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COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates in the Light of Public Health Ethics

11 min read.

Vaccine mandates are instances of state overreach, as they violate human dignity, human agency and human rights, thereby eroding the very foundation of democratic society.

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COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates in the Light of Public Health Ethics
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In the wake of COVID-19 vaccine mandates (in which governments require citizens to be vaccinated regardless of their preferences), moral issues need to take centre stage. This is because we human beings are not simply matter, but also rational consciousness – we think and feel, and so it matters how we treat other people, and also how they treat us. Morality is the judging of human action in terms of rightness and wrongness, and human traits of character in terms of virtue (desirable quality) and vice (undesirable quality). While in everyday usage “morality” and “ethics” are considered to mean one and the same thing, we also use the term “ethics” to refer to philosophical reflections on morality, and this latter sense is my focus here.

Countries usually have various public health authorities that issue directives that should ideally enhance the overall well-being of their citizens. In Kenya, for example, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB), and the Ministry of Health are among such bodies. Thus, the various COVID-19 protocols from the Ministry of Health are public health measures rather than medical care ones. At the global level, public health measures are currently mostly formulated and implemented under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

As Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech explain in the edited volume Ethics in Public Health and Health Policy, central to both medical care (for ill individuals in health facilities) and public health measures (instituted by governmental authorities for the overall welfare of society) is the notion of the right to healthcare, which encompasses multiple dimensions, and ranges from concern for individual access to healthcare to the provision of a social structure conducive to healthy living. Yet the ultimate aim of public health measures is the overall well-being of the individuals who necessarily constitute the public — there can never be a public without the individuals who constitute it. Besides, both medical care policies and public health measures ought to be formulated and implemented with a deep commitment to respecting the dictates of morality, giving rise to medical ethics and public health ethics.

The ethical implications of COVID-19 vaccine mandates

As Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech explain, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, efforts aimed at improving and sustaining public health were primarily directed towards combating the spread of infectious diseases and plagues. However, as they further explain, the number of those falling ill and/or dying from infectious diseases was already on the decline before the discovery of the responsible pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc.), and the development of effective treatments and/or vaccines. Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech further observe that this marked improvement in the quality of health can be explained by improvements in socioeconomic, environmental and living conditions, greater awareness of personal hygiene, and better nutrition. They point out that the nineteenth century thus saw the emergence of the sub-discipline of social medicine that focused on the effect that conditions such as poverty and relative social status had on the public’s health. Scholars of social medicine advocated for the establishment of a healthcare system that would not only attend to those who were already sick, but also promote health for the population.

Thus, public health policies are usually designed to address prevention and health promotion. Regarding this Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech write:

[P]ublic health measures can either target behaviour and lifestyle choices of the individual, or society more generally. The former applies to Public Health programmes such as the promotion of healthy diets, abstinence from tobacco or alcohol, and participation in medical screening programmes. Examples of the latter include immunisation programmes that achieve herd immunity and projects to eradicate certain pathogens regionally, nationally, or globally, e.g. by defining targets for lowering incidence of measles or polio.

Among the many ethical issues that arise from public health measures with regard to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, I highlight five below.

Individual liberty and well-being versus the public good

There are measures that might promote the well-being of a few individuals but hurt the public, and vice versa. While, in the name of public health, many would quickly resort to the principle that the majority ought to have their way, that principle disregards the dignity (infinite intrinsic worth), agency (capacity to act) and human rights (entitlements) of the minority by treating them as though they were of relatively little significance by virtue of their numbers.

In his On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest champions of liberal democracy, observed that the individual ought to be protected against the tyranny of the majority in the same way as he or she ought to be protected against political despotism. In fact, while many now think democracy is rule by the majority, in Considerations on Representative Government, Mill distinguished between true democracy in which all are represented, and false democracy in which only the majority is represented. Thus, COVID-19 vaccination ought not to be a requirement on the basis of the preferences or benefit of the majority, but ought rather to be made available to all those members of the public who choose to have it without the fear of losing their jobs or their access to public spaces and services.

Freedom to accept or decline a medical procedure

The notions of human dignity (infinite intrinsic worth), human agency (capacity to act) and human rights (entitlements) have usually been acknowledged in medical care through the principle of informed consent — that the doctor is morally obligated to explain in detail the implications of any medical procedure, and to let the patient decide whether or not to receive it. Anything less than this is paternalism, that is, the treating of adults as though they were children. Since public health measures, by promoting the health of a population ought to ultimately promote the overall well-being of the individuals that constitute that population, the principle of informed consent ought not to be violated in the name of public health.

In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a type of injustice in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower (“epistemic injustice”). She distinguishes two forms of epistemic injustice — testimonial injustice (the injustice that a speaker suffers in receiving deflated credibility from the hearer owing to identity prejudice on the hearer’s part), and hermeneutical injustice (suffered by people who participate unequally in the practices through which social meanings are generated). In the era of COVID-19, humanity is suffering both types of epistemic injustice, as the principle of informed consent is blatantly violated through manipulative social and traditional media, and through intimidation by public authorities issuing vaccine mandates. Indeed, populations are now regularly treated as though they are devoid of knowledge, and must therefore rely solely on instructions from political authorities purportedly to control the spread of the virus and to take care of those who fall ill from it. This approach challenges our belief in human dignity, human agency and human rights, as it reduces us to helpless, ignorant beings who must wait for government to tell us what to do, not only about our conduct in public, but also what to expose our bodies to (read “vaccine mandates”).

The individual ought to be protected against the tyranny of the majority in the same way as he or she ought to be protected against political despotism.

Currently, the narrative in social and traditional media is that the vaccine is a must, and any information about its adverse effects is quickly suppressed or explained away. This manipulative approach is evident in the talk about “vaccine hesitancy”, as though all who have so far refrained from taking the “vaccine” will eventually “come round”. A more honest discourse would have acknowledged vaccine enthusiasm, vaccine hesitancy, and vaccine rejection. Besides, the individual’s freedom is often infringed on the grounds that members of the public are not adequately equipped to make informed decisions about their own health. This amounts to treating adults as though they were children (“paternalism”). The Ottawa Charter, which focuses on patient empowerment and the strengthening of health literacy, is relevant in this regard, as is health communication, encompassing multiple levels, from the formulation of written information on specific diseases to educational campaigns aimed at the general public.

Inadequate public health communication was evident when a Kenyan citizen filed a Constitutional Petition against the vaccine mandate issued by the Kenyan government on 21st November 2021. Mutahi Kagwe, Cabinet Secretary for Health, announced that there was no vaccine mandate, and that therefore no one needed to have gone to court. At the same time, he reiterated that the unvaccinated would be denied in-person access to government services from 21st December 2021. The import of that announcement was that “There is a vaccine mandate and there is no vaccine mandate”. Furthermore, on 22nd December 2021, Health Chief Administrative Secretary Mercy Mwangangi announced that one would have to show proof of vaccination to enter public spaces such as buses, grocery stores, restaurants and game reserves. This set of statements must surely be categorised as bad public health communication.

Besides, Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe had sought to justify the vaccine mandate on the basis of the Public Health Act. However, Section 36 (d) of the Act addresses situations in which Kenya appears to be existentially threatened by any formidable epidemic, endemic or infectious disease. Yet the public health data shows that COVID-19 is not leading to massive deaths that would warrant invoking these provisions. The Public Health Act is also subordinate to the Constitution of Kenya in which the Bill of Rights is enshrined. As such, it cannot legitimately serve as a basis for COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but only for vaccine programmes. Furthermore, the dominant COVID-19 narrative emphasizes that the vaccines do not rule out one getting infected, but rather reduce the chances of hospitalization and death. Thus, vaccine-free shoppers or travellers in public transport risk their own lives, not those of fellow shoppers or fellow travellers. As such, forcing them to be vaccinated is a violation of their personal freedoms entrenched in the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

In sum, public health authorities are violating the ethical principle of informed consent by compelling members of the public to take COVID-19 vaccines. Furthermore, by making online databases accessible to a large number of people to verify the vaccination status of individuals, health authorities are also violating the principle of patient confidentiality.

Responsibility for adverse effects of vaccines

It is common knowledge that each and every vaccine has adverse effects. As such, the individual has a right to accept or decline a vaccine because it is he or she who bears any adverse effects that it may produce. Yet by enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, health authorities are blatantly disregarding this important consideration. As David Ngira and John Harrington explain, a system of quality control before the deployment and use of medicines in Kenya is set out in the Pharmacy and Poisons Act, the Standards Act, the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act, and the Consumer Protection Act. They however point out that none of these Acts provides for comprehensive compensation after deployment and use of vaccines. Yet any monetary disbursements that citizens might receive for adverse effects of vaccines cannot possibly restore them to their previous state of health, and must therefore be viewed more as tokens than as adequate compensation.

A more honest discourse would have acknowledged vaccine enthusiasm, vaccine hesitancy, and vaccine rejection.

What is more, observe Ngira and Harrington, to minimise liability and incentivise research and development, pharmaceutical companies require states to undertake to meet any costs arising from successful suits against the pharmaceuticals for any harm caused by vaccines. Put simply, the victims would be awarded for damages through their own taxes rather than through the profits of the vaccine manufacturers. Besides, as Ngira and Harrington also explain, in Kenya’s legal environment, victims of adverse effects from vaccines would have to demonstrate that the vaccine maker or distributor fell below widely accepted best practice, and yet acquiring the evidence to prove this and finding experts in the sector willing to testify against the manufacturer can be very difficult.

Ngira and Harrington further note that while the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) have undertaken to honour a one-year compensation (“indemnity”) for adverse effects of AstraZeneca vaccines distributed in Kenya which allows victims to be compensated without litigation up to a maximum of US$40,000 (approx. KSh4 million), COVAX has indicated that the scheme will end once the allocated resources have been exhausted. This is a matter of concern, because there is no evidence that side effects of the vaccine fully manifest within a year. Besides, one wonders how the allocated resources for compensation were arrived at, bearing in mind that no one would have had information on how much resources would actually be needed for this purpose. Furthermore, according to Ngira and Harrington, beneficiaries of the COVAX compensation scheme are barred from pursuing compensation claims in court. COVAX also requires that before governments receive its vaccines, they undertake to pay any damages awarded to victims of adverse vaccine effects against manufacturers in any lawsuits.

The foregoing considerations lead to the conclusion that the individual, as the one who bears the full brunt of any adverse effects from COVID-19 vaccines, ought to be free to accept or decline them.

Debatable use of some primary prevention programmes

According to Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech, there is the question of the use of some primary preventive programmes such as vaccination campaigns, cancer screening, and assessment of psychological malfunctions. They further observe that problems that arise in this context include, but are not limited to, unnecessary treatment, financial interests of actors, and the role of pharmaceutical companies. For example, in Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare, Peter Gotzsche shows that drugs are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, and illustrates how pharmaceutical companies have developed toxic drugs that have caused untold suffering to many, and how law courts have awarded damages to the injured. Similarly, Neil Z. Miller discusses 400 scientific papers that show how vaccines have caused injuries, and how policy-makers ignore this information.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the public was told that once the vaccines are developed and procured, those who receive them would be safe from the virus; then more recently it has been announced that those who are fully vaccinated will need a “booster shot” after six months. The question arises as to whether the “booster shots” are really necessary, or simply the innovation of the big pharmaceutical companies to make more profits, which would be a case of conflict of interest. Besides, it is not clear if humanity will ever be free from the vaccines if people will be required to take boosters every time a new variant emerges. What is more, while there is wide consensus among virologists on the effectiveness of natural immunity, very little is being said about this, giving the false impression that humanity’s hope only lies in the vaccines, as though humanity has not weathered numerous viruses without vaccines for millennia.

Monitoring and evaluation of public health measures

According to Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech, public health measures ought to be analysed within a framework that takes into consideration how decisions to implement the measures were reached, and how the expected impact can be evaluated and regulated effectively. As such, write Hirschberg and her colleagues, all phases of planning, implementation and evaluation of a public health measure should take into account the available scientific evidence.

In the edited volume Ethics in Public Health and Health Policy, Marckmann and his colleagues address the question of what strategies are ethically appropriate to achieve sufficiently high rates of influenza vaccination among healthcare personnel in long-term care facilities for the protection of the elderly care home residents under their charge. They contend that mandatory influenza vaccination for healthcare personnel can only be justified if the available empirical evidence on the effectiveness of the vaccine is more conclusive, and if all other less restrictive measures have failed to achieve a sufficiently high vaccination rate.

Beneficiaries of the COVAX compensation scheme are barred from pursuing compensation claims in court.

In view of the foregoing considerations, monitoring and evaluation of COVID-19 vaccine mandates ought to address the following four questions: To what extent were decisions to implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates transparent and participatory? How effective have the COVID-19 vaccines been in limiting the spread of the virus? In the light of a holistic conception of health as entailing physical, social and mental well-being, are vaccine mandates the most effective way to deal with the spread and impact of COVID-19? What is the impact of COVID-19 vaccine mandates on the overall physical, social and mental well-being of citizens?

Which way forward?

In view of the foregoing considerations, it is high time we insisted on respect for the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 that upholds the autonomy of the person and proscribes discrimination. It is high time we upheld the national principle of public participation in the formulation of public health policies. It is high time we insisted on the right to information, which implies the right to uncensored information, including free access to all shades of opinion regarding the safety or danger of taking the COVID-19 vaccines, and personal testimonies of those who have taken them, as well as reasons advanced by those who have refrained from taking them. In the end, what we are dealing with here is not simply the right to accept or decline the COVID-19 vaccines, but rather the whole range of individual freedoms, which implies the limits of state action. In sum, it is squarely within the mandate of the state to institute vaccine programmes, in which it makes vaccines available and seeks to convince citizens to receive them. However, vaccine mandates are instances of state overreach, as they violate human dignity, human agency and human rights, thereby eroding the very foundation of democratic society. If government can determine what goes into my body, what remains of my personal liberty?

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By

Dr. Reginald M.J. Oduor is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Nairobi. He is the first person with total visual disability to be appointed to a substantive teaching position in a public university in Kenya. He was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the New Series of Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya from 2009 to 2015. With Drs. Oriare Nyarwath and Francis E.A. Owakah, he edited OderaOruka in the Twenty-First Century. He is also Co-founder and current Chair of the Society of Professionals with Visual Disabilities (SOPVID). Email: rmjoduor@gmail.com. Blog: http://kenyancrossroads.blogspot.co.ke

Ideas

Boda Boda Justice

Local and national institutions should move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders and instead leverage their capacity to contribute towards grassroots processes of protection and justice.

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Boda Boda Justice
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We are all familiar with the idea that we, as people, plan, but those plans can be quickly altered by the animate and ever-moving process of life. On October 5th, I had a pretty straightforward plan for the day, and having an accident that could have taken my life was certainly not part of it. I was jogging along my regular route when, ahead of me, I saw a car turning into a wide driveway at great speed. I instinctively slowed down to allow the car to turn, only to be hit from behind by a motorcycle that had veered off the road.

Thrown into a ditch but fully conscious, I touched my head and felt it to be completely drenched. Before I looked at my hand, I readied myself for the eventuality that it was blood I was feeling, and that this could be my last day alive. To my relief, it was just mud. I slowly moved each part of my body, to find that I had no severe injuries. I picked up my glasses, stood up, and processed that I was, indeed, alive. A crowd quickly grew around me, with people asking me who to call, or whether I wanted go to hospital immediately. Through tears, full of adrenaline and in a state of shock, I insisted that I wanted to go home; I hadn’t jogged far. I got onto one of the many boda bodas that had gathered at the scene, and home I went.

Some 20 minutes later, as I was getting into a car with a family friend to be taken to the hospital, still in a state of shock and disarray, a boda boda rider approached me. He is a rider in the local area, so we were familiar with each other. He happened to have seen me leave for my jog before the accident, and was at the same place as I was being brought back, covered in mud and crying, some ten minutes later. He explained that he had been told what had happened, that he knew who had hit me and that he was willing to participate in a justice process. I won’t go into what I went through both physically and emotional here except to say that I had avoided a neck fracture and wore a brace for a few days to allow a slight injury at the back of my neck to heal. The shock took a few days to wear off, and I remain very aware of the fact that October 5th could have gone very differently.

However, what I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level, which the local boda boda rider wanted deployed. The episode highlighted the social, political and economic consequences of the way in which this working-class community is perceived by the wider society, and how Kenyan society could change for the better if these broad-brush and often negative societal perspectives were abandoned.

Several months before the incident, a group of boda boda riders had been recorded violently physically and sexually assaulting a woman whose car had hit one of them along Forest Road. The ensuing aggressive and outraged discourse across social media targeted the boda boda community and its collective culture. Given the nature of the injustice faced by that woman—an incident that I can only imagine would leave a person emotionally impacted long after the assault itself—the uproar, indignation, and anger of Kenyans was not misplaced.

What I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level

However, even with my limited experience of the country, I felt uneasy about the state’s knee-jerk reaction which was to take all boda bodas off the road in response to the incident. Firstly, I think that the culture of women being subjected to sexual violence as a result of men, or society in general, experiencing emotions like anger towards who they are and what they do has less to do with who boda boda riders are as people, and more to do with what patriarchy has normalized regarding how women should suffer the consequences when men get emotional.

Secondly, the dogmatic nature of the car drivers vs boda boda riders conversation on Twitter felt unfair. Months before the Forest Road incident, I had been part of a small group of people that had spent hours trying to help a boda boda rider that had been hit and badly injured by a car that had then fled the scene. Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Thirdly, I just couldn’t see where the post-Forest Road social media discourse was going and I was nervous to wade in with what, in the face of the national outrage, felt like a fickle personal opinion of a guest in the country naively suggesting “not all boda boda riders are…” I kept quietly to myself the thought that this just wasn’t who I had experienced the boda boda community to be. Not being a Swahili speaker, one of the ways in which I navigate new parts of Nairobi, and the country generally, is by locating the nearest boda boda stage if I need to ask for directions or for any other help. I have come to know boda boda riders in a way that the capitalist culture doesn’t allow you to get to know the service providers you engage with on a daily basis. But it would have seemed tone-deaf to contribute this experiences to the discourse at the time, although I was reminded of them again following of the October 5th accident.

Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Victor* the boda boda rider that approached me on my way to the hospital, is the security officer of the local boda boda riders committee. This is why, when he saw that I had been injured and learned that it was as a result of being hit by a boda boda rider, he made it his personal responsibility to advocate for me in a dialogue involving the police, the owner of the bike, the local boda boda community and the person who had hit me. This process lasted a week before I decided to stop pursuing the case because of the intimidation that Victor was facing from boda boda riders in the area. As the week unfolded, I was not only struck by Victor’s commitment to ensure that I obtained justice, but I was struck by his belief in the system that he was a part of and within which he was a leader, a system that I think many Kenyans don’t know exists, or if they do, aren’t sure of its purpose or its effectiveness. Even though in my case the effectiveness of this system was compromised because of the power relations between the owner of the bike and others in the local area, it has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

A few days after we stopped pursuing the case, Victor and I sat down for an interview. Victor, who is 26 years old, has been a rider in the area for just over two years. Prior to that, Victor had been working in personal and housing security. In his words, it’s because of that experience that he was encouraged to take on the role of security officer and was elected by an overwhelming majority. “First of all, you have to understand, when you see a boda boda rider, you need to know that he is not only standing there for the money. We are keeping an eye on our surroundings in order to keep it secure,” was how Victor began his response to my question about the specifics of his role as a security officer. He went on to explain that “When anything happens regarding boda bodas, a security officer is the first person that is asked, ‘What happened?’ It doesn’t matter if it is 1 am or 3 am in the morning; if there is an incident, I have to wake up and attend to the situation, to understand what happened, who was involved, and what process is required moving forward. If you consider my area, it is part of my job to know every corner of it and be aware of every person operating in my constituency.” Victor explains that each boda boda committee that exists per constituency has a chairperson, security officer, treasurer, and secretary. “As committees, we are known by the NTSA [National Transport and Safety Authority], local police, and local community elders,” he says. People can serve in these positions until they move on, there is no term limit, and, he adds, one does not earn more for taking a leadership position. Sometimes, a person who has received help from a boda boda rider or from the committee will offer compensation in the form of materials such as boots or jackets, or cash. “We also support people financially. If a driver needs to repair his bike because of a hit, or if he needs to pay for damages caused and can’t afford it, we can organize amongst ourselves to support the person affected and be repaid slowly,” Victor explains.

It has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

I asked Victor whether the level of organization that he was describing was present before the Forest Road incident. “After [that incident], measures got much stricter when it comes to registering with the NTSA. It used to be easy. You could talk to someone at any stage and you can start driving. Now it’s much more organized. There was the president’s order that this is the case, but even us, it is something that we took very seriously. You know, it causes you shame when someone from your community harms others.” When I asked Victor why he does this work, and why he pursued my case so vigorously, he shared the following moving reflections: “I didn’t study security or go past Form 2, but this comes from inside of me. I feel very good when I know that everybody in my surroundings is safe and secure. The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.” Interestingly, towards the end of our discussion, Victor also described a brief encounter he had had with the recently elected Governor of Nairobi, Johnson Sakaja. “I told him that we need to know each other; he needs to know us guys and we need to know them.”

As an Oromo who is actively engaged in the liberation struggle going on in Ethiopia today, I cannot help but feel a connection between the way Oromo grassroots cultural and political processes and institutions interested in the administration of justice have been misrepresented by the political and economic elites (of all ethnicities), and the way the reality of the boda boda community’s collective life has been similarly unjustly misinterpreted. If local and national institutions could move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders in order to keep them at the margins of society and use them as political scapegoats when convenient, they could play a productive role in empowering and resourcing this community’s capacity to organise for grassroots justice and projection.

“The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.”

Speaking off the record (but giving permission to use this information on the record), Victor told me about a domestic violence dispute that he was able to safely intervene in because of the work he does as a security officer. The victim in question was over 30kms away from Victor’s station, but because he could identify her as a member of his local community whose safety he feels personally responsible for, he took effective action to protect the woman. Even if—like in any institution where power and people are involved—the security institution within the boda boda community is not perfect, it is one of the many ways through which grassroots processes of protection and justice can have a transformative impact where more formalized institutional processes fall short. There is great scope for the latter to be empowered by the former in order to achieve that which I think we all want: to live safely and freely.

*Name has been changed to protect the rider

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Ideas

Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy

In his book Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience Kai Kresse examines the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya and the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

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Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy
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Indisputably, the Kenyan intellectual tradition is rich, varied and influential. Furthermore, much more is known about its modern intellectual practices than its ancient discursive traditions. Perhaps this is due to the widespread popularity of its contemporary literary artists and public intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s foremost novelist and public intellectual exerts an arresting presence over most issues deemed distinctly Kenyan. And this is understandably so, given his remarkable productivity, range and resilience as an author. Ultimately, perhaps much less can be said of his late compatriot, Binyavanga Wainaina, who was an equally influential essayist, unconventional journalist and famed memoirist. Wainaina’s lauded memoir, One day I will write about this place is a lambent, often lushly written but also arguably frustrating personal account of modern-day Kenya. Wainaina was concerned with the transitional or even fragmented phases of the contemporary moment and his confessional role as a self-appointed spokesman on the larger national canvas. He wrote enticingly about the Kenyan urban lingo intriguingly called Sheng but failed to explore momentous historical events such as the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion or paradigmatic precolonial life worlds suppressed by the colonial intrusion.

Wainaina also implicitly advanced the view that the contemporary moment was all that counts, that all we needed to know about an undoubtedly complex nation such as Kenya was enshrined in the present. But of course, Kenya has far more to offer intellectually and culturally and this is why accounts such as Kai Kresse’s Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience (2019) paint a deeper and more nuanced picture of the Kenyan intellectual tradition. Kresse, a German, ZMO Berlin-based anthropologist specializing in East African intellectual and philosophical traditions employs self-reflexive discursive strategies to complicate his positionality and the overall project of anthropology as a discipline. This makes his writings unusually refreshing and intellectually stimulating.

Kresse’s research into Kenyan intellectual formations spans three decades beginning with a work on sage philosophy published in 1997 and continuing to a monograph on philosophizing in Mombasa. In addition, his training as an anthropologist grants him perspectives and insights an ordinary philosopher would not only miss but perhaps would also not fully appreciate.

Kresse’s book is not just a close and intimate examination of the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya but also speaks to the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

The Kenyan coastals, marginalized by centuries of external rule either by the Portuguese, the British or by Kenyan upcountry domination, classify their current status as “double periphery”. The coastals claim they are marginalized within the broader Kenyan nation space and also within the specific Muslim configuration of their geographic location.

As such, they are forced to endure a form of silence. This silence and the accompanying encroaching sense of marginality speak volumes when compared, for instance, with the political dominance of the northern Islamic elites in Nigeria, or in the cases of Senegal and Somalia.

In Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy has dominated the country since independence and its overbearing presence is often considered an inevitability or a fait accompli. Minorities such as the Ogoni, Ijaw, Tiv, Nupe and so many other ethnic groups in both southern and northern Nigeria have had to contend with Hausa/Fulani hegemony. From a Nigerian and Senegalese point of view, it is difficult to imagine an Islamic minority in an African context agitating for its own political expression or survival when Islam is considered to be the religious faith of political and military elites. Unfortunately, in Kenya, Muslims constitute a minority and once again, such sociopolitical complexities attest to the hybridized dynamics of postcoloniality in contemporary Africa.

In Kenya, works advocating self-determination such as Regionalism: True Freedom to Save the Coastal People, penned and self-published by an anonymous former education officer, bring to mind the plight of the Ogoni under the inspiring leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa or the Igbo under Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu during the Biafran/Nigerian crisis between 1967 and 1970.  The sometimes violent contestations between ethnic minorities and majorities to gain political freedom or control are also inflected by a religious coloration. The shifts and eruptions caused by political power are never exactly definitive but move instead like swings of a pendulum according to the imperatives of circumstance and history.

Kresse argues that Swahili Muslim intellectual culture in Kenya is rather well developed. Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The concept and broad understanding of humanness are key to fostering relations of mutuality, therefore affirming the essence and significance of the human. The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance. Rather than being an isolated being, or even more radically, a frank social fact, the human, in fact, is a being-in-social process, reinforced and re-enacted in a continuum of social acts and affirmations that lead to mutual recognition, validation and reinforcement. Thus the ultimate goal of the human in existence and by extension, within the community, is to seek the good within oneself, re-living it in everyday life and tangibly creating sociality through a continual implementation of its values.

Kresse eloquently explores the philosophical basis of Swahili Muslim understanding of the human and then delves into the specificities of the intellectual culture  it produced which turns out to be intricate, well-developed and ultimately, profoundly humanizing. It is a pity that continentally or globally, very little is known about this astounding intellectual culture. This culture also bears elements of political subversion, social discontent and self-determination which are expressed in narratives and counter-narratives of poetry (utendi) and radical political commentary.

The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance.

Kresse’s latest book, Rethinking Sage Philosophy: Interdisciplinary perspectives on and beyond H. Odera Oruka, co-edited with Oriare Nyarwath (2022), continues his focused exploration of Kenyan historic intellectual formations, this time, the discourse of sage philosophy, a form of re-configured folk philosophy popularized by the late pivotal modern-day Kenyan philosopher,  Henry Odera Oruka. Under the philosophical school known as sage philosophy, a presumably western trained philosopher identifies the invariably illiterate elders of a rural, ethnic community and attempts to collate the folk wisdom and critical reflections of that community regarding life, knowledge and metaphysics, which are then translated and rendered in a metropolitan medium. Perhaps what needs to be tracked are the conceptual and linguistic transitions inherent in these renditions and how they might be contributing to the (un)making of a new philosophical language. Gathering an impressive pool of Kenyan and international scholars, the Kresse co-edited book places sage philosophy at the centre of postcolonial philosophical thought while seeking to eschew the essentializing and frequently polarizing overtones of coloniality.

Once again, a tripartite epistemological structure becomes evident. Ali Mazrui had argued that Africa, and Kenya in particular, is defined by a triple heritage comprising an indigenous African tradition, a Muslim/Mediterranean influence and a Christian/western inheritance. In Kresse’s work, so far, another kind of tripartite discursive formation reveals itself; one marked by an Islamic intellectual history, an indigenous/endogenous philosophical system known as sage philosophy and then a western philosophical idiom and canon through which a folk system of thought is articulated and elaborated. Either consciously or unwittingly, Kresse’s project traces the contours of Kenyan social thought as they unfold within the often overlapping matrixes of Islam, indigeneity and westernity with evident conceptual continuity and singularity.

Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The current trajectory of Kresse’s work tends to shadow contemporary European thinkers such as the late German philosopher, Heinz Kimmerle and Dutch anthropologist/philosopher, Wim van Binsbergen who interrogate questions of interculturality, otherness and marginality—often from a multiplicity of positionalities and perspectives—while also seeking to unbundle the inheritances of their North Atlantic intellectual pedigree.

Kresse’s interest in the philosophical and intellectual traditions of Muslims in Kenya, has succeeded in unearthing systems of thought, social activism and instances of political resistance that complicate Kenya’s supposedly unitary Christian construct of itself.  And then his earlier work on sage philosophy, a largely Kenyan-spawned modern—perhaps Christian-based—philosophy tradition further complicates an already multi-layered national intellectual history and identity.

At the political level, there are also real existential entanglements to consider. Kenya, like any other colonial creation, ought to be viewed as a political and geographical aberration formed on the basis of a largely irrational colonial diktat. But like other postcolonial territorial anomalies-turned-miracles in Africa, it has managed to finesse its numerous irreconcilable differences into the improbable semblance of a nation.

The universe presented in Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience invariably yields a philosophical and intellectual tradition that has been virtually ignored in current African philosophical discourse. And then, in investigating the ramifications of sage philosophy, Kresse’s work further highlights the significance and impact of a dominant Kenyan philosophical formation. Arguably, Kresse’s attempt to bridge a fundamental epistemological schism by amalgamating a minority Muslim discourse (Swahili intellectual practices) with sage philosophy is certainly a kind of epistemic project a Kenyan would ordinarily find impossible to execute. This is due to the ingrained and perhaps often insurmountable separations caused by fractious internal politics and differences. There is also an implicit epistemic holism in this project of intellectual reconstruction. But how much it serves Kenyans from a practical point of view is another matter entirely.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa

An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
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The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.

In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.

After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.

Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.

In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.

While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.

The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.

On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.

Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.

Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.

Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.

The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.

Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.

Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.

Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.

While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.

Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.

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