“Welcome to tomorrow!” and “Tomorrow is already here!” are popular phrases often used in the context of the so-called Fourth Industrial revolution (“4IR”). Thus at the Sight Tech global Conference held on 2nd and 3rd December 2020, one of the plenary sessions was titled “Our AI future is already here”. In Profit and Prejudice: The Luddites of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Paul Donovan summarises the past three industrial revolutions as (1) steam power, (2) electric power, and (3) computer power. Nicholas Johnson and Brendan Markey-Towler speak of the four revolutions as the industrial revolution, the technological revolution, the digital revolution, and the fourth industrial revolution. They go on to note that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the current period of economic transition since the mid-2000s, characterized by a fusion of new digital technologies, rooted in advances from the Digital Revolution, with technological applications in the physical and biological domains. Similarly, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, formerly the European Management Forum, observes that the fourth industrial revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.
Nancy W. GLEASON cites MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee as referring to 4IR as the Second Machine Age (“2MA”). According to them, while the first machine age was about the automation of manual labour and physical strength, the 2MA technological progress in digital hardware, software and networks is about the automation of knowledge. At the core of the automation of knowledge is artificial intelligence (AI). Johnson and Markey-Towler explain: “Artificial intelligence, especially when endowed with machine learning algorithms, is a technology which seeks to mimic the functioning of the human mind, and which can therefore mimic human action guided by a process that mimics human thought.” Johnson and Markey-Towler further observe that artificial intelligence has greatly enhanced the use of robots:
…, the 4IR moves the goalposts from automation to smartization, whereby intelligently programmed software and robots are able to collect new data during the regular course of their operation, share it with other approved devices on the network, analyse the data, and use the conclusions to update their course of action. The 4IR took “dumb” autonomous machines and made them “smart.” This step was essential to the development of technological marvels such as self-driving cars and trucks and next-generation industrial robotics.
During the December 2020 Sight Tech Global Conference which I referred to at the beginning of this article, Kai-Fu Lee, one of the world’s top scientists and top investors in the field of artificial intelligence and author of AI Superpowers: China Silicon Valley and the New World Order, observed that the current generation’s breakthrough in a type of AI called neural nets, sometimes referred to as deep learning, has enabled remarkable advances in areas such as computer vision and natural language processing. He went on to state that today’s AI capabilities are so great in this raw form that what is needed now are the engineers, and, most importantly, the data to make the most of all the possibilities. He explained:
… computers … can see and hear at the same level as people now. So with speech recognition for machine translation and for object recognition, AI is now at about the same level as humans. And AI is improving rapidly, based on its ability to take a huge amount of data whether it’s spoken language or recorded videos to really train itself to do better and better. So over time, it will be a better see-er and hear-er than humans.” Referring to what he calls the third wave of artificial intelligence as perception AI, Lee spoke of “… extending and expanding this power throughout our lived environment, digitizing the world around us through the proliferation of sensors and smart devices. These devices are turning our physical world into digital data that can be analyzed and optimized by deep learning algorithms.
Nevertheless, Donovan notes that the phrase “industrial revolution” entered common usage long after the first industrial revolution had begun. He explains that Karl Marx’s collaborator on The Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels, used the phrase in German in the 1840s, and the phrase was first used in English by Arnold Toynbee in 1882. This points to the fact that human beings often name something quite a while after they have experienced it, and the same has been true of 4IR, although we may have named it earlier than the first three because we are now more used to the idea of industrial revolutions than those who went before us were.
Klaus Schwab listed emerging 4IR technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing among the things that would drastically change our lives. Indeed, the lives of the peoples of Africa are already being touched by 4IR in ways that many of them are yet to perceive—their smart phones, with their “Location” function on, are beaming data about their movements to networks, and the data are then sold to high-tech transport companies desperate for information about traffic flow in cities; many of them unwittingly allow phone apps to access their microphones and cameras, with the real possibility of their conversations and actions being monitored; their emails and social media accounts are being monitored for information about them that is sold to marketers, advertisers and politicians who use it for “targeted messaging”; their faces are increasingly being scanned by cameras connected to face-recognition software ostensibly to enhance security, but with the real possibility of surveillance for purposes unknown to them.
Human beings often name something quite a while after they have experienced it
What is likely to be more alarming to many, however, is the fact that the combination of artificial intelligence and robotics supported by high-speed online connectivity is threatening to render jobless in a few years’ time those without requisite new skills.
In 2021, Rob Floyd informed us that the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), working with other institutional partners and nearly 40 data scientists and machine learning experts from around the globe, had completed the continent’s first “Artificial Intelligence Challenge”, ostensibly to help predict what infrastructure Africa will need in the future. According to Floyd, the exercise sought to identify machine learning tools and approaches that can inform policy decisions. The data scientists created models and designed methodologies that could help determine what infrastructure to build, where to build it, and what factors would have long-term economic impacts on the continent.
The fourth industrial revolution perpetuating western imperialism
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, imperialism is “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.” The peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand first bore the brunt of Western imperialism in the form of colonialism. In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe notes that “colonialism and colonization basically mean ‘organization’, ‘arrangement’. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the colonists (those settling a region), as well as the colonialists (those exploiting a territory by dominating a local majority) have all tended to organize and transform non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs.
Thus the politics, economics and systems of knowledge production in colonised territories were designed to imitate those of their Western colonisers. At independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, classical colonialism in Africa was replaced by neo-colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah, in the Introduction to his Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of imperialism, wrote: “THE neo-colonialism of today represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage. …. The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.”
In a chapter in The Disruptive Fourth Industrial Revolution: Technology, Society and Beyond, Rashied and Bhamjee observe that industrialisation in 4IR could easily continue along the path of coloniality, in which the wealthy countries of the Northern hemisphere exploit the resources of countries in the South, but that it could also result in some of the wealthier countries of the Global South exploiting their poorer counterparts. During the Third Industrial Revolution, the inequality between the wealthy countries in the North and the poor ones in the South was regularly referred to as “the digital divide” — a divide that is already finding its way into 4IR. Thus as Donovan observes, there are many people who cannot afford a smart phone and a data plan to enjoy the benefits of 4IR, so that “The democratisation of communication only applies to those above a certain income level.”
Indeed, the Digital Economy Report 2019, released by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, highlighted the disproportionate concentration of the digital economy in the United States and China, with the rest of the world trailing considerably, especially countries in Africa and Latin America. According to the Report, the United States and China accounted for 90 per cent of the market capitalization value of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms, over 75 per cent of the cloud computing market, 75 per cent of all patents related to blockchain technology, and 50 per cent of global spending on the Internet of Things.
“The democratisation of communication only applies to those above a certain income level.”
The report predicted that under current regulations and policies, this trajectory was likely to continue, contributing to increasing inequality. Yet, perhaps even more disturbing, is the digital divide right inside each of our countries in Africa, where the middle class enjoys virtually all the benefits of 4IR technologies that their counterparts in the affluent West and East enjoy, while the vast majority of their compatriots still grapple with lack of basic amenities such as access to piped water and electric power so that for them the issue of entering the digital world does not even arise. This latter digital divide significantly contributes to the perpetuation of the neo-colonial structures of domination for the benefit of the West and East.
Furthermore, in the edited volume The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Its Impact on Ethics, Geneviève Tanguay notes that disregard for factors such as cultural identity and political convictions is often reflected in the very design of 4IR products themselves. For example, observes Tanguay, machine learning algorithms, although designed to help in problem-solving and decision-making, are vulnerable to biases and errors arising either from their creators or from the datasets used to train the systems themselves. Tanguay goes on to write that Amazon’s time- and resource-intensive effort to build an Artificial Intelligence (AI) recruitment tool was shot through with bias against women: engineers reportedly attributed this bias to the AI combing through CVs submitted to the company over a 10-year period, most of which were submitted by men.
Donovan points out that consumers can now boycott companies that do not agree with their political positions: apps even suggest alternative products with better scores. However, he goes on to caution that, “With an app, the opinion that works out the details is someone else’s opinion. …. If the shopper has different priorities to the app designer, they may spend in areas they do not actually support.” In addition, observes Donovan, although it is often claimed that the communication technologies have democratized communication, “Algorithms give preference to some social-media users. They also will censor others. Government censorship was commonplace 300 years ago. The private-sector equivalent is the demonetisation, downgrading or banning of published content.” Such censorship from the so-called big tech has escalated in the era of COVID-19, ostensibly in a bid to fight the virus through scientifically-based information.
Disregard for factors such as cultural identity and political convictions is often reflected in the very design of 4IR products themselves.
Moreover, Western cultures are putting non-Western cultures under great pressure to allow themselves to be assimilated in the global (read “largely Western”) cultural pool on the false presumption that they are inferior to Western cultures. Thus in a chapter in African Values, Ethics, and Technology, Maleselo John Lamola points out that as the peoples of Africa use 4IR technologies designed with a Western cultural bias, they are negatively affected at a fundamental level:
The culturally disadvantaged user is … simultaneously mesmerised and alienated by an object that imposes itself as instrumental for the efficiencies of her life; during the same experience she must align her way of doing things to the intricacies of the operation of this device or machine, as well as to the social role it is cast to serve in her life.
A crucial aspect of human welfare is personal liberty, entailing rights such as those of free association, movement, expression and privacy. Yet 4IR is eroding these very liberties through surveillance: smart phones now easily “hear” and “see” much more than their users intend or know. Besides, governments are consolidating various databases (such as those on health insurance, births and deaths, voters’ lists, and criminal records) into single super-databases, so that at the click of a button those with access can view a citizen’s information in astoundingly fine details that can be used against him or her. Thus in the run-up to the 2020 US elections, some US citizens wrote a parody of the famous American civil war-period song “His Truth Goes Marching On”, part of which stated:
Our right to privacy is gone, devices are the spies.
For government surveillance those are now the ears and eyes.
They use the corporate data, no subpoenas, no surprise,
And still we don’t catch on.
All this calls to mind George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, in which the single party, embodied by the mythical “Big Brother”, deploys 4IR-type technologies to monitor not only the people’s actions, but also their thoughts. The “inner party” consists of an elite which wields power by getting the “outer party” members to do their bidding. The party has a “thought police” which deploys all manner of 4IR type technologies to keep tabs on members of the outer party, including “telescreens” in homes and in public places that “listen to” and “see” all that the citizens say and do round the clock. The thought police are even able to read the thoughts of the members of the “outer party” and unleash punishments on them for any dissenting ideas. The “proles” (short for “proletariat”) are the illiterate masses, deeply despised by both inner and outer party members, and hardly have any interaction with the political process.
Furthermore, the party constantly re-writes history to suit its immediate purposes, fabricates narratives about consistent and abundant economic growth, about a mythical enemy of the state called Goldstein, and about never-ending war with this or that foreign power. It is working on a language called “Newspeak” to totally replace “Oldspeak” (English as we now know it, with a view to reducing the number of vocabulary in the language in order to eventually make it impossible for anyone to entertain or express critical thoughts against the regime. The party’s three slogans are: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.
Indeed, 4IR technologies now make a global dictatorship a much more conceivable possibility than it was for the first readers of 1984.
Kalundi Serumaga has illustrated how Africa’s land is “The Final Frontier of Global Capital”. This corroborates Mordecai Ogada’s assertion that “Conservation interests have built a cauldron into which the extremely wealthy are pouring startling amounts of money to subvert systems, grab lands, and plunder resources.” Yet the domination of Africa’s land that global capital seeks to achieve is being greatly aided by 4IR technologies that not only enhance the digitization of land records, but also detailed surveillance and high-tech warfare using 4IR-driven devices such as drones.
Which way forward?
We in Africa ought to urgently clarify our moral values, and based on them, formulate clear guidelines to restrain developers and marketers of 4IR technologies, serving the same old imperialists and some new ones, from dehumanising our people by manipulatively imposing technological innovations on them. Thus we ought to deeply reflect on the social visions of our forerunners such as that of Pixley ka Isaka Seme in his celebrated 1906 Columbia University speech titled “The Regeneration of Africa”. Seme spoke of a regenerated African civilization whose most essential departure “is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic — indeed a regeneration moral and eternal.” As Lamola explains, for Seme, “the surrender of human agency to machines is … not fathomed. His was a novel conception of the possibility of the symbiosis of scientific progress with human spirituality.” Thus in my recent journal article on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, I proposed four normative considerations that, in my view, ought to guide the initiatives of the peoples of Africa in their deployment of 4IR technologies, namely, inclusiveness to meet the needs of all human beings, affordability to bridge the digital divide, respect for the right to cultural identity to guard against cultural imperialism, and ethical orientation as the over-arching guide to building a truly human society.
The domination of Africa’s land that global capital seeks to achieve is being greatly aided by 4IR technologies.
In sum, as we the peoples of Africa enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we ought to do so in a manner that upholds our human dignity, our liberty as communities and individuals, and, as a result, our human agency. This will entail a conscious and consistent repudiation of Eurocentrism in the realm of technology in line with Frantz Fanon’s admonition in the final chapter of his The Wretched of the Earth, A book he diligently worked to complete during the last ten months of his life:
If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe …, then let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted among us.
But if we want humanity to advance a step further, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries.
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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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