history.

King warned that it was detrimental to the US to continue to deny that “capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves,” and demanded the acknowledgement that capitalism “continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad.” Again, his antidote for this sickness was not mere social integration, but true social justice, which required a radical remaking of American society. “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice,” he argued, “cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” What he called for, in other words, was a social revolution.

King’s internationalism and the deepening sophistication of his social analyses in a global context were most fully displayed in his Human Rights Day address at Hunter College in 1965, in which he warned that the delusion of superiority and exceptionalism among white South Africans was propelling that country toward internal violence, as he feared it would among whites in the US. The prospect of white violence prompted King to muse on the image of the African savage in the European imagination, reinforced by innumerable books, motion pictures, and magazine photos. He lamented that this figment of Africa as home to backward savages had persisted for more than a century despite the nimiety of facts that controverted it.

King contrasted the African-savage narrative with Europe’s well-documented economic and political savagery on the African continent: “Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilised, but whose conduct on philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians.”

He feared that the persistence of these brutes, these barbarian white rulers would propel South Africa toward a race war, as Africans exhausted all peaceful routes to liberation and self-determination. To forestall or, even better, prevent such an outcome, King called for an international moral coalition against white-minority rule in southern Africa. “The leaders of South Africa’s openly and virulently racist regime were very specific about their intention to secure and maintain white dominance in the country. Quoting Prime Minister Verwoerd [of South Africa]: ‘We want to keep South Africa white.’ Keeping it white can only mean one thing, namely white domination, not ‘leadership,’ not ‘guidance,’ but control, supremacy.”

King neatly summed up apartheid’s corrosive efficiency for securing white political and economic power in the country, while ensuring a stable reserve of cheap Black labor. Rather than a southern outpost of Western civilization, as many South African leaders claimed, their country’s social and economic system made it, as King put it, “a formidable adversary of human rights.”

He emphasised his endorsement of international sanctions against South Africa, in this speech. Although the push for sanctions in the US would fail to shift the US government’s position on South Africa until the 1980s, King recognised the potential for a sanctions campaign, beyond the specifics of its immediate goal to cripple the apartheid regime, to form the basis of a global movement; what he called an “international alliance of all peoples of all nations against racism.”

As the minister extolled the virtues of sanctions, he singled out the US for its hypocritical and economically gratuitous embrace of South Africa. There had always been quick and deliberate US action in international events when the US believed its interests were at stake. He said that when the US invaded the Dominican Republic, which took place that year, it showed what it was capable of doing if willing. “We inundated that small nation with overwhelming force, shocking the world with our zealousness and naked power.” But toward South Africa, he bemoaned, “our protest is so muted and peripheral, it merely mildly disturbs the sensibilities of the segregationists, while our trade and investments substantially stimulate our economy to greater heights.”

Such is the hypocrisy of exceptionalism. The US would not condemn South Africa at the height of its own hypocrisy on race relations, because to do so would indict both countries. They mirrored each other, with their racist economic and political systems, hyper militarism and historical delusions. “Colonialism and segregation,” he wrote in an essay published that year in the New York Amsterdam News in 1962, “are nearly synonymous; they are children in the same family, for their common end is economic exploitation, political domination and the debasing of human personality.”

King would have recognised the raiding of the US Capitol building as a stark reflection of what America has always been. Like the white rulers of South Africa during the 1950s and 60s “who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilized,” US leaders have conjoined mythology and delusion to blind themselves to the fact that the marauding horde that brought such shame to the US Capitol on January 6 and, indeed, to the US, acted in the long and dependable tradition of white nationalism in America and in the indomitable spirit of global white supremacy.

King endeavoured to steer whites from the course on which their historical delusion had fixed them and that would lead them inevitably toward violence. His legacy inspires a clear-eyed examination of movements like Marine Le Pen’s National Front (National Rally), Boris Johnson’s Brexit, and Trumpism, to understand their deep-rootedness in the ethos and praxis of white supremacy. Naming it, as King counseled, will allow for self-reflection and an opportunity for true exceptionalism. Success within this process will enable US politicians to recognize the marauding horde wandering the corridors of the Capitol building as themselves and a product of their history.

This post is from a new 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

Why Indeed Scholars are the Heirs of Prophets

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo. Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing—Knowledge.

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Why Indeed Scholars are the Heirs of Prophets
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“Scholars are inheritors of Prophethood”
Prophet Muhammad PBUH

To fully contextualise and grasp the gravity of this saying of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH requires knowledge of not just the role of prophethood in society but also of the nature of society. At both the level of Max Weber’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, society consists of large groups underpinned by a set of beliefs that organise the membership’s affairs. This is irrespective of the fact that one is organic and the other legal-rational.

This underpinning corpus of beliefs that serves as the groups’ existential truth, criterion of measure and all-encompassing narrative of and about existence, is the lens through which the internal and external universe at both individual and group level is perceived and therefore ordered. It is this story that is articulated by prophets and oracles of yore, and the scholars and intellectuals of the present day.

It is by this measure that the scholars are inheritors of prophethood. From this saying, by analysis of the function of prophets, we can extract the role of scholars in society.

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo.

Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing — Knowledge.

What knowledge?

Knowledge of truth.

What truth? Which truth?

Empirical? The truth about the inner workings of nature? No.

The truth about the existential, teleological and relational nature of man. In short, a coherent set of beliefs that tell us where we came from and where we are going, why we are here and how we should relate to one another.

The most cogent and convincing story told, that comprehensively answers this question, will calibrate all social interaction, order and direct us all.

It is for this reason that British colonialism of the African continent began with a story. A Story about the salvation of souls, a promise of a beautiful place of endless bliss and, over and above that, complete absolution. Successful “Christianisation” was a sine qua non for absolute subjugation and slavery of the natives. The advance guard of imperialism was the Church Missionary Society.

In fact, the need for this “story” and its power over peoples was common imperialist knowledge. Penelope Carson’s book The East India Company and Religion 1698-1858, records an incident in which 17th century churchman and orientalist Humphrey Prideaux, who was later to become Dean of Norwich, castigated The East India Company for neglecting the propagation of Christianity in India, pointing to the success of the Dutch East India Company, arguing that their Dutch counterparts thrived due to proselytisation of Christianity where they expanded.

Where native elites intervened to bar the entry of missionaries in places such as Japan, the peoples of these lands remained free of European colonisation for centuries.

The answer to the question of existence, manifested in the instinctive questions we all ask — Where did we came from? Where we are going? Why are we here? How we should relate to one another? — has all-encompassing power over a community and society, and herein lies the power of the scholar.

Knowledge has only one purpose: to elevate the human condition, to drive away barbarism and raise us to civilisation. For knowledge is the only attribute that differentiates us from the rest of creation.

Why not make the case for free will here too? For free will is a factor of knowledge. Free will and self-awareness are implied and are necessary predicators for knowledge.

There was never any need for a tree of knowledge in the heavens where angels reside, as angels have no free will. Neither was there any need for one in the realm of beasts, for beasts have no intellect. Only man has the unique ability to value knowledge, for only he has both intellect and free will.

Given that the purpose of knowledge is to lead us to our Xanadu, it follows that those amongst us with the wherewithal for knowledge have a teleological duty to the knowledge and an essential duty to their kind to take the mantle of intellectual leadership together with all the risks and rewards it portends.

This knowledge of purpose enables the scholar to direct the society from its empirical state towards its normative ideal. This direction is not frictionless. It ensures a never-ending struggle between the interests anchored in the status quo and those rising from the promise of change. American scholar and activist Noam Chomsky captures this function well in this quote from his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals: “With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.”

Failure to rise to this duty can be legitimately termed betrayal of calling, betrayal of self.

In the past, where humanity was organised at village and tribal level, it would have been sufficient to speak to individual scholarly duty, but in today’s complex social order, we must communicate the same argument to the organisations in our society that consist of knowledge workers and whose purpose is knowledge or a derivative of knowledge.

This would consist of universities and religious organisations and their affiliate unions and associates. To this end we will cite the most well-known or stereotypical examples of individuals and organisations that have endeavoured to live up to the demands of this vital function, or calling.

The unity of individual scholarship and activism is perfectly epitomised by the world-renowned Scholar Noam Chomsky mentioned earlier, as this summarised excerpt from Who is Noam Chomsky?” perfectly illustrates:

Chomsky joined protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes.

He also became involved in left-wing activism. Chomsky refused to pay half his taxes, publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested while participating in an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. During this time, Chomsky co-founded the anti-war collective RESIST with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald. Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, Chomsky gave many lectures to student activist groups and, with his colleague Louis Kampf, ran undergraduate courses on politics at MIT independently of the conservative-dominated political science department.

Because of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was arrested on multiple occasions and included on President Richard Nixon’s master list of political opponents. Chomsky was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience and his wife began studying for her own doctorate in linguistics to support the family in the event of Chomsky’s imprisonment or joblessness.

Locally Dr David Ndii has struggled immensely and very successfully to live up to Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals, explaining the economic reality and the Government of Kenya’s policies/plans to the public in terms understandable by all. He began in the most widely read newspaper Daily Nation and now writes economic analyses and open letters to the rulers on the popular online political journal The Elephant, often successfully compelling the government to respond, albeit with more propaganda and red herring.

His sister-in-arms Dr Wandia Njoya has waged an equivalent struggle in the domain of education and culture. Patrick Gathara and Rasna Warah, whose timely pieces questioned the reasons for the Kenya government incursion into Somalia as part of America’s global imperialist Wars of Terror, triggered a vital conversation at the most appropriate time and place, where the powers that be would have preferred none.

Two critical parts remain for our native scholars and intellectuals (“native” continentally-speaking). First is crystallising their ideas into philosophies that can animate the public and move it to action, “action” being the work of bringing the ideas to life in social order and government policy.

Second is inculcating in a group of their students their philosophy, and organising them to carry it to the public space. The scholar or intellectual is a social actor just as is the politician, only at a different stage of the work of social organising. The scholar or intellectual produces the ideas that the politician or activist organises the public around. If a politician is “Philosophy in Action”, the scholar then is the “Action of Philosophy”. That the group for the politician is termed a political party is moot; the currency for both actors is public opinion and neither scholars nor politicians can be effective without the support of groups. We may term the group around a scholar as followers or disciples for purposes of differentiation.

It is hard to imagine, but Noam Chomsky was once a student. Chomsky began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Chomsky states in many interviews that he found little use for his classes until he met Zellig S. Harris, an American scholar touted for discovering structural linguistics (breaking language down into distinct parts or levels). Chomsky was moved by what he felt language could reveal about society. Harris was moved by Chomsky’s great potential and did much to advance the young man’s undergraduate studies, with Chomsky receiving his B.A. and M.A. in non-traditional modes of study.

Noam Chomsky is categorical that, outside of his father, Zellig S. Harris is most responsible for his intellectual direction, political thought and activism.

From scholar-activists to organisation activism

For examples of organisations that have transcended the limited group interests of their membership to actively engage social issues that affect all, we may look to the teacher’s unions in Latin America which are actually social movements that have played critical roles at national and sub-national levels.

The paper Promoting education quality: the role of teachers’ unions in Latin America from the UNESCO Digital Library reports that in Brazil, during the 1988 constitution-writing process, teachers’ unions worked with academic, student and national trade confederations to advocate minimum funding for education. They succeeded in obtaining a constitutional provision establishing that 18 per cent of federal and 25 per cent of state and municipal taxes must go toward education.

Given the crisis we face today is fundamentally a crisis of ideas — or more specifically the lack thereof — to galvanize society, we need our scholars to tell us a new story, or to tell us an old story in a new way.

The Canadian scholar and psychologist, Dr Jordan B. Peterson, serves as an apt example of telling “an old story in a new way”. He reframed the Christian story for an atheistic age, infusing new life into the West’s Cultural Right. After years of losing ground to the liberal social values of the Left, conservatism has found its footing.

Sheikh Taqiuddin An-Nabhani, the Palestinian jurist and founder of political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, reframed Islam as a System for “the Age of Systems”, giving Muslims a way to perceive the complex new global order through the lens of their beliefs. And in so doing, giving Muslims new faith in their way of life and re-energising them to work to find their way forward to re-establishing the Islamic order they had lost.

This spark is what we need. As individuals, and as humanity.

For us in Africa, the 1885 Berlin Conference order is in the terminal stages of decay, just like its Sykes-Picot equivalent in the Middle East. Talk of secession is everywhere in Africa. Even the presumably stable territories like Kenya have not been exempt. Secession, which is the fracture of states, suffers conditions similar to “entropy”, which is the dissipation and dispersion of particles within an entity. Secession creates new problems beyond the potential for an infinite recurrence of further secession. Darfur’s struggle to secede from South Sudan, after South Sudan seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011, after Sudan seceded from Egypt on 1 January 1956, is a perfect modern example in Africa. Somalia need not be elaborated.

Superficial measures such as renaming countries are no different from adopting some costume as a national dress in search of a new post-colonial identity. They are named in top-down tyrannical initiatives and “un-named” after the death of the baptising despot.

Convergence of nations into new blocks has failed to resolve any of the problems humanity faces, even at the highest level of political awareness, with the blocks beginning to BrExit and GrExit even before they are fully formed.

Democracy is imploding as the multiple centres of thought — democracy’s vaunted raison d’être, “Pluralism” — mature into the centres of gravity of powerful hurricanes of political movements, many currently spinning across America leaving death and destruction in their wake, and threatening to tear America, the paragon of Democracy, into a thousand pieces.

Yet we cannot dial the clock back to our tribal ways as Mungiki the Kikuyu tribal cult that rose in the central highlands of Kenya proved. Our tribal enclaves have been completely shattered by imperialism’s modern-day manifestation — liberalism — never to exist again. There is no tribal safe haven to return to for any of us.

Never in the history of humanity has there been such plenty sitting side-by-side with such great need. Capitalism promised humanity that the free market would solve all its problems. Freedom as a doctrine would lead all of humanity to happiness, plenty and fulfilment. This paradise would follow absolute “freedom of markets”, “freedom of capital”, “freedom of thought and speech”.

But as the Bible famously says, “as it was in the beginning so is it in the end.” Freedom of ownership was first enshrined in the Magna Carta, the 1215 AD agreement between King John of England and his Barons, the land owning aristocracy. Freedom of religion, was promulgated in 1648 from the Treaty of Westphalia, as the right of the Kings and Princes of Europe to choose the religions for their nations and therefore their subjects. The now sacrosanct “Universal Suffrage” born of the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848 was a “right to vote” for “white men”. Universal Suffrage being for white men had the net effect of establishing a “political universe” in which only white men are the only legitimate citizens.

That summarised the beginning of “our cherished freedoms”.

History shouts loud and clear that freedom, in all its configurations, from the beginning was and is only for the powerful ruling elites, yesterday the Barons and Princes, today the capitalists and selected politicians, or as Marx termed them, the Bourgeoisie. As for the working class, the poor masses, in the words of Marx, freedom for them was, is and continues to be, the freedom to choose “to work” or “to starve”.

Yet the story the “angry genius” Karl Marx himself told, that promised equality by negation of our most basic human instincts — our instinct to possess, our instinctive need to believe and to be, and that has gained great resurgence powered by the dramatic failure of Capitalism in recent times — also failed humanity epically.

It is incumbent upon those gifted with ability and knowledge, and those vested with the leadership of organisations that consist of agents of knowledge, to transcend their group interests and work for society’s overall well-being.

The need has never been greater.

An outcome of the homogeneity imperialism imposed upon us all is that we are all immersed in the same operating system, secular capitalism. For this reason, we find ourselves in the same predicament of crisis, literally globally.

We need a powerful new story, or an old story told in a powerful new way.

A story that will remind us of our common humanity, harmonise our relations with each other and the rest of creation and reveal to us a common destiny, that can unify our sense of purpose.

We need scholars at the universal and local level, to crystallise a story, an idea into an isotope that will fuse with our imaginations and trigger a chain reaction that will galvanize radical change.

The situation is critical, the need urgent.

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Ideas

The Death of LAPSSET and Kenya’s Poverty of Imagination

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 Death of LAPSSET and Kenya's Poverty of Imagination
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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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