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Higher Education: Managing Institutional Change in an African University

12 min read.

Change is inevitable in the lives of nations, institutions, and individuals, but it is not easy because of entrenched mindsets, habits, and behaviors. USIU-Africa was no exception.



Higher Education: Managing Institutional Change in an African University
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After the approval of the USIU-Africa’s 2015-2020 Strategic Plan and my 90 Days of Listening, I rolled my sleeves for the exacting and exciting work of leading institutional change. I had participated in similar exercises in various contexts and leadership positions, but never in an African university and as vice chancellor. So, my previous experiences in Canada and the United States could only serve, at best, as broad guideposts.

I had to consciously guard against the dangers of transplantation from the far better resourced, much older, and larger American and Canadian universities I was familiar with, notwithstanding the fact that USIU-Africa partly saw itself as an American institution. It was jointly accredited in Kenya and the United States, and had until the early 2000s been a branch campus of an American university by the same name based in San Diego, California. In fact, the position prospectus had explicitly indicated familiarity with both higher education systems was a desirable attribute for the next vice chancellor.

Importing Educational Models

I had discussed the question of the export of foreign higher education models to Africa and other regions of the global South in the chapter on internationalization in my book, The Transformation of Global Higher Education, 1945-2015. I noted, “The new universities created after independence often replicated the institutional structures, instructional practices, and intellectual values of their colonial predecessors and imperial models… across much of Africa, at the turn of the twenty-first century, instructional languages, practices, and materials, as well as administrative systems and nomenclature, modes of academic organization, research methodologies, paradigms, and themes remained tied to the patterns and trends in Europe.”

The American university model joined the fray as the numbers of American trained academics and prestige of US universities in Africa rose. I wrote, “The model is variously encapsulated in the preeminence of the research university, the prominence given to liberal arts education, or the primacy of market values. In its contemporary incarnation, it is seen as a system whose institutions have become ever more commercialized, their governance corporatized, students consumerized, knowledge production commodified, learning credentialized, and faculty casualized.”

It is a malleable model “that allows its exporters and importers to project attributes, both real and imaginary, that they wish to highlight and embrace in branding and bracing themselves in the intensifying global competition for resources, reputations, and relevance. The model manifests itself in the establishment of American-style institutions, adoption of US-centered academic cultures, and performance of US-institutional identities.” Thus, the importation of the US model involves “the appropriation and performance of the institutional structures, styles, and symbols of US higher education.”

This is what I found at USIU-Africa, an institution that combined, sometimes uneasily, its Americanness and Kenyanness. Hybrid identities for institutions or individuals can be a source of creativity and empowerment. They can also generate perpetual confusion, contradictions and inconsistencies that engender institutional inertia and paralysis. This was sometimes manifested in continuous selectivity in which people would invoke whichever American or Kenyan university practice that was most advantageous to whatever position they supported and wished to advance.

USIU-Africa embraced several key aspects of American universities, such as the general education curriculum for undergraduate studies and the semester system. On a lighter note we celebrated some American holidays and events such as the Fourth of July, Black History Month, and named our three semesters Fall, Spring, and Summer that had no connection to Kenyan weather seasons—the Summer Semester coincided with the coldest part of the year in Kenya. An interesting example of cognitive dissonance that underlined more serious challenges of reconciling divergent institutional identities.

American accreditation gave our students wishing to continue their studies in the United States and in parts of Europe an advantage in that their credits and degrees were recognized. Students from other local universities had to navigate various barriers to entry given the poor perception of the quality of African higher education outside the continent sanctified by their relatively low standing in global rankings that have become increasingly ubiquitous and critical in the international division of intellectual labor.

But USIU-Africa didn’t adopt several key features of American universities. Faculty never underwent the rigors of the tenure system, nor were they entitled to sabbaticals, although they could take unpaid leave of absence. While several schools offered graduate degrees, there was no graduate school which could coordinate graduate enrollments and standards across the university. Despite purported commitment to enhancing research there was no holistic research policy and protocols.

The typical two semester system in American universities was turned into a fully-fledged three semester system. Faculty were obliged to teach for two semesters, and get paid as adjuncts for the third. Given the relatively low pay, most taught all three semesters, leaving little room for research. Students paid tuition each semester rather than for the academic year, which made annual financial planning challenging. But it also meant students who could afford to take all three semesters could finish their undergraduate degrees in about three years instead of the expected four.

These are some of the contexts that framed the various changes the university leadership and I undertook during my six year tenure as vice chancellor. There are many dynamics and dimensions of institutional change. Borrowing from the contentious neo-liberal discourse of national reform for economic growth and development, the following seven stand out: getting priorities right, getting governance right, getting policies right, getting processes right, getting communication right, getting resources right, and getting culture right.

In this reflection, I’ll mainly focus on the first four, and examine the others in more detail in subsequent reflections.

Setting Strategic Priorities

The university’s priorities under my tenure were clearly laid out in the new 2015-2020 strategic plan. I was impressed by the robust, transparent, inclusive, and participatory process through which the plan was developed prior to my arrival, which resonated with my own views and experiences with effective strategic planning elsewhere.

Over the next six years we assiduously sought to implement and evaluate the plans’s five priorities and twelve objectives. The monitoring and evaluation matrix measured more than 400 action items, which we later agreed was rather too much as some of these were routine operational matters that would go on regardless of any plan.

The five goals included: (1) “Provide globally competitive and innovative academic programs incorporating research and co-curricula activities for holistic education;” (2) “Expand and efficiently manage the university’s financial and human resources to meet its capital and operating expenditures;” (3) “Improve human resource management using best practices;” (4) “Expand, maintain, and optimize use of physical facilities and technology;” and (5) “Increase visibility and enhance quality services to internal and external customers.”

I’ll address the implementation of most of these goals in later reflections. Here, I want to discuss process issues.

Strategic plans provide a critical guide for institutional direction, ranging from introducing new initiatives to strengthening the university’s mission, values and role in society to the allocation of resources to organizational restructuring. They are not cast in stone in so far as the external landscape, and even internal environment, often presents unforeseen challenges and opportunities.

For example, when the strategic plan was approved in March 2016, we didn’t anticipate the changes in the national examination system for the Kenya Certificate Secondary Education that led to a sharp drop in students eligible for university entry. And no one of course could have predicted the massive devastations and disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic. But we had to navigate both, a subject I’ll discuss more fully in a later reflection.

Suffice to say here, fidelity to strategic plans and priorities has to be counterbalanced by flexibility, agility, and adaptability to manage unforeseen circumstances, while maintaining adherence to institutional values and protecting fundamental institutional interests.

Successful implementation of strategic priorities depends to a large extent on the coherence, commitment, competence, and effectiveness of the university leadership at all levels. Reflecting its hybrid identity, USIU-Africa had an unusual and uncommonly large governance structure by the standards of Kenyan and American universities.

The Dynamics of Governance

USIU-Africa has ten governing organs and persons. At the apex is the Board of Trustees, the ultimate fiduciary, a self-perpetuating body that appoints the chancellor, and the university council. The chancellor is the ceremonial head of the institution who presides over commencement among other prescribed duties, while the university council appoints and evaluates the vice chancellor (I was appointed by the Board of Trustees as the council was created just before my inauguration) and provides oversight and approves university policies and budgets.

The vice chancellor is the chief executive officer of the university who oversees its administrative and academic affairs and chairs the management board whose members run different divisions, and the university senate that deliberates and makes decisions or recommendations on academic matters. The management and senate constitute governing organs in their own right. The university charter and statutes revised in compliance with Kenya’s Universities Act of 2012, also recognize the faculty, staff, student, and alumni councils as governance organs.

I had to juggle all these governance bodies in addition to the various internal and external constituencies of stakeholders. They included students, faculty, and staff who didn’t always feel adequately represented by their respective councils, or who I had to engage independently in any case as the university’s vice chancellor.

In their exit reports and re-accreditation letters conducted during my tenure, both regulators, the Commission for University Education in Kenya and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the US (the latter posts its institutional evaluation reports on its website) identified governance challenges as one of the university’s biggest structural constraints that needed urgent attention and rectification.

They singled out the relationship between the Board of Trustees and the University Council, in which the latter was cleaved from the former. Even more problematic was the relationship between the Faculty Council and the University Senate in which the former lost many of its functions to the latter and increasingly assumed a welfare role akin to a trade union. At every leadership retreat management ran sessions on the roles and responsibilities of the different governing bodies sometimes assisted by external consultants. Unfortunately, these structural challenges were not addressed by the board or council despite repeated requests by management, which proved costly in managing crises as I’ll discuss later.

Thus, the governance system at USIU-Africa had its own unique features that were neither distinctly Kenyan nor American. Such creativity was to be expected and in some cases was commendable. However, all too often this resulted in unnecessary structural dysfunctions.

Unlike public and private universities in Kenya, the top governance organs were not appointed by the government or the proprietors of the institutions. In my six years not once did the board or council conduct self evaluations as is common among governing boards in American universities. In late 2018, the US-based Association of Governing Boards was commissioned, at considerable cost, to undertake a survey titled, Comprehensive Evaluation of the Vice Chancellor and Baseline Assessment of the Board of Trustees and University Council, the first in the university’s history. The AGB’s report was never tabled and discussed by the board or council, let alone was a summary shared with the university community as promised.

Moreover, during my tenure I was only evaluated for half the time, so there were years when I had no key performance indicators that could be cascaded to the rest of the academic and administrative leadership in the institution. Many members of the board and council with academic backgrounds and from the US found it rather strange and several left within a short time of their appointment to the loss of the university. Many were disconcerted by the lack of understanding of university institutions displayed by several key members on the board and council.

By the time I left, virtually all the leaders of the council including the chair, vice chair, and chairs of committees had non-academic backgrounds. This undermined understanding of shared governance and fostered a culture of micromanagement, which is almost invariably counterproductive and doesn’t allow managers to optimize their professional skills and take responsibility and learn from failures.

In this, governance at USIU-Africa reflected the university’s location in a slowly democratizing society whose political culture and socialization were shackled by deeply entrenched reflexes of authoritarianism and the legacies of rule by decree. Clearly, universities, even international transplants, are immersed in their domestic political ecologies, as several prestigious American universities have discovered in Asia from China to Singapore to the United Arab Emirates. In Europe, there’s the case of the American styled Central European University, established by the Hungarian-born American philanthropist, George Soros, which was forced to relocate from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna in Austria by the illiberal and populist regime of Victor Orbán.

This is of course neither new nor peculiar to universities fashioned after the US model. Africa’s colonial and postcolonial universities borrowed the institutional shells of universities in the imperial metropoles, not the substance of structural autonomy and academic freedom that was often contested of course.

Managing contemporary universities is harder than ever as many university leaders everywhere would attest. Besides the internal stakeholders, externally there are what are called in the United States the helicopter or snowplow parents, media pundits, politicians, and ideologues for whom universities often provide soft targets, and the ubiquitous social media with its limitless capacity for fueling mendacity, acrimony, trolling, academic incivility and bullying.

Other powerful external actors include alumni, the private sector, philanthropic donors, international and intergovernmental agencies, and non-governmental and community organizations, all harboring their own pressing and, sometimes unrealistic and conflicting, expectations of higher education institutions and their leaders.

Arising out of the above, are ideological pressures on universities from across the political spectrum for representativeness. In short, in many countries including Kenya universities have become embroiled in the culture wars and incendiary polarization and partisanship of the larger polity.

Undertaking Institutional Reform

When I joined USIU-Africa, I was immediately struck by the excessive power and expectations of the vice chancellor. In keeping with authoritarian institutional or national cultures, the VC was the “big chief,” almost singularly responsible for making many academic and administrative appointments, signing checks even for mundane amounts, and dispensing favors and punishment to those who crossed him or her.

It replicated the highly personalized and patrimonial exercise of power in African autocracies. A more generous reading is that it reflected the pangs of expansion from a small institution to a larger and more complex one that needed more explicit and sustainable structures, policies, and processes. I had witnessed similar transitions at several Canadian and American universities. At USIU-Africa there were no academic departments; instead, there were programs. Colleges did not have their own dedicated budgets that they controlled. They had no staff for communication, advancement, faculty development, and external outreach. Everything was centralized.

One of my priorities and expectations from the board and later the council was to undertake institutional reform, to align organizational structure to strategic priorities, build on the university’s assets for future growth, raise the quality and reputation of its programs and partnerships, and generate more revenues to support the bold aspirations of the strategic plan.

In the first year, management and I initiated several key initiatives. One was an exhaustive forensic audit covering the previous five years to improve operations and effective systems university-wide. The audit facilitated the integration of our financial, human resource, and electronic systems to remove opportunities for mistakes or malfeasance.

Another was an extensive and inclusive organizational review, which was led by an external consultant, titled Job Evaluation, Salary & Organization Structure Review. The recommendations from the review led to organizational restructuring and strengthening talent management processes. The outcomes included adjustments of salaries and allowances, the establishment of clearer career pathing advancement for staff, the establishment of academic departments, and appointment of new school deans and department chairs. When I joined the university, all the deans were male and none was a full professor; one was even an assistant professor who had not been promoted in more than twenty years.

Both were the first comprehensive reviews of their kind in the university’s history. Predictably, there were “winners” and “losers” from these and subsequent reforms. In proceeding years, we undertook several surveys out of which some new policies were developed. This always involved exhaustive consultations with the university’s key internal constituencies and governance bodies, as well as benchmarking with other universities locally, regionally, and internationally. For the audits we often engaged reputable consultancy firms.

As can be expected, the various reforms had their supporters, opponents, and straddlers. Or to put it differently, each new policy and structural change had its advocates, antagonists, and ambivalents. This was in keeping with the so-called 40-40-20 rule, which posits that when trying to influence a community for change 40% tend to agree, the other 40% need to be convinced, and the other 20% will never be persuaded. So leaders should spend their time on the middle 40%.

But the 20% often bide their time and regroup. They tend to use any future crisis to articulate and generalize their grievances. Some even resort to ideological, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic attacks, bullying and mobbing of the leaders and their supporters. I mentioned some of the xenophobic attacks I was occasionally subjected in the last two reflections. In the age of social media those opposed to change that don’t benefit their personal or sectarian interests eagerly mobilize social media for virulent personal attacks.

I always urged the academic and administrative leadership to stay the course, to keep our eyes on the prize of institutional change for the continued enhancement of our beloved university. As part of this agenda, it was imperative to follow institutional priorities, policies, processes, and procedures. For each reform initiative we followed what I call the 6Ps: clearly identifying the problem we were trying to rectify, the policy that would guide any review, the process we would follow, best practices in other institutions at home and abroad, the desired product, and determining how we would promote and operationalize it.

In the language of change management models this entails, first, identifying the need for change; second, determining the change agenda including cost and risk analysis; third, assessing the needs and interests of stakeholders and communicating with them; fourth is the implementation stage; and finally, the monitoring phase.

There are of course many models of change management. One is Kurt Lewis’s three-stage model of “unfreezing” organizational behavior, implementing change, and “refreezing” by sustaining the enacted change. Another is John Kotter’s eight step model that comprises creating a sense of urgency, building a guiding coalition, forming a strategic vision, empowering broad-based action, communicating the change vision, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and institutionalizing new approaches.

The ADKAR model focuses on how people adapt to change through awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. For its part, the McKinsey 7-S model calls for paying attention to strategy, structure, systems, skills, staff, style, and shared goals. The change acceleration process model advances seven steps including identifying a champion or champions to lead change, creating a shared need, shaping a vision, mobilizing commitment, monitoring progress, and integrating change in the organization’s systems, structures and culture.

Several scholars have adapted some of these models from industry to universities as competition and demands for value and impact among higher education institutions intensify. Change in universities is especially hard because they are concentrated communities of experts, valorize shared governance, characterized by organizational decentralization, and have multiple divergent constituencies, all of which tends to make them risk averse.

The diversity of change models noted above underscore the variability and multi-dimensionality of organizational change in higher education in terms of the processes for executing change, people participation and communication, leadership commitment and style, and developing empowerment behaviors and culture.

Among the numerous surveys we conducted in subsequent years included those on student retention, student employability, and alcohol and drug abuse. Among the newly developed policies were those on sexual harassment, inclusion of persons living with disability, data protection, crisis management, fraud and corruption prevention, whistleblowing, religion on campus, business continuity, and signing authority limits stipulating thresholds for different signatories.

The reviews undertaken comprised those of the constitutions of the faculty, staff, and student councils, the HR Policies and Procedures Manual, Employee Handbook, and Faculty Handbook. In 2019-2020, the university developed its first full research manual. Other audits encompassed a legal audit, review of the internal audit function, and the university’s risk register.

The process of institutional reform, with its complex dynamics and dimensions, demands and disappointments, as well as opportunities and gratifications taught me a lot about how notoriously difficult but critical it is to implement progressive, effective, and sustainable change in universities as they seek to strengthen their academic programs, operational systems, service delivery, and social impact.

Change is inevitable in the lives of nations, institutions, and individuals, but it is not easy because of entrenched mindsets, habits, and behaviors. USIU-Africa was no exception. Ironically, that was a source of equanimity for me.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.


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.



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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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.



Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah
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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.



Re-Reading History Without the Colour Line: When Egypt Was Black
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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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