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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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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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