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BBI Is Dead! Whither the Kenyan State?

10 min read.

A way of rebuilding the basis of the nation must be found because only then can the formation of loyalty and service to each other that is necessary to the existence of a functioning state take place, argues Antoinette Kankindi.

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Rethinking the country as a nation is legitimate for Kenya and Africa. Many recognize the colonial history of African states established upon a divisive agenda with the aim of dismantling traditional polities, controlling and manipulating people and exploiting resources. The inability of an educated class to offer a viable idea of a “nation” uniting citizens in a common project remains a mystery. In Kenya, even the highly publicised Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) has not achieved much. Doubts linger as to whether constitutions adopted in Africa have improved peoples’ lives or whether they are just instruments for taking complete control of power.

Critics of the nation-state find fault with it from two main perspectives. Some consider the Nation-State a dangerous concept because it creates room for nationalism. Others are proponents of very powerful globalising forces very keen to disband the whole idea and reality of national sovereignty. Interestingly, both positions conveniently ignore an important factor for there to be a polity: the common good of the people. The question of which philosophical direction to take is the basis of rethinking the country as a nation. What is it for and what are the foundations that have been lacking? It is a question of the state as a polity and its purpose, which must touch its foundations.

The nation-state and its purpose

The nation-state has been the most enduring polity given its ability to maintain an order allowing people to coexist as diverse communities. It has created a way of balancing liberty and the public good so that individual members can live together with dignity. It could achieve that balance using the rule of law, which guaranties the exercise of freedom and the pursuit of wellbeing for all. The function of the state is to govern, exercising power for the protection of rights and the guarantee of the wellbeing of the citizens. That is what the rule of law is for. Joseph Ratzinger says that it is not the mission of the state to create paradise within its borders. Its mission is to make sure that citizens do that for themselves within its legal framework.

That is why government should always be limited. Government is solely the fiduciary of an order that allows the citizens to achieve their living as individuals and communities. When fulfilling such a function, government is legitimate and should be obeyed by all citizens, in accordance with the law. Complying with the law is expected of the government itself and of the citizens. It does not curtail the freedom of either. It is the condition for the proper exercise of liberty. A polity, as Aristotle stated, is a body of citizens, who are important because there is no nation without people and there is no democracy without “demos” or people, the first basis of a nation.

Four pillars must be considered in rethinking Kenya, or any other African country, as a nation: people, trust, citizenship and territory. In a time of pervasive neo-liberal trends, it is common to think that the basis of a stable polity is economic growth because it enhances sustainability. This is not strictly true since the most fundamental basis is the people. However, one might ask, who are the people and what unites them as “a people” in a state? Concerned about the nation-state being threatened by global corporations and global policy-making Institutions, Roger Scruton contended that any workable democracy necessitates a community to which the people recognize that they belong and to which they owe an unmistakable loyalty that transcends their diversity. No state, no government can be possible where its people do not recognize their shared or common “belonging”, with the rights and duties that come with that. Scruton expresses this first basis thus:

Government requires a “we,” a pre-political loyalty that causes neighbors who voted in opposing ways to treat each other as fellow citizens, for whom the government is not “mine” or “yours” but “ours,” whether or not we approve of it. This first person plural varies in strength, from fierce attachment in wartime to casual acceptance on a Monday morning at work, but at some level, it must be assumed if we are to adopt a shared rule of law.

Such people live by an awareness of bonds of mutual duties marked by reciprocity in times of adversity, need or crucial political processes, whether their side wins or not.

Such bonds point indicate the second basis of a nation, which is harder to achieve, or even understand today: trust, understood as belief in each other. It is not possible to rethink the country as a nation without reckoning with the question of social trust, “cementing” the people’s belonging together. Scruton thinks that yes, a country’s stability is enhanced by economic development,

but it depends far more upon this sense that we belong together and that we will stand by each other in the real emergencies. In short, it depends on a legacy of social trust. Trust of this kind depends on a common territory, resolution in the face of external threat and institutions that foster collective decisions in response to the problems of the day.

Where there is social trust and shared belonging, the third basis of a nation is possible: the relationship referred to commonly as citizenship. It exists between the state and the citizen when both parties hold each other accountable for their respective contribution to building the polity. It is more than a formal and abstract relationship since it entails a compounded set of rights and duties, to be upheld by each side, in virtue of the rule of law. This means that they are both subjects of the law holding both equally accountable for their obligations. Scruton explains that, even if the state is in charge of enforcing the law, it is expected to enforce it “equally against itself and against the citizen”, as the case may require.

People are actual citizens in a state that is bound by the law to fulfil its duties towards the citizens and they, in turn, acknowledge the state’s right to enforce the law as far as their freedoms end.  Consequently, where the state is not accountable to the citizens, citizenship as a relationship is broken, since the state acts as a despot considering citizens as mere subjects. Even if in such a state there is law, it cannot be said to be ruled by law because the government considers itself to be above the law.

Understanding the concept of citizenship as a relationship where the citizen and the state are accountable to each other demonstrates a stark difference between being a citizen and being a subject. For Scruton, citizens are freer than subjects are, not because there is more that they can get away with, but because their freedoms are defined and upheld by the law. He further considers that people, who are subjects, normally want to become citizens as only citizens can be sovereign to the point of securing their own lifestyle, and the security of their family and property against any threat within the state. From a conceptual point of view, this fact explains immigration in search of countries in which citizenship entails such benefits.

The fourth basis of a Nation is the territory. People who form a polity live in a specific place, share history, institutions, norms and customs within specific boundaries. They participate in an equal commitment to all that they share: the land, the institutions and laws, which also means the political processes used to govern their polity. “Vital to the sense of nationhood is the idea of common territory, in which we are all settled, and to which we are all entitled as our home”. A sovereign nation refers to a people of citizens formed by a social trust, with a common history, within a territory, governed by shared laws.

Citizens are freer than subjects are, not because there is more that they can get away with, but because their freedoms are defined and upheld by the law.

Kenya, and any other African country, could claim to be a nation, if only as a country it had something to show for the trust, the citizenship described earlier and true rule of law. There are obstacles to such a claim.

Obstacles to the reality of a nation

In Cry, the Beloved Country, while discussing the dramatic changes in South Africa as a country, one of the characters says:

The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again. The white man has broken the tribe. And that it is my belief (…) that it cannot be mended again. But the house that is broken, and the man that falls apart when the house is broken, these are tragic things. That is why the children break the law. (…) It suited the white man to break the tribe. But it has not suited him to build something in the place of what is broken.

Breaking the tribe, by colonial policy, came with the breaking of every basis of a nation: the people, the social trust, the citizenship and the territory. Today some speak of a new colonialism. Without denying it, there is a need to assess matters differently from two fronts: the neo-liberal urban elites and the global networks. There are inner divisions purported and sustained by local elites on the one hand; and on the other, the control exerted by global policies from foreign markets and global institutions. They all undermine the possibility of rebuilding what was destroyed: a shared identity, the creation of a true citizenship, and the possibility of nationhood.

The problem of urban elites

In the words of Scruton again,

Urban elites build trust through career moves, joint projects and cooperation across borders. Like the aristocrats of old, they often form networks without reference to national boundaries. They do not, on the whole, depend upon a particular place, a particular faith or a particular routine for their sense of membership, and in the immediate circumstances of modern life, they can adapt to globalization without too much difficulty. They will identify with transnational networks since they see those things as assets, which amplify their power.

In Kenya, the elites can hardly identify with the ordinary citizen upon whom they depend for their amenities, for the votes they crave. Unfortunately, the communities, which cannot identify with urban elites, still rely on them because they run government and enact policies. But there is a yawning gulf between the two sides since there is no shared identity between them. Like many other African countries, Kenya is a country of two worlds. Such a gulf demonstrates the impossibility of accountability of the elites towards the citizens. Citizens are totally powerless despite some constitutional provisions and other statutes formulating mechanisms of accountability.

Even where constitutions that are deemed progressive have been adopted, their implementation is still at the mercy of the same elites. The gulf also confirms that there is no proper citizenship understood as a relation of accountability between the leaders and the governed. There cannot be patriotism where citizenship is weak or inexistent.

In a world marked by pervasive neo-liberal policies, the implications of this gulf are huge, since the same elites in government decide market policies too. They are keen to create prosperity, but it is a prosperity that invariably forsakes the majority because of its unfair competition. Competition is good. However when it happens with competitors who can never win, it is unjust. This logic of unfair markets appears also in political processes: who wins in politics? Only those who have control over the reins of power, which turns processes such as elections futile exercises in role-play. The citizens’ vote ends up never contributing to the improvement of their lives. Such processes create power that is accountable only to itself; not to the people, but to the interests that control it, including global networks.

The problem of global networks

The concept of global networks includes global and regional institutions, and multinational corporations. It is common to hear arguments in support of things like global government, or global order. However, no such networks exist without a series of conditions made possible only by the nation-state systems. Robert Rowthorn argues that,

organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation or multinational corporations are no alternatives to the Nation-State (…). The very existence of such entities pre-supposes a network of strong nation states to underpin them (…). If nation states are seriously undermined, the result will not be global harmony, as liberal utopians believe, but global anarchy

Problems appear when global networks control governments and systems run by the elites discussed earlier. Policies arising from such combination do not bridge the rift between the elites and the people. The result is a greater rift, greater disenfranchisement, and greater alienation of the people. The greater the control by global players, the lesser the accountability, no matter how loudly they claim to promote good governance, rule of law, or free market. There is an accomplice-type of relationship between the elites and the leadership of global networks that exists to the detriment of the people, to the point that the elites can even violate global policies and get away with it.

A case in point would be the claim of universal rights from global institutions. Recent history shows violations by governing elites because the institutions promoting the policies are far removed from the people in need of their defence. The same goes for international courts, which raises the question of which justice is rendered and for whom.

The basis for rethinking nation-building or what legitimate authority is, is the same as the principles of cohesion derived from the nature of a polity: people, citizenship and natural and historical boundaries as bonds of a shared destiny. People are communities formed by families living on a given territory and sharing in a system of values, built on trust that is necessary for the survival of a polity. Social trust does not mean that the people agree on everything. It means that they agree on the fundamentals of a social order that works for their common interest. The idea of a social contract resonates with people because it assumes such trust.

There cannot be patriotism where citizenship is weak or inexistent.

However, today’s social contracts are devoid of trust, they are lacking in Scruton’s “we” and tend to revolve around an “I”, whether it is an individual, an elite family or private interests. That is why they fail. A polity formed without trust and loyalty is already fractured. This is the case of political parties, for example. They don’t change anything because, as institutions, they tend to drive division instead of unity. Anyang Nyong’o acknowledged that after so many years of experimenting with multi-party politics, it is time to rethink the direction because “people are fighting to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward and to guarantee the future of their children”. Parties could become meaningless in terms of building the necessary unity for legitimacy because they have proved to be incapable of impartial government for the common good of the people. Instead, they tend to engender some pathological nationalism, indifferent to the plight of the common citizen.

A polity formed without trust and loyalty is already fractured.

There is a general reluctance to appreciate that rethinking the nation is a moral issue and a moral responsibility. Yet political philosophy is a moral science. The basis of rethinking the nation discussed is of a moral nature: people, trust, citizenship and loyalty to the land where the people belong. They have been broken by colonial policies and our elites’ policies. They must be mended.  Cry, the Beloved Country brings this moral dimension in sharp focus, expressed as if it was written today:

It was permissible to allow the destruction of a tribal system that impeded the growth of the country. It was permissible to believe that its destruction was inevitable. But it is not permissible to watch its destruction, and to replace it by nothing, or by so little that whole people deteriorate, physically and morally

Paton concedes that though the tribal system was not perfect, it was a moral system nonetheless. He states that if the people have become criminal and depressed in the various ways, it is not because it is their nature to be so.  It is because the basis of their social order has been destroyed. He emphatically appeals to the “inescapable duty”, to set up another system of order.

Nyong’o, Scruton and Paton coincide in indicating that a way of rebuilding the basis of the nation must be found because only then can the formation of loyalty and service to each other, neighbours and strangers alike, that is necessary to the existence of a functioning state take place. Today’s youth are willing to die for a company that can pay them a salary but not for their country. Proof of broken social trust broken by inadequate political experiments. National loyalty, from both leaders and citizens, is a condition for constitutional and democratic government. Building it requires a strong resistance to global players and local elites, who are so heavily invested in expropriating not only the resources but also the sovereignty of the people, overtaking the sovereignty of the nation-states politically and market-wise. Only the people can resist against such formidable powers.

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Dr Antoinette Kankindi is a Senior Lecturer at the Strathmore Law School and a Research Fellow, at its Integrity Programme. Email: akankindi@strathmore.edu

Ideas

Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah

Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of the UN that shatters any notions that the organization is the moral conscience of the world, instead revealing an internal culture of fraud, corruption, mismanagement, racism and sexism, driven by an instinct of craven institutional self-preservation.

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Living in Nairobi, one of my guilty pleasures is looking through expat guides and tour books on Kenya. I am definitely not the target audience, but I pick up Xpat Magazine whenever I’m in the Karen area, where it seems to be plentiful and free, its outdated font and clunky layout notwithstanding. There’s the famous Nairobi Expat Marketplace on Facebook, which has somehow lost its lustre in recent years since being infiltrated (this is conjecture) by commercial sellers, but which in its heyday was the place to get all kinds of high-quality second-hand household items from expatriates disposing of their possessions in readiness for moving back to their home countries. Most of the posts would read “QUICK SALE”—taken by most Kenyans not as an indication to actually buy the item quickly, but rather to be a signal that it was “game on” to bargain as hard as possible.

Then there are the many expat guides online, which offer advice on everything from finding schools to hiring domestic help. Here’s one: “Employing domestic staff is the norm here, and they can be a great asset to an expat household. This may not be something that new arrivals are used to, but likely something they will soon embrace.” (!) There is a part of me that is triggered when I read the casual racism and superiority in some of these posts, but to be honest, my main motivation in deliberately falling into these strange rabbit holes is the same as watching trashy reality TV—to roll my eyes and scoff with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity.

Of course, in the Nairobi context, the main hub serving as the attraction and engine for this fairly large expatriate community (relative to many other African cities), is the United Nations office in Nairobi that serves as the UN headquarters in Africa and one of the four UN main duty stations, the only one in the global south, as many an article breathlessly, and needlessly, emphasizes. The Nairobi office is the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as well as 23 country offices and several regional hubs.

Working for the UN is an ambition for many, not just because of its perceived high pay and job security—a friend of mine was recently hired by the UN office in Nairobi and upon hearing the news, another friend told him, “Ah, wewe umeomoka!” (Sheng for dude, you’ve made it!). On a broader level, the public image of the UN is that of an institution where people are driven by a strong sense of purpose, working together in the pursuit of world peace and a better future for us all, a place of “high protocol and elegant diplomatic manners.”

But Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world. Warah, a writer, journalist and author of five books, worked for the organization for twelve years, having joined with the same wide-eyed innocence and determination to Make A Difference. What she found instead is a rigidly hierarchical, self-protecting system that tolerates fraud, abets corruption, excuses mismanagement, encourages abuse of authority, persecutes whistle-blowers, actively and tacitly devalues black lives, and puts women and children in the way of sexual predators. 

Warah’s book touches on her own experiences of being harassed and forced out of the organization when she accidentally discovered US$300,000 in donor funds being possibly misused, and the emotional and verbal bullying that ensued. She had also been compelled by her supervisor to use unscientific and inaccurate data in The State of the World’s Cities report, of which she was editor. Instead of addressing this gross irregularity, Warah writes, she was “humiliated in office meetings and called a liar”. All her efforts to get internal redress were ignored, “buried in a heap of bureaucratic indifference” including by the UN Ethics Office, and by several subsequent directors of UN-Habitat, only going public by writing this book as a last resort.

Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world.

The bulk of the book however, unearths harrowing stories from UN failures worldwide, opening in the first chapter with a striking quote from a 1994 New York Times op-ed that describes the UN headquarters in New York as “one of the most dangerous territories for women”, where female UN staff faced a hostile work environment of rampant sexual harassment, but had nowhere to turn because no national laws, not even those of the United States, can govern how it operates. This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.

The book goes on to chronicle serious offences covered up by a UN that, in her telling, is a place concerned, above all, with its own reputation and continued existence. Some of these offences are well known, such as the UN’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, even though it had the intel to do so. (Remarkably, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, escaped blame for the genocide, going on to head the UN as Secretary-General and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.) In addition, the UN failed to take responsibility for a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 10,000 people; the outbreak originated in the sewage of the UN peacekeeping mission there. Others feature less in the public consciousness but are no less appalling, such as the organization’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by UN Peacekeepers in Mozambique, Liberia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo—the perpetrators were simply sent home.

This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.

There is also the internal work culture at the organization that abets irregularities and outright fraud, such as fiddling with statistics to show a higher slum population or more people facing food emergencies, so that more funds can be raised for a particular cause. Or, in an even broader sense, the outright colonial idea that white people are invariably better than non-white people at the organization, with white supremacy animating much of the hierarchy at the UN. Lack of career advancement is a sore point for African staff at the organization, and in one episode in the book that I found particularly striking, denial of a promotion is ostensibly carried out “to ‘protect’ the employee from racism—a very convoluted way of thinking that victimizes African employees twice”. Instead of white colleagues being reprimanded for being unwilling to be supervised by an African, the African’s career advancement was blocked. Any typical Nairobian can attest to the fact that white expatriates enjoy privileges—such as domestic staff, which expat publications are always quick to laud—that they might not get in Europe and North America, and so, white people typically throw their weight around and commit infarctions that they would not dare attempt back home.

Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of an organization that, all said, she still believes can do much good in the world, but only with real and systematic restructuring—such as redefining the immunity clauses of the UN charter so that staff implicated in crime or unethical behaviour are not exempted from being indicted in their home country as is the case currently, and replacing the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal.

The book’s major weakness is that in some places, its scope becomes too sprawling and one can become lost in the intricacies of the internal workings of the UN; it could have been edited more tightly for a general audience. I am also not sure how different this book is from Warah’s 2016 book UNSilenced, which uncovers similar webs of lies, cover-ups, corruption and impunity within a UN that has allowed wrongdoing to continue unabated, but this may be because have not yet had the opportunity to read that earlier book.

You can find Lords of Impunity at Nuria Bookshop in Nairobi and on Amazon.

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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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