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The Limits of Modern Human Rights Crusades

7 min read.

There is a need ‘to address the challenges people actually face, looking beyond narrow political rights to address the deeper causes of economic and social exclusion.’ This will be the key factor that will determine whether the faith of people in human rights will deepen or suffer further erosion in the years to come.

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In a recent opinion editorial published on Project Syndicate, the President of the Open Societies Foundation, Mark Malloch-Brown highlighted two of the major flaws in human rights that need to be addressed urgently. First, he pointed out that ‘[w]hereas strong states were the sole or leading human-rights violators during the Cold War, today’s world is one of multidimensional human-rights menaces.’

Explaining this point further, he notes that, ‘[i]nequalities, exacerbated by unregulated transnational financial and corporate power, together with dramatic shifts in individual states’ fortunes, are creating an ever more challenging landscape. The world is becoming more unequal – and angrier.’

Second, ‘many view the renewed attention to deep-seated institutional racism in the United States and around the world – and the recognition that marginalization based on race, gender, religion, and class is often mutually reinforcing – as exposing the limits of a human rights agenda. Human rights remedies, victims argue, have scratched the surface, not reached the roots.’

COVID19’s quartet of major human rights issues in Africa 

The experience on our continent in the context of the COVID19 lend more than enough support to these observations highlighting the flaws of the mainstream approach to human rights. For us on the continent enduring the trinity of burdens even during the Cold War, as I pointed out in a previous essay, the state has not been the only source of threat to human rights.

In terms of the picture that emerges in Africa in the context of the COVID19 pandemic, our analysis in the African human rights system, as gathered from the monitoring work of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the various reports our Commission received, shows that COVID-19 relates to four broad issues of human rights.

First, COVID-19 is of and on itself a human rights issue. The morbidity and mortality that pandemic precipitates pose the most serious threat to fundamental human rights, most notably the right to health, the right to personal safety and the right to life. It is a human rights necessity that States in pursuit of discharging their human rights obligations under Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the founding treaty of the African human rights system, take appropriate measures for safeguarding the public from the threat that this pandemic poses to health, safety and life.

Our Commission issued the first statement highlighting these points on 28 February 2020 at a time when only a handful of cases in a couple of countries were reported and before COVID19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Considering the weak state of the health systems of many States Parties to the African Charter, we put particular emphasis on prevention measures, including with emphasis on the right to access to information on the pandemic.

Second, the vulnerabilities, structural deficiencies and inequalities that COVID-19 brought to the fore are also products of governance and policy failures in implementing human rights commitments. In particularly, they highlight the neglect by the social and economic policies of our societies as well as by the human rights system of the centrality of socio-economic rights and the resultant gap between the promise of these rights and the lived realities of the masses of the people on our continent. This is reflected in the lack of due regard to human development in the GDP growth driven economic policies of countries on the continent. Even at a time when high levels of economic growth are reported resulting in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, this has never been accompanied by significant improvement in the standard of living of the vast majority of people in our societies. Indeed, as the GDP based economic development paradigm facilitates splendid levels of accumulation of power by global private actors and their local associates, majority of people continue to languish in poverty with no access to water, sanitation, health care, housing, sustainable livelihood and income and food.

This state of affair, facilitated by the weaknesses of the structure of the economies of many countries on the continent and the commodification of access to socio-economic rights due to the dominant neo-liberal economic policy prescriptions, has left those without access to these basic necessities to be without even the most basic means of protection to the threats of COVID-19. For all these categories of people hand washing, sanitizing, social distancing and self-isolation became luxury beyond their reach. Under these conditions, even those who thought of themselves as being capable of fending for themselves by buying from the market have found themselves unprotected from COVID-19. After all, the market lacks both the incentive and structure for availing protection from pandemics like COVID-19.

For us in the African human rights system, this has highlighted two concerns. The first is the existence of a gaping hole in the socio-economic systems and the governance of the States Parties to the African Charter. The second is the pervasiveness and gravity of the deprivation of rights, which are central to not only the wellbeing of human beings but also our societies.

Third, despite the necessity for adopting measures for addressing the pandemic, which by their nature may necessitate restriction of rights, COVID-19 response measures have also given rise to a wide range of human rights problems. As states adopt various measures including lockdowns, curfews, suspension of various activities, border closures, by declaring a state of emergency or state of disaster, the conditions for flouting a wide range of rights also mushroomed. First, some of the measures adopted by their very nature happen to be not in line with established human rights principles, including most notably that of proportionality and legality. Second, heavy securitization of the approach for enforcing COVID-19 regulations and the disruption that the regulations caused to access to basic necessities, particularly for the most vulnerable among us, have led to major increase in violations and in people being deprived of their rights.

In this context we have witnessed, among others, excessive use of force by security forces have led to arbitrary deprivation of lives, liberty and personal security and inhuman and degrading treatment, in some cases conditions amounting to torture. These violations and deprivations mostly affecting the poor and most vulnerable among us also highlighted the discriminatory consequences of the security heavy approach to the enforcement of COVID19 measures.

Some of the COVID19 response measures such as, the abuses and violations by members of state security agents, the multidimensional issues facing women and girls, the massive digital surveillance, the emergency power of the executive branch of government and the corruption in the use of public resources assigned for fighting the pandemic, if not contained and remedied, can lead to the emergence of serious human rights crises.

It was in appreciation and anticipation of these plethora of human rights issues (arising from COVID-19 regulations and their enforcement) that the African Commission issued a comprehensive statement on human rights based effective response to COVID19 in Africa on 24 March 2020. The statement, which is divided into 12 operative sections, outlines the human rights principles and standards that States Parties to the African Charter and other applicable treaties such as the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa are expected to follow in designing and implementing their COVID-19 response regulations.

The African Commission through its country rapporteurs and special mechanism holders have continued to monitor and respond to the various country specific and thematic human rights issues that continue to unfold in the context of COVID19. Accordingly, various statements and urgent letters of appeal have been issued and national consultations held. The Commission also convened its 66th Ordinary Session with particular focus on human and peoples’ rights in the context of COVID19, which presented a unique opportunity for receiving updates through public statements from States, national human rights institutions and civil society organizations. All of these underscored that the most vulnerable among us, notably women and girls, minorities, persons with disabilities and the poor bear the brunt of the pandemic and its grave consequences.

Forth, it has become clear that the unprecedented nature of the impact of COVID-19 not only on health but also other areas of life means that this pandemic is not a temporary event that will easily pass in a short time. Most notably, the socio-economic and humanitarian fall out of COVID-19 is widespread and severe. For us, the African Commission, perhaps this is one of the most serious and more enduring challenges that can have catastrophic human rights consequences as tens of millions are pushed to extreme poverty and many others face hunger and starvation.

It was in recognition of this that myself and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a joint statement on 20 May 2020 expressing major concern about the situation and calling for global solidarity by way of affording countries on the continent the fiscal space, through among others debt restructuring or relief measures, in order to enable the countries take appropriate fiscal and economic relief measures to mitigate the worst socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.

The hard lesson for human rights 

There are a number of observations that emerge from COVDI19’s quartet of major human rights issues for the human rights system in general.

Certainly, COVID19 – in the way it both laid bare the fallacies and falsehoods, to borrow from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s 18 July 2020 Nelson Mandela Lecture, in the narrative of progress and development and brought to the fore the vulnerabilities and inequalities that pervade our societies and the deficiencies of our systems of governance and economic development paradigm – has also presented a serious challenge to the international and regional system of human rights.

It can be said that COVID-19 has presented the foremost challenge to and revealed the shortfalls of the entire human rights movement. Indeed, the pandemic has become an indictment of our human rights work. As the boss of the Open Societies Foundation rightly pointed out, ‘the traditional models of advancing democratic values and institutions (human rights) are struggling.’ The human rights movement has generally focused on making its trademark feature of loud reaction to events rather than on proactive action for addressing the structural issues that make those events possible. The seriousness of the limits of this has now become evident for all to recognize, a silver lining from the pandemic.

Viewed through the prism of so called three generations of rights, COVID19 has demonstrated the continuing marginalization and neglect of socio-economic rights. Despite the normative position of the interdependence and indivisibility of rights, in practice civil and political rights continue to dominate much of the practice and discourse of human rights. With COVID19, it has become clear that water, sanitation, health care, housing and education are fundamental rights to which everyone should have access not only because these rights are pre-requisite to live a life of dignity as human being but also because access to these rights by all is a condition for the safety and health of all.

This moment presents us with an invitation to rethink both the approach of the human rights movement and its priority issues of concern. There is a need to expand the approach to human rights work beyond court litigation and reactive expression of outrage. Equally important is prioritizing the focus on the promotion and fulfillment of socio-economic rights.

Will the human rights movement recognize the limitations and weaknesses that this pandemic has highlighted? Will it recognize that what COVID-19 represents is a qualitatively unprecedented challenge, which is in part are attributable to the human rights issues long neglected? Will the opportunity it affords the human rights system for changing course be seized?

The choice in front of the human rights system is stark – continue in a business-as-usual fashion and face irrelevance in the effort to overcome the structural conditions of oppression affecting the vast majority of people in the world? Or reprioritize its focus, its approach and sense of urgency to deal with the human rights issues which have, in the context of COVID19, become the defining human rights issues of our time: massive poverty, widening inequality, gender oppression, racism, the democratic governance crisis and the climate emergency.

I wholeheartedly agree with Malloch-Brown that there is a need ‘to address the challenges people actually face, looking beyond narrow political rights to address the deeper causes of economic and social exclusion.’ This will be the key factor that will determine whether the faith of people in human rights will deepen or suffer further erosion in the years to come.

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Dr. Solomon Ayele Dersso is the chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

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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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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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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