The Elephant


The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

It was in the 2010s that the buzz about the Fourth Industrial Revolution reached a crescendo. As I note elsewhere, the term often refers to the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, internet of things, machine learning, data analytics, big data, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the convergence of the digital, biological, and physical domains of life, and the digitalisation of communication, connectivity, and surveillance.

The 2010s saw the maturation of technological innovations from previous decades and the emergence of several new ones. Perhaps the most ubiquitous was the explosion of social media networks, some of which were established in the decade before. The leading dozen social media sites were Facebook (established in 2004, with 2.45 billion users in 2019), YouTube (2005, 2 billion users), WhatsApp (2009, 1.6 billion users), WeChat (2011, 1.1 billion users), Instagram (2010, 1 billion users), QQ (1999, 823 million users), Qzone (2005, 572 million users), TikTok (2016, 500 million users), Sina Weibo (2009, 465 million), Twitter (2006, 330 million users), Reddit (2005, 330 million users), and Baidu (320 million). It can be seen that the United States and China each have six on this list, underscoring the global dominance of the two countries in the emerging technologies of the 21st century.

The 2010s saw the maturation of technological innovations from previous decades and the emergence of several new ones

While more and more people and businesses embraced social media, the technophilia of the early 2010s gave way to growing technophobia about its negative impact, both real and imagined. The sins of commission and omission by social media advanced by the critics are long and varied. It has been accused of fostering political polarisation, fueling the epidemic of fake news, facilitating online stalking, harassment and bullying, reinforcing digital divides and disparities including class distinctions, gender and racial/ethnic stereotypes, as well as compromising privacy, endangering mental health through online addiction, depression and social disengagement, especially among the youth.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Politicians generally found social media useful when it suited their needs and promoted their interests, but deplored it when it didn’t promote their interests. Closure of social media platforms during political protests joined the large arsenal of state authoritarianism. Social media also became a powerful weapon of electoral manipulation as evident in the Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential elections in which they sought to damage the candidacy of Hilary Clinton and boost that of Donald Trump, as well as in the 2016 Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom. The scandal surrounding the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which misappropriated 87 million Facebook profiles, underlined the scale of the crisis.

Concerned by these dangers, and threats to democracy and privacy, some activists called for regulation of social media companies. In 2016, the European Union became one of the first intergovernmental agencies to do so by enacting the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The European Commission declared, “The regulation is an essential step to strengthen individuals’ fundamental rights in the digital age and facilitate business by clarifying rules for companies and public bodies in the digital single market. A single law will also do away with the current fragmentation in different national systems and unnecessary administrative burdens.”

The technophilia of the early 2010s gave way to growing technophobia about its negative impact, both real and imagined

Given the weight of the EU, the GDPR was copied in some regulatory frameworks elsewhere. Even in the United States, where such regulations were vigorously fought, demands grew for greater self-regulation by the industry, and the once feted technological wizards of Silicon Valley joined the hall of infamy occupied by politicians, journalists, and left-wing academics! But by the end of the decade regulatory controls had done little to curb the apparently relentless march of cyber surveillance and surveillance capitalism as data became a new and potentially endless gold mine.

Data harnessing capacities will increasingly determine economic opportunities and divides among nations and industries. A key asset in this critical indicator and differentiator can be seen in the global distribution of high performance computing (HPC). In 2017, the USA had 33.8% of global HPC capacity, followed by China with 32%, Japan 6.6%, Germany 5.6%, and France and the United Kingdom each with 3.4%. Altogether, in terms of continents Asia had 42.4%, the Americas 35.4%, Europe 21%, and Africa and Oceania the remainder. The leading African country in this space, South Africa, had 0.2%.

Politicians generally found social media useful when it suited their needs and promoted their interests, but deplored it when it didn’t promote their interests

Big data from African countries and companies is largely stored in the vast computer farms, otherwise known as the cloud, located and controlled by large global firms. This is the face of 21st century digital imperialism, the transnationalisation of digital platforms from the major technological powers to the rest of the world, capturing one service industry after another from transport (Uber) to accommodation (Airbnb) and combinations thereof (Expedia, Booking.com, etc.). During the era of the Atlantic slave trade Africa sold its people for trinkets, under colonialism it exported raw materials for a pittance, and now it is mortgaging its data, a dubious privilege which it even pays for.

There were of course other technological developments in the 2010s. Smartphones and tablets became extremely popular consumer items. The release of the iPad by Apple founder and CEO, Steve Jobs, in April 2010 was almost as electrifying as that of the iPhone in June 2007. During the decade various other inventions were adopted, from 3D printing to cryptocurrency, to e-cigarettes that especially enticed the youth, to virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, Apple’s HomePod, and Samsung’s Bixby. Self-driving cars were also developed.

The Rebellion of Nature

The 2010s marked a decade when nature harshly rebelled against its despoliation and gradual destruction by humans. The onslaught of extreme weather events, from hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, tsunamis to droughts and wildfires, to melting icecaps and rising sea levels reached apocalyptic dimensions that awakened much of the world to the existential dangers, economic damages, and social devastations of environmental degradation and climate change.

Social media also became a powerful weapon of electoral manipulation as evident in the Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential elections

Global consciousness about the perilous climatic crisis facing the planet was galvanised by scientific consensus, the indefatigable work of environmental movements, increasingly animated by the youth, and renewed commitments to sustainable development goals by the international community. The synthesis reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued ever more alarming information on global warming, the culpability of human activities through the production of greenhouse gases, and the urgency of taking drastic action for mitigation and adaptation.

The decade opened on the heels of the acrimonious and failed 2009 Copenhagen Summit, which was largely blamed on the intransigence of the developed countries led by the United States, then under the Obama administration. In the next few years a series of United Nations Climate Change Conferences were held in Mexico, South Africa, Qatar, Poland, Peru, and France. The latter conference led to the adoption of the Paris Agreement. It proposed keeping climate change below 2°C, although no binding emission targets were set. Subsequent conferences were held in Morocco, Germany, and Poland.

In the meantime, young people galvanised the environmental movement. The fearless Greta Thunberg, who became an influential international environmental activist, forcefully represented the youth activists. At the at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September 2019, she bluntly told world leaders: “You are failing us… But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” The school strike for climate movement she initiated in late 2018 quickly spread in many parts of the world.

Save our Planet – Fridays for future (March 15 2019) / Schlossplatz, Erlangen / Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Unfortunately, stubborn pockets of climate change denial persisted, most alarmingly among some right wing politicians, a group that found its loudest proselytisers in the new presidents of the United States and Brazil, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, respectively. President Trump announced the United States would pull out of the Paris Agreement, while President Bolsonaro lashed out at European leaders complaining about deforestation in the Amazon. But even for the less recalcitrant governments, their rhetoric was often not matched by action.

This is the face of 21st century digital imperialism, the transnationalisation of digital platforms from the major technological powers to the rest of the world

To be sure, there was progress as a growing number of countries adopted renewable or sustainable energy. Investments in hydropower, solar power, wind power, bioenergy and geothermal energy increased. In the early 2010s, according to a 2018 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, “Global annual investment in renewable energy rose steadily in 2013-2015, peaking at USD 330 billion in 2015 before falling to USD 263 billion in 2016.” Consequently, the report states, “Since 2012, renewable power capacity installations have exceeded non-renewables by a rising margin, representing about 60% of all new power-generating capacity added worldwide in 2016.” East Asia, led by China, was in the forefront, followed by Europe. The bulk of the investment, more than 90% in 2016, came from private sources.

But the world’s major polluters continued to resist cutting their emissions significantly or adequately financing global climate mitigation efforts by the developing countries. This became abundantly clear at the World Climate Change Conference held in Valencia, Spain, in December 2019, which failed to agree on concrete actions to enhance targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  As if in reproach and final display of nature’s wrath at the end of the decade, 2019 closed with ferocious infernos torching large swaths of California and Australia.


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The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

The aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008-2009 was one of the defining economic developments of the 2010s. It was precipitated by financial crisis in the United States, which was triggered by the collapse of the subprime housing market bubble. It became the deepest and longest recession in the country’s history since World War II. The financial crisis has been attributed to lax public monetary policy, slack regulation of financial institutions, high levels of household and corporate debt, international trade imbalances, and poor corporate governance and accountability. For example, in the United States household debt rose from 77% of disposable income in 1990 to 127% in 2007. In some European countries, such as Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Norway such debt even surpassed 200%.

The Great Recession left a trail of wanton economic devastation mostly in the United States and Europe. In the US, between 2007 and 2009, real GDP declined by 4.3%, the S&P 500 index dropped by 57%, unemployment rose to 10%, home prices fell by 30%, the poverty rate jumped to more than 15% of the population, and the net worth of American households and nonprofit organisations fell by 20%, from $69 trillion to $55 trillion. In some European countries, such as Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal, the crisis became so severe that they were forced to default on national debt and seek bailouts from the European Union, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

To contain the contagion and revive growth, many governments enacted fiscal stimulus packages, and austerity measures comprising tax increases and reductions in social benefits programmes. For their part, central banks cut rates and adopted quantitative easing, an expansionary monetary policy of injecting liquidity into the economy by buying assets. Rates of recovery in the 2010s were predictably slow and uneven, and varied by country and community, as well as the eternal structured inscriptions of class, ethnicity/race, and age.

It is generally agreed the Great Recession accelerated the growth of economic and social inequalities in the United States and around the world. This was one of its major consequences. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs, assets, and livelihoods, as well as control over their lives, dignity, and hope for the future. The policy responses favoured capital over labour, the wealthy at the expense of the middle and working classes, financial services over productive sectors. Fear, uncertainty, rage, and distrust of governments captured by business and often self-serving elites flared into a political and social inferno in many countries.

This is the combustible brew that greeted the 2010s, spawning widespread political instability and social struggles that gave rise to toxic tribalisms and populisms that were most effectively mobilised and manipulated by right-wing forces, as well as heightened recessions of, and resistances for, democracy, examined in the previous sections.

Employment was particularly battered. Employment trends during the 2010s reflected rates and patterns of economic growth and changing economic organisation. According to the ILO’s 2019 World Employment Social Outlook, from 2011-2018 the world economy grew at an average rate of 3.6%, a slight dip from 3.9% in 2001-2010. The percentage of the working age population in employment fell during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath, and rose slowly thereafter, although by 2018 it was down to 58.4% compared to 62.2% in 1993. The majority of jobs were in informal employment, which in 2016 accounted for 2 billion jobs or 61% of all jobs. In terms of sectors, the share of manufacturing employment generally fell, while that of services rose and by 2018 the latter accounted for almost half of all employment.

Working conditions in both informal employment and services including the emerging gig economy largely remained poor. Nearly 700 million workers in low and medium income countries in 2018 lived in extreme or moderate poverty. The deficits in decent work remained alarmingly high, afflicting the majority of the 3.3 billion people employed globally, who suffered from persistent economic insecurity, and lack of equal opportunities for their wellbeing. Average real wage growth remained low and fluctuated, rising in some years and falling in others.

The unemployment rate in 2018, at 5%, was the same as in 2008, and lower than the 5.6% in 2009. Also evident was the prevalence and in some cases growth of underemployment or labour underutilisation. Needless to say, employment rates and conditions varied quite considerably according to levels of development, gender, and for the youth. Overall, employment indicators tended to be worse for low-income than high-income economies, and those in between, and in terms of gender for women compared to men, and were particularly challenging for the youth.

Nearly 700 million workers in low and medium income countries in 2018 lived in extreme or moderate poverty

For many countries, employment was a key feature of the difficult aftermath of the Great Recession and played an important role in engendering and sustaining income and wealth inequalities. Reports on growing global inequalities within and across countries abound in the academic literature, media, publications of development agencies, think tanks, and NGOs.

For example, according to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Databook 2018, 64% of the world’s adult population held less than 2% of global wealth, while less than 10% of the wealthiest individuals owned 84% of global wealth, and the richest 1% owned 45%. The growth of high net worth individuals—those with net worth assets of more than $1 million—was staggering.

While the largest numbers of the world’s high net worth individuals (HNWIs) were in the United States (41% in 2018), Europe, and China (7%), they rose even faster in Africa, the world’s least developed continent. According to the World Wealth Report 2018, the size of HNWIs in Africa in 2017 reached 169,970 who had a combined wealth of US$1.7 trillion (0.9% out of the 18.1 million HNWIs globally and 2.4% out of $70.2 trillion global HNWI wealth).

64% of the world’s adult population held less than 2% of global wealth, while less than 10% of the wealthiest individuals owned 84% of global wealth

Oxfam did much to publicise the scourge of growing inequalities in a series of alarming reports published to coincide with the World Economic Forum, the Davos jamboree of masters of the universe. Its report in 2015 showed the richest 1% increased its share of the world’s wealth from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014, while the least well-off 80% owned just 5.5%. In its 2017 report, entitled Economy for the 99%, it bemoaned the fact that eight multi-billionaires owed as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Its 2019 report claimed the wealth of 2,200 billionaires worldwide grew by 12%, while for the poorest half it fell by 11%.

Oxfam blames the obscene disparities on capital squeezing workers and producers while executives are grossly overpaid, crony capitalism and state capture, super-charged shareholder capitalism, and tax avoidance by the rich. As might be expected, the debate on global inequalities is extremely heated. Inequality received its intellectual imprimatur in Thomas Piketty’s academic blockbuster, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2013 that offered a voluminous and compelling account of wealth and income inequality in the United States and Western Europe over the last three centuries.

Piketty’s bestselling book received as much acclaim as criticism for its thesis, methodology, and conclusions underscoring how high the stakes are. In a lead story in its issue of November 30, 2019 The Economist, the haughty British magazine, returned to the topic with a predictable verdict, “Inequality Illusions.” It argues that the idea of soaring inequality rests on shaky analytical grounds and problematic data. Nevertheless, the magazine still conceded, “And even if inequality has not risen by as much as many people think, the gap between rich and poor could still be dispiritingly high.”

The richest 1% increased its share of the world’s wealth from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014, while the least well-off 80% owned just 5.5%

In the 2010s several global income inequality databases were created, such as the World Bank’s PovcalNet, the World Inequality Database, the OECD’s Income Distribution Database, the University of Texas Inequality Project Database, and The United Nations University’s World Income Inequality Database. Each focuses on a particular set of issues. Much of this work is reflected in the UNDP’s  Human Development Report 2019, which makes sobering reading.

The report offers five key observations. “First, while many people are stepping above minimum floors of achievement in human development, widespread disparities remain”; “Second, a new generation of severe inequalities in human development is emerging, even if many of the unresolved inequalities of the 20th century are declining”; “Third, inequalities in human development can accumulate through life, frequently heightened by deep power imbalances”;  “Fourth, assessing inequalities in human development demands a revolution in metrics;”; and “Fifth, redressing inequalities in human development in the 21st century is possible—if we act now, before imbalances in economic power translate into entrenched political dominance.”

The report urges the development of a new framework for analysing inequality that goes beyond income (“A comprehensive assessment of inequality must consider income and wealth. But it must also understand differences in other aspects of human development and the processes that lead to them”); beyond averages (“The analysis of inequalities in human development must go beyond summary measures of inequality that focus on only a single dimension”); and beyond today (“Inequalities in human development will shape the prospects of people that may live to see the 22nd century”).

In the 2010s, concerns over inequalities in income, wealth, capabilities and opportunities became widespread across political divides. While gaps in basic capabilities (such as access to basic education and health) across the world narrowed, they grew in terms of enhanced capabilities (including life expectancy at older ages and access to tertiary education). In the words of the UNDP report, “In all regions of the world the loss in human development due to inequality is diminishing, reflecting progress in basic capabilities.”

Photo by Milo Miloezger on Unsplash

Globally, the loss fell from 23.4% in 2010 to 20.2% in 2018, ranging from 35.1% to 30.5% for sub-Saharan Africa, on one end to 16.1% to 11.7% for Europe and Central Asia on the other. The percentage with primary and secondary education grew more rapidly that tertiary education between 2007 and 2017 in all world regions. For sub-Saharan Africa it grew by about 9% and less than 2%, respectively, so that by 2017 more than 40% of the population had primary education compared to 2% with tertiary education. The ratios for the developed countries were more than 95% and 25%, respectively.

But not everyone benefited equally in the rising provision of basic capacities as millions of vulnerable populations remained trapped in the insidious horizontal inequalities of discriminatory policies and restrictive legal frameworks, and the dynamics of deeply entrenched historical, market, cultural, and gender biases that blocked them from meaningful and ameliorative social, economic and political participation.  The UNDP report calls for more refined and timely studies of inequality using universally recognised statistics and comprehensive inequality databases.

The Great Recession did not affect all world regions equally. As noted above, many developing countries largely escaped its worst effects, although they experienced slower growth. Many of the economies in South America went into recession reflecting reduced demand in their main North American and European markets for their predominantly primary commodity exports.

Economic growth continued in much of Africa, save for countries like South Africa that went into recession, but at lower rates than before. This reflected the resilience of the continent’s recovery since the 1990s and the reorientation of its major trading partners from the western countries to the rising economic giants of Asia, especially China and India, where growth remained robust, as it was in Indonesia and Bangladesh. For its part, South Korea barely escaped recession.

The uneven effects and limited impact of the Great Recession on China and India pointed to an emerging phenomenon in the world economy that accelerated in the 2010s, namely, the decoupling of growth trajectories between the historically dominant economies of Western Europe, the United States, and Japan and the emerging economic powerhouses of the 21st century. This is another major consequence of the Great Recession which became more apparent in the 2010s and is leading to the reshuffling of global hegemonies and hierarchies, which will be discussed in the next section.

While the heady projections of the future made in the late 2000s and early 2010s for some of the emerging economics in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and other configurations (MINT—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey; and Next 11–Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, South Korea, and Vietnam), have faded, the fact remains that these economies assumed a much greater share of global economic output, a trend that continued in the 2010s.

For example, as I noted in my book on Africa’s Resurgence referred to earlier, between 1990 and 2012 the relative share of the BRICS of World GDP increased by some 3.6 times so that they accounted for 56% of world GDP growth. By 2012 the BRICS claimed about 20% of world GDP compared to 24% for the European Union and 21% for the United States. The BRICS accounted for 43% of world reserves of foreign exchange, and increased their share of total world trade to 21.3% as compared to 25% for the EU and 27% for the US.

Shifting Global Hierarchies and Hegemonies

Clearly, global hegemonies and hierarchies shifted in the 2010s at global and regional levels. In terms of intra-regional shifts, World Bank data shows that, in Africa, Nigeria overtook South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy in 2012 ($459.4 billion to $396.3 billion in current US dollars). In East Africa, Ethiopia overtook Kenya as the largest economy in Eastern Africa in 2015 ($64.6 billion to $64.0 billion). In terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), by 2018 the size of the Nigerian economy was $1,117.4 billion compared to South Africa’s $768.3 billion, while it was $219.0 billion for Ethiopia and $176.4 billion for Kenya. In PPP terms, in 2018 Egypt’s economy was actually the continent’s largest, at $1,189.0 billion.

An even more remarkable development during the 2010s was the rising share of the global economy by middle-income countries. According to a World Bank report, from the 2000s to the mid-2010s their share rose from 17% to 35% (4% to 8% for lower middle-income countries and 13% to 27% for upper middle-income countries). In the meantime, the share of global GDP by higher-income countries declined from 83% to 64% during the same period. In terms of purchasing power parity, in 2018 the middle-income countries claimed 53.6% of global GDP ($72.7 trillion out of $135.5 trillion). The respective shares for the lower middle-income and upper middle-income countries was $22.9 trillion and $49.7 trillion, which translated into 16.9% and 36.7% of the global economy, respectively.

The biggest economic story of the decade, indeed, the last thirty years was the exponential rise of China. In terms of purchasing power parity, China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2014. By 2018, the size of the Chinese economy towered at $25.3 trillion, compared to $20.7 trillion for the American economy, although in terms of per capita incomes the latter was still ahead—$63,390 compared to $18,140. China’s re-emergence as the world’s largest economy returned the country to a position it had enjoyed a few centuries before. This phenomenal growth enabled China to lift hundreds of millions of people from poverty, an achievement almost unparalleled in human history.

The story of China is an integral part of Asia’s resurgence into the world’s economic center, and the historic decline of Europe and North America that have been dominant since the first industrial revolution. In 2018, the five leading Asian economies, China, India, Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea, accounted for 34.5% of the world economy. By the end of the 2010s, four Asian countries were among the top ten economies in the world: China ($25.3 trillion in 2018), the United States ($20.7 trillion), India ($10.4 trillion), Japan ($5.6 trillion), Germany ($4.6 trillion), Russia ($3.9 trillion), Indonesia ($3.4 trillion), Brazil (3.3 trillion), France ($3.1 trillion), and the United Kingdom ($3.0 trillion).

Africa seemed nowhere near achieving Asia’s extraordinary feat, although it became popular in the 2010s to celebrate Africa Rising/Rising Africa. The new rhetoric of Afro-optimism clearly sought to countervail the Afro-pessimism rampant during the continent’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s. The media often trumpeted that six or seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies were in Africa. In 2018 there were five (Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Ethiopia and Senegal).

But the reality is that no African country has yet to achieve decades of high and sustained economic growth experienced in Asia. This is clear from the fact that the list of Africa’s fastest growing economies shifts every so often. Many of the Asian tigers consistently achieved growth rates that were far above population growth for three decades or more. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, Africa’s growth rate, which reached 6% in 2005 fell to 5.8% in 2010, to 3.5% in 2015, and rose slightly to 3.8% in 2018, remained too low to achieve profound transformation in human development. It is instructive that Africa’s growth rates during these years were below the averages for the developing economies as a whole (7.2% in 2005, 7.4% in 2010, 4.3% in 2015 and 4.9% in 2018).

The rise of Asia, led by China, which was consolidated in the 2010s, has generated an extensive literature. This historic transformation has been attributed to all sorts of complex historical, political, socio-economic, and geopolitical factors and forces. It is possible to argue that after World War II, and for some after independence, Asian countries constructed far more cohesive and strategic developmental states, undergirded by inclusive economic, political, and social institutions, and massive investments in human capital development, than other regions in the global South. Also, they aggressively pursued state capitalism, which was reinforced following the Asian crisis of 1997, in the face of fierce opposition and often misguided advice from the gendarmes of the Washington Consensus of neo-liberal free market fundamentalism.

The biggest economic story of the decade, indeed, the last thirty years was the exponential rise of China

It was quite clear that the 2010s witnessed historic shifts in global power from EuroAmerica to Asia in general, and from the United States as the sole post-Cold War superpower to fierce hegemonic rivalry with China, the ascendant superpower of the 21st century. One British academic and journalist, Martin Jacques goes so far as to argue in a recent commentary in the British newspaper, The Guardian, that “This decade belonged to China. So will the next one.” He noted that “Prior to the western financial crisis, it had been seen as the new but very junior kid on the block. The financial crash changed all that,” which had huge consequences for the western world’s “stability and self-confidence.”

The West, Jacques continues, has displayed “a kaleidoscope of emotions from denial, dismissal and condemnation to respect, appreciation and admiration; though there is presently much more of the former than the latter. The rise of China has provoked an existential crisis in the US and Europe that will last for the rest of this century. The west is in the process of being displaced and, beyond a point, it can do nothing about it.” Particularly galling has been the rise of China from a technological copycat into an innovation juggernaut for the defining technologies of the 21st century through its $300 billion “Made in China 2025” plan. The country has also moved from a cautious global player into a more assertive power through its ambitious belt and road initiative, targeted at the developing world and designed as the harbinger of a new world order.

The 2010s represented the beginning of a historic hegemonic shift in the world system. Such shifts are very rare in world history. This is the third potential shift in the last three centuries. The first was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that pitted Britain, the world’s first industrial nation, and Germany the rising continental European industrial power. It culminated in World War I. The second arose out of the ashes of World War II that saw the devastated imperial powers of Europe replaced by two new superpowers, the United States and the former Soviet Union. As I noted in a longer paper on current hegemonic rivalries, such moments often reflect and are accompanied by profound political, economic and structural crises and changes.

Deluged by the cacophony of daily news, it is easy to get distracted by the endless punditry in the media and the pronouncements of American and Chinese leaders, especially with America’s unconventional and unhinged president with his tweeter storms. At stake is the demise of the post-World War II order that the USA created and disproportionately benefitted from. The decomposition of this order antedated Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, and will outlive them. The US and Chinese economies are so intertwined that decoupling will be extremely costly to both countries, and to the rest of the world. But hegemonic transitions have their own logic that often defies the cold calculus of costs. The 2020s will tell where the bitter rivalry between the declining and rising superpowers is headed. The rest of the world will be forced to adjust accordingly.

The latest issue of The Economist (January, 2020) offers a fascinating portrait of China’s breathtaking technological advances. It shows the progress Chinese companies have made in older and imported industries including nuclear reactors, high-speed railways, electric cars, and laser technologies. The country has also gradually moved up in the microprocessing value chain, and is investing heavily in robotics, the internet of things and artificial intelligence. In some areas China is working hard to become a global leader, such as in 5G technology, or is already ahead, for example in the application and use of face recognition technologies. The latter technologies are a double-edged sword, as they facilitate the enforcement of state digital espionage—what some call algorithmic surveillance, whose implications for human rights and individual freedoms is portentous.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

Follow us on Twitter.


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The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

Over the past several months and weeks, there has been a deluge of diagnoses of the 2010s, sometimes accompanied by prognoses for the 2020s. Such retrospectives and reflections, infinitely varied in their sagacity and silliness, are ritualised cognitive efforts by modern societies to make sense of the messy complexities, mind=boggling contradictions, and massive changes of the various historical conjunctures of modernity.

Periodisation is of course central to the historian’s craft and the historical imagination in general. Decades, like centuries and millennia, provide convenient and concentrated packaging of otherwise bewildering events and transformations over the unwieldy flows of time. As historians know all too well, interpretations of the past are as much reconstructions of the past as they are constructions of the present, and projections of anxieties and aspirations for the future.

Thus, they are always provisional, always subject to re-interpretations by future generations imbued with their own perspectives, preoccupations, problems and possibilities. But historical reconstructions go beyond temporal dynamics; they’re conditioned by historical geography, the location of scholars and commentators in specific times and spaces, as well as the epistemic demands of the enterprise of knowledge production in its multifaceted institutional, intellectual, ideological and individual contexts and intersectionalities.

This is another way of saying that my reflections of the last decade reflect my multiple locations and positionings as an African diaspora scholar based in the United States during the first six years of the 2010s and in Kenya during the past four. For me the tens were a turbulent decade characterised by several major trends. Whether or not these trends will prove lasting and determine the unfolding trajectories of the 21st century is anyone’s guess.

As a historian, crystal gazing into the future is not my professional forte. Indeed, the record of predictions by eminent people in academia, business, media, and other forecasting experts such as soothsayers and intelligence agencies, is quite dismal. But the future does not will itself blithely into being; it unfolds from a past that becomes ever clearer with the passage of time.

Some of the developments and events we accord significance now may pale into irrelevance and others that are barely discernible from the noisy clutter of the present may prove more enduring and transformational. Hence the title of the essay: it is a historical draft subject to foreseeable and unforeseen revisions. In my view, the tens were characterised by six key trends: first, tribalism went global; second, they were characterised by democratic recessions and resistance; third, rising economic disequilibrium; fourth, shifting global hierarchies and hegemonies; fifth, emergence of surveillance capitalism; and finally, the rebellion of nature.

Tribalism Goes Global

During the 2010s the specter of tribalism—ethnocultural nationalisms, xenophobic racisms, religious fundamentalisms, and jingoistic populisms—arose from the massive disruptions of technological and socioeconomic change, undergirded by the devastations of the once celebrated sprawl of neo-liberal globalisation that suffocated liberal democracies and the promises of diversity and inclusion in many of the world’s increasingly multicultural societies. Neo-liberal globalisation met its comeuppance in the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that bequeathed to the 2010s widespread economic desolation, deepening inequality, decline of the middle classes, a rising sense of powerlessness and hopelessness among ordinary people, and raging popular distrust of elites and establishments.

The future does not will itself blithely into being; it unfolds from a past that becomes ever clearer with the passage of time

The stock of populist demagogues grew, whereas that of traditional politicians and technocrats fell. As I wrote elsewhere, “Increasingly perceived as corrupt and ineffective to deliver growth and overcome the roaring headwinds of entrenched poverty, unemployment, declining living standards, social instability, unsustainable indebtedness, technological disruptions, and other intractable challenges, liberal democracy retreated as the allure of the fiercely intolerant ideologies of populism, protectionism, and partisanship rose.” Several surveys show that in the 2010s vast majorities around the world expressed growing distrust of elite-led public and private institutions including governments, business, media, and universities, just to mention a few.

Out of the toxic inheritance of the 2000s emerged the intoxicating allure and illusions of intolerant identity politics, which seemed to overwhelm older political affiliations framed around the traditional ideologies of the right and the left. Long prevalent, even if always contested, conceptions and solidarities of nationhood and citizenship valorising difference and inclusion, were increasingly upended by more people embracing the perilous and pernicious comforts of sameness, self-referentiality, and ethnocultural purity. In short, the ascriptive and often aspirational solidarities of class, community, and country gave way to the dangerous essentialist and exclusionary conceits and attachments of culture, creed, and colour.

Identity politics was fueled by the politics of fear and resentment, powerlessness and panic, as well as desperate yearnings for dignity and control of their lives by growing numbers of people. The palpable anxieties and nostalgia for the rapidly vanishing and often imagined certainties of the old normal, arose out of deepening social inequalities and marginalisation of masses of people who, encouraged and emboldened by nativist demagogues and ideologues, increasingly blamed their misfortunes on internal and external “others”.

Minorities and migrants bore the brunt of this aggressive “othering” of political and social opprobrium for the disappearing or frozen opportunities of social mobility. Seizures of moral panic about undesirable migrants and undeserving minorities, often fanned by unscrupulous politicians and bigoted zealots, gripped rich countries in the global North and subregional powers in the emerging economies.

Neo-liberal globalisation met its comeuppance in the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that bequeathed to the 2010s widespread economic desolation

Thus, political tribalism spread in mature and nascent democracies alike, from the world’s largest democracy, India, under Narendra Modi’s virulently Hindu nationalist government that came to power in 2014, to the world’s wealthiest democracy, the United States, under Donald Trump’s unabashedly racist administration that assumed power in 2017, to one of the world’s oldest democracies, Britain, under a succession of Conservative Party prime ministers since 2010, which descended into the imperial and provincial fantasies of Brexit.

Intolerant nationalisms also engulfed many newer democracies as well, from South Africa with its periodic convulsions of xenophobic violence, to Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro’s unflinchingly right-wing regime that won the 2018 elections, to the fragile democracies of Eastern Europe where unapologetically illiberal regimes gained ascendancy championed most loudly by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party in power in Hungary since 2010.

Democratic Recessions and Resistance

Clearly, the ascendancy and spread of political tribalism was accompanied by global recessions of democracy. In the euphoria of the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the Third Wave of Democracy that swept the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and an assortment of dictatorships in Asia, Africa, and Latin America seemed unstoppable. Francis Fukuyama, an American scholar, giddily proclaimed the end of history. By the 2010s democratic retreat was evident in its historic heartlands and among the newer democracies, pulverised by the resurgence of reactionary and right-wing populist forces, and growing disillusionment especially among the younger generations with the minimalist, ineffective, and corrupt democracies prevalent in many countries.

There is currently a vast scholarly and popular literature bemoaning and diagnosing the democratic recessions of the 2010s. Democracy indexes show sharp declines in average global scores in dozens of countries. According to a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit, the scores fell for much of the 2010s. Between 2016 and 2017 they fell in 89 countries, stagnated in 51, and didn’t improve in any region. According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report 2019, 2018 “recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat.”

The reversal of the post-Cold War democratic wave has been attributed to several factors. They include the failure of democratic regimes to meet the needs of their populations, rising anger and anxieties about growing inequalities, the corrosive effects of massive technological disruptions and the rise of digital authoritarianism, the revival of global hegemonic rivalries, the hollowing out of democratic institutions and practices, especially protections for migrants and minorities, and the sheer exhaustion from the euphoria of the 1990s. A critical backdrop to the recession of democracy was the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that devastated many economies and reinforced the inability of governments to deliver and safeguard economic prosperity.

But there were some bright spots. In Africa, they included the adoption of a new vibrant constitution in Kenya in 2010 that brought closure to the deadly post-election violence of 2007-2008. In the hotly contested elections of 2017, Kenya distinguished itself by becoming the first African country and the fourth in the world where a presidential election was revoked by the judiciary, which underscored the independence of the judiciary, the growing strength of public institutions, and deepening national commitment to transparency, accountability, and the rule of law, thereby demonstrating that Kenyan democracy was maturing.

Several vicious dictators and notorious kleptocrats met their rendezvous with history, including President Robert Mugabe, the once celebrated hero of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle who descended into an irascible octogenarian autocrat, and was overthrown in November 2017. Next door in South Africa, President Jacob Zumba, whose disastrous reign over the rainbow nation culminated in state capture by corrupt forces, was ousted in February 2018 by the African National Congress, the venerable liberation movement experiencing the proverbial challenges of transitioning into an effective governing party. The decade ended with the opening up of authoritarian Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who assumed office in April 2018 and proceeded to win the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

A critical backdrop to the recession of democracy was the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that devastated many economies

Similar stories of reform, sometimes fragile to be sure, can be told for other world regions. In the United States, the Republican Party’s stranglehold over the three branches of government achieved in the 2016 elections eased when the Democratic Party won the majority of seats in the House of Representatives in 2018 and proceeded to impeach President Trump in December 2019, thereby restoring some faith in the resilience of the American constitutional system.

Further south, in Latin America, reforms, sometimes frail, were registered from Ecuador to Mexico to Cuba, where the Castros finally exited the scene. The decade closed with the ouster of Bolivia’s Evo Morales in December 2019 following protests against voting irregularities in the president’s bid for a fourth term.

In the European parliamentary election of May 2019, the much anticipated and dreaded surge of far-right parties failed to materialise. Despite threats from China, massive and protracted protests erupted in Hong Kong from September to December in 2014 and resumed from June 2019, and continue at the time of writing. The first set of protests were triggered by proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system, and the second by the introduction of a bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal fugitives to China.

In India, fresh from electoral victory in the general elections earlier in the year, the emboldened government of Prime Minister Modi passed a controversial citizenship law on December 11, 2019 allowing citizenship for ostensibly persecuted immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan excluding Muslims. It was met with massive resistance across the country by protesters who saw it as a dangerous homage to Hindu nationalism, and an assault against the country’s 200 million Muslims and its cherished secular constitution.

Clearly, history comprises messy and multifaceted flows of complex and contradictory forces that abjure singular narratives. In short, the much-bemoaned phenomenon of democratic recession was accompanied by reinvigorated struggles for democratic expansion, whose trajectories continue to unfold.

In fact, a year into the 2010s, in 2011, the world was electrified by unprecedented struggles for democracy in North Africa. Often dubbed the Arab Spring, the uprisings and rebellions toppled the region’s sclerotic and kleptocratic dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The firestorm spread to other parts of Africa from Mali to Côte d’Ivoire to Uganda to Malawi, as well as several Arab countries in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. Save for Tunisia, and tepid reforms in some countries, the Arab Spring soon descended into the Arab Winter with the return of a revanchist and ruthless dictatorship in Egypt and outbreak of ferocious civil wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

The decade ended with reignited struggles in Sudan and Algeria that succeeded in ousting the once indomitable dictatorships of Presidents Omar al-Bashir and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, respectively. The varied outcomes of the Arab Spring are to be expected. As reflected in the vast literature that has since emerged, they can be attributed to the varied constellation of internal political, economic, social, and institutional forces, and geopolitical dynamics. The Arab Spring represented the second phase in Africa’s struggles for the “second independence” that began in the 1980s and 1990s. This is a subject l reflected on at length in my 2014 book, The Resurgence of Africa: Domestic, Global, and Diaspora Transformations.

Some scholars and commentators credit the Arab Spring with inspiring protests for democracy and change in some parts of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Whatever the accuracy of such claims, in many parts of the world the decade witnessed the revitalisation of old and new social movements that challenged prevailing configurations of power. In the United States, three movements are worth mentioning: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too. Elsewhere movements against authoritarianism and populism gathered momentum.

The much-bemoaned phenomenon of democratic recession was accompanied by reinvigorated struggles for democratic expansion, whose trajectories continue to unfold

The Occupy Wall Street movement began in September 2011 in New York City. It soon spread to other American cities and cities in several countries including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey. The movement was characterised by occupations, demonstrations, strikes, picketing and social media activism. In the United States, the movement was galvanised under the slogan, “We are the 99%.” The protests were against deepening income and wealth inequality, corporate dominance and lack of accountability, and for relief for rising student debt and the mortgage foreclosure crisis then rocking the US economy, although many in the movement prided themselves in not issuing clear demands.

The movement was met by government crackdowns encompassing heightened surveillance and arrests. In the United States such crackdowns, combined with the limited involvement of minorities and the absence of a clear agenda, led to the movement’s quick demise. But it left a lasting legacy in so far as it thrust issues of rising economic and social inequality and inordinate corporate influence into the public domain and political discourse, as evident in subsequent local and national elections and the rise of the populist wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The changed terms of political and policy debate on inequality and corporate accountability was apparent in many other countries as well, although this did little to dent economic and social inequalities during the rest of the 2010s.

The Black Lives Matter movement also emerged in the United States and spread to other countries with long histories of entrenched anti-black racism and violence, such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It emerged in July 2013 following the acquittal of the vigilante killer of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and was further galvanised in 2014 by police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, and Tamil Rice in Cleveland. It soon became a national movement with dozens of chapters across the country that organised protests against the endless killings of African-American men and women, girls and boys by vigilantes and the police. The movement also sought to promote and affirm African-American struggles and empowerment in other walks of life.

The movement drew its inspiration from, but sought to transcend, the agendas, tactics, and structures of older civil rights and other social movements in the United States. In its guiding principles and ambitions, it sought to embrace enduring Pan-Africanist aspirations. Befitting the times, it actively incorporated social media activism. In fact, it drew its name from the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Predictably, despite overwhelming support in the black community and sizable segments of the white community, the movement was met with dismissive racist rhetoric trumpeting “All Lives Matter”, “Blue Lives Matter”, and “White Lives Matter.”

The movement proceeded to flex its political muscles during the 2016 presidential primaries and elections. A country that had entered the 2010s basking in the fantasies of a post-racial dispensation—with the 2008 election of its first black President, the suave and cosmopolitan Barack Obama—was rudely awakened to the racist backlash of Trump’s election in 2016. The election of an avowed bigot, boisterous buffoon, and incorrigible liar, which brought white supremacy out of the American closet, amplified the fierce urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement’s antiracist crusade.

The juxtaposition of democratic recessions, resistance and renewal is equally evident when it comes to the Me Too movement, which also first emerged as a hashtag, following sexual harassment and assault accusations against the Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, in October 2017. Legions of famous celebrities, including Kenya’s renowned Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o, revealed their dreadful encounters with Weinstein, and many other women were emboldened to expose their own sexual predators. Before long, the hashtag #MeToo gained global currency and mushroomed into a movement for women’s social justice and empowerment in pursuit of the persistent dreams of generations of feminists.

The Me Too movement pushed for changes in national legislation and policies on sexual harassment and assault.  As it grew and became more transnational, it broadened its demands and was translated into local languages, idioms and struggles against widely prevalent gender-based violence, eliminating gender inequalities, and raising women’s representation in employment, business, media, educational institutions, government agencies and public life. In other contexts, the movement championed the emancipation of marginalised communities.

Out of that movement, and the already well-established women’s movements around the world, poured voluminous studies and data on the appallingly high levels of sexual violence and femicide in virtually every country. Femicide manifested itself in the deliberate killing of women and girls through intimate partner violence, torture and misogynist murders, honour and dowry-related killings, deaths resulting from genital mutilation, as well as killings of women due to accusations of sorcery and witchcraft, as a “weapon of war” in armed conflicts, and by criminal gangs, drug dealers and human traffickers, not to mention killings of women and girls because of their aboriginal and indigenous status, and their sexual orientation and gender identity.

There was also femicide associated with female infanticide and gender-based sex selection feticide. According to a report by the United Nations, in some of the most affected countries including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Montenegro, Albania, Vietnam and Pakistan, gender ratios at birth ranged from 109.9 to 117.6 boys per every 100 girls. Another UN report, Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World (for which I served as one of the editors) shows that by the early 2000s there were already tens of millions of missing women in Asia—led by India and China—thanks to misguided reproductive health policies and deeply entrenched patriarchal cultures. The demographic chickens of these misguided policies and cultures came home to roost in the 2010s.

The Me Too movement helped raise global awareness and reinforced age-old struggles against sexual harassment, assault and killings and for women’s empowerment. Examples include widespread protests in 2015 and 2016 against gender-based violence in Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil, the massive women’s march in Washington in January 2017 to protest the election of a renowned misogynist to the White House, the women’s strike against femicide in Israel in December 2018, recurrent protests against the rape epidemic in India and South Africa, protests against a contentious anti-rape law in nine Japanese cities in June 2019, and demonstrations in November 2019 in France, which has one of the highest domestic abuse murder rates in Europe.

In short, the women’s movement continued to make progress in the treacherous and turbulent terrain of the 2010s. One indicator is women’s representation in parliament. Even in the United States, often an international laggard, women won a record number of seats in the 2018 Congressional elections (102 seats out of 435, i.e., 23.4%), the highest ever, but below the world average. Similarly, in the 2019 British elections a record 220 female Members of Parliament were elected (out of 650 seats, i.e., 33.8%).

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, by February 2019, women comprised 24.5% of parliamentarians (both houses combined—24.6% for single or lower house and 24.3% for upper house). In terms of regional averages, the Americas led with 30.6%, followed by Europe (29.4%), sub-Saharan Africa (24.0%), Asia (19.7%), Pacific (19.4%), and the Middle East and North Africa were at the bottom (16.8%). In terms of individual countries, the top dozen were Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia, Mexico, Sweden, Grenada, Namibia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, South Africa, Senegal and Finland, in that order.


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The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

Nanjala Nyabola, author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, points out that Kenya’s first digital election in 2017 was the most expensive election in world history, at $28 per capita, more than four times higher than that of India’s $6. (That was on the first round alone.) This gargantuan deployment of resources can be attributed to the evolution of elections into a massive transnational profit-making industry that is amoral in its misappropriation of digital assets, data mining and brokerage. Thus the irony that Jubilee’s 2013 campaign strategy to frame the International Criminal Court (ICC) process as a foreign attack on Kenyan sovereignty was in fact the brainchild of a foreign corporation – the Anglo-American political consultancy Cambridge Analytica – that was based on a covert survey of 47,000 Kenyans.

Misinformation has always been critical to the survival of the colonial state. No economic caste system in the world has ever survived without the tacit approval of the majority of its serfs because from the perspective of power, it is much more costly to impose rule over an overwhelmingly antagonistic population than over one that participates willingly in its own exploitation. So it is not surprising that Kenya’s ruling oligarchy would engage firms that specialise in misinformation for profit. Their product is a personalised fiction tailored to the emotional vulnerabilities of unsuspecting citizens.

Unlike broadcast media, digital media allows private messaging below the radar of law enforcement or opposition monitors, thus making it a favourite medium for hate speech. This threat of unfettered Western capital influencing elections has no borders. Digital colonialism, as this business model has come to be known, was incubated in Kenya where “nobody was paying attention” and has since been repatriated to effectively disrupt referenda and elections around the world, including most flamboyantly in the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

Nyabola’s book begs the urgent question: If information, rather than misinformation, was our goal, how else might we have invested a hundred and forty billion shillings?

The 77%

A wonderful usage of $28 per capita would be to cultivate a new identity that subverts the destructive logic of tribal politics in a way that benefits the majority of Kenyan citizens. There happens to be a “tribe” to which all of us must belong for a time, and that is the tribe of young people. Africa is the youngest continent in the world, but her colonial states are ill-suited to harness the potential of their most productive citizens, leaving thousands to decay as economic migrants in Libyan slave markets or at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. While African bodies are denied free movement, African capital and resources move freely out of the continent in the form of debt interest repayment, Chinese infrastructure payments, and most significantly, the massive misallocation of capital through corruption.

Kenyans under the age of 35 years are the most vulnerable to the shocks of systemic corruption, unemployment, lack of maternity care, ecological destruction, forced migration and the education gap. If Kenyans under the age of 35 comprised a single “tribe”, they would be 77% of the population. Using the logic of adherents of the tyranny of numbers doctrine of tribal supremacy, the 77% should currently be dictating government policy as a democratic imperative.

If the 77% were to become politically self-aware, its representation in the cabinet would be so overwhelming that it would be taken for granted. An absurd institution, such as the Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs, would not exist because no president would be allowed to get away with insulting the 77% by giving them half a ministry. More than an insult, it would be considered profoundly undemocratic to reduce the ecological, economic and political concerns of this majority to their utility in the ICT sector. What a politically self-aware 77% would demand instead is representation at the heart of decision-making institutions in every single arm of government – regardless of whether or not ICT is involved.

Kenyans under the age of 35 years are the most vulnerable to the shocks of systemic corruption, unemployment, lack of maternity care, ecological destruction, forced migration and the education gap.

Technology and innovation are no doubt important to the 77%, but so is defending our constitution and our environment from wanton abuse of power. The 77% would resoundingly assert, “We do not wish to become Dubai or Singapore, however much you dynastic dinosaurs would wish to bribe us with that fantasy. We are a constitutional democracy and we will never trade democracy for the sake of your so-called ‘development’.”

The goal of this thought experiment is not in any way to endorse our normalised tribalism as a legitimate mode of governance, but rather to push the limits of our collective imagination. This in my estimation would do infinitely more to strengthen our public institutions without expensive bridges to nowhere. If our public policy was informed by the interests of the 77%, there would be no need for private initiatives between boardroom brothers.

Yet because private bedroom initiatives are the favourite ruling format of Kenya’s fraudulent elite, the primary function of the billions in campaign spending is to make sure that the 77% never ever becomes politically self-aware by splintering it into toothless sub-categories. Only through such fragmentation is it possible for thinking human beings to willfully vote against their own economic interests and uphold a system that concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a fraction of a percentage of the population. This is the enduring triumph of colonialism that has proved far more insidious and resilient than the freedom fighters could have ever anticipated. It has proved much harder to remove the crony capitalist ideology brought by the coloniser than it was to remove his flags because his ideology now speaks our language – very fluently.


For the tyranny of numbers ideology to function in practice, it requires more than simply state violence, plentiful though that is. It requires the erosion of public institutions supported by a massive cultural project of misinformation and fraud that turns the 77% into either slack-jawed consumers of propaganda, or alienated and apathetic gamblers. Only through this social engineering does systemic abuse of power not trigger the sort of rage that could bring our house of cards raining down.

This social engineering includes the imposition of punitive fines and defamation laws against the media, and the narrowing of the spectrum of ideas that can be freely expressed with the aim of reducing journalists to stenographers. A good example of this is how over the past month critical questions of rule of law, human rights and citizenship were effectively trivialised into a binary question of whether or not we approve of Miguna Miguna’s manners – as if our rights are contingent on good manners.

But perhaps the most crucial lever of social engineering is an education policy that eliminates creative education from its curricula with the aim of graduating a docile workforce that does not ask those in power critical questions. For the few creative professionals that do survive the education system, they still have to contend with a philistine environment that has driven many promising young artists to suicide.

As numerous contemporary educators, including myself, have pointed out, eliminating creative education is a disastrous misstep for Kenya at a time when creative thinkers are needed more than ever before. The tyranny of numbers fundamentalists have no response to our most pressing contemporary challenges – ecological destruction, systemic corruption, a debt crisis and technological unemployment – except to warn us of a repeat of the 2007/8 violence if we do not give them what they want. That is, state jobs, chase cars and overpriced initiatives, ostensibly for our sake.

For the tyranny of numbers ideology to function in practice, it requires more than simply state violence…It requires the erosion of public institutions supported by a massive cultural project of misinformation and fraud that turns the 77% into either slack-jawed consumers of propaganda, or alienated and apathetic gamblers.

As the 77% hangs onto dignity by its fingernails, a confrontation with these dynastic dinosaurs that rule Kenya is inevitable. Under the weight of economic mismanagement, fissures of discontent are beginning to crack our social fabric. As young workers struggle to support their elderly relatives, business-as-usual politicians will spend billions on divisive campaigns to preserve their cherished tyranny of numbers doctrine, adding the risk of unrest to our already mounting challenges. Kenya’s rulers have already demonstrated a willingness to encourage violence among a splintered 77% for the sake of power. The only way to avoid the grave that they are digging for us with the aid of mercenary capital is for the 77% to become politically self-conscious.

Our minds are the battleground for the survival of the dream that is Kenya. With our labour, will we pay the price for the largest debt accumulation this country has ever seen. If we are to avert catastrophe, we have no choice but to wake up from our millennial slumber and own our power. Democracy is strong when the powerful fear the citizens and not when the citizens fear the powerful. This is a form of tribalism to which I will happily subscribe long after my membership inevitably expires.

Creative education

As the most dynamic segment of the population, young people are the most capable of adapting to change if only their education facilitates this innate ability. As one of the youngest countries on earth, Kenya should be reaping huge rewards from its youth bulge. Instead, we are squandering our precious resources on everything except young people and undercutting what little support they have. Where public playgrounds once sat, huge private hotels and apartments are illegally erected, complete with barbed wire fences and NO IDLING signs. Whereas once children were encouraged to love learning, now they receive the relentless message from the state that the arts and humanities in general are economically useless and therefore not worth pursuing. The thinking (or lack of) behind scrapping humanities such as art, history and literature from our public school curricula is that in our quest to become rich like Dubai or Singapore, we must prioritise science, technology and mathematics (STEM) at the expense of all other fields.

This worldview assumes that Kenya in 2020 can follow the same industrialisation path of Singapore in 1950 by making Kenya an attractive destination for labour-intensive industries that can absorb its millions of unemployed youth. That is a dangerous assumption to make in 2020 and is woefully uninformed by recent trends in digital technology, which are more likely to generate jobless “growth” and enrich a tiny fraction of our population, as is already occurring.

Our minds are the battleground for the survival of the dream that is Kenya. With our labour, will we pay the price for the largest debt accumulation this country has ever seen. If we are to avert catastrophe, we have no choice but to wake up from our millennial slumber and own our power.

In this decade, numbers such as GDP that purport to describe our lives are completely divorced from the reality of ordinary Kenyans. Capitalism powered by exponential technology has finally evolved to the point where a handful of individuals can own billions worth of shares in decentralised autonomous organizations (DAOs) that operate without human supervision.

Without a creative lens with which to evaluate our current reality, our education system will continue to lock the minds of the 77% into a hapless cycle of reactivity to the changes happening around us rather than proactively harnessing the winds change for the benefit of society at large, including our elders who depend on us for support. Moreover, the STEM prescription is rarely applied to the wealthy politicians who can afford to take their children to private schools that offer art and literature. Rather, the evidence suggests that the STEM prescription is motivated by the desire to standardise and commodify public education for the benefit of a few foreign edutech corporations marketing “scalable” solutions. Educators have tried in vain to warn against selling out the 77% to these corporations, but their money talks louder than Kenyan teachers.

Creative education, on the other hand, shows us that unlike digital information, we humans inhabit an analog planet which we must learn to see, sense and cultivate if we are to survive in it. Our growing population and finite resources such as freshwater cannot sustain the same exponential rate of growth as capital accumulation. This is an irreconcilable difference between the natural world and the digital world.

A digital sound recording can only approximate the totality of information contained in a sound wave from an actual musical instrument or a singer’s vocal chords. A digital image, no matter how dense its pixels per inch, still remains constrained by the eyesight of the viewer. No matter how much content we can upload to video platforms such as YouTube, the amount of attention we have available to spend remains constrained by our competing need for sleep. Only by appreciating the richness of the living systems that sustain human life can we hope to become architects of a digital layer that improves our wellbeing rather than harming us.

Creative education works by combining our innate passion to an external learning goal to create motivated learning. Motivated learning is the difference between studying physics in the middle of the night so that you can realise your childhood dream of building a computer game, versus studying physics in the middle of the night so that you can pass an exam in the hope of someday finding a job. In this example, the learning goal is the same – to learn physics – but the outcomes are vastly different.

Motivated learning leads to mastery and meaning, whereas coercive learning yields disengagement and alienation. Furthermore, from a social perspective, most people prefer to work with motivated peers rather than with uninspired peers, regardless of their skill level. If we are sincere in our Singaporean ambitions, creative education should become our number one priority.

Unleashing a cultural renaissance

When I was a little boy, I recall shuddering at the mention of the word “culture”. It was often spoken with an ominous air of religious obligation that conjured in my mind images of strict discipline and painful circumcision. If we wanted to find “culture”, the place we were instructed to look was in the past. The more distant that past, the better.

It was not until fairly recently that I began to develop a much more nuanced understanding of what Culture – with a big C – is. Culture is not a frozen relic of the past that we can display neatly in a rectangular museum. Culture is an evolving system of ideas, language and technologies that set the parameters for our interaction with the world. Most importantly, I learned that we have agency in setting these parameters. Most of our agrarian ancestors lived in a relatively unchanging geographic and technological context where most of their relatives lived within two days on camel-back. In this context, the most important reservoirs of knowledge were those who had lived the longest.

The same is not true today. Understanding the most culturally transformative technologies of our age is now the province of teenagers. This does not mean rewriting cherished norms, such as respect for elders, but it does, however, demand that we develop a relationship of mutual respect with our youngest citizens.

After the president congratulated himself on his “inclusivity” after appointing two twenty-something-year-olds to his cabinet this month, he urged them to “learn from your more experienced elders”. What he failed to make clear was exactly what these youth are expected to learn from elders who have presided over the worst economic mismanagement in our history and reversed our progress towards democracy.

Brothers and sisters of the 77%, if we have any self-respect, we must refuse such tokens of false friendship and instead advise the “elder” to learn from us. Until this president and his boardroom brothers are subject to the same law that is inflicted on the young people selling chapatis on the wrong side of the road, we can only be doubtful of his claims of solidarity with us. Our survival demands that we bring about a cultural renaissance. It is a collective project that no one individual can bring about alone, but one that all of us can influence by abstaining from consuming the idiocy that is sold to us in the name of “culture”. Let us create our own culture by tearing down the walls of the silos that were erected around our minds.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

Follow us on Twitter.


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The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” – Honore de Balzac

It is 1848. The Scottish botanist Robert Fortune has transitioned from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, to the prestigious Horticultural Society of London. Fortune’s fascinating memoir of his first trip to China’s richly biodiverse and scenic Wu Yi highlands has got the ears of London’s nobility, particularly now that China, an imperial power in the East, hoards tea seedlings and tea technology. The status-chasing British elite remain infatuated by tea as an upper class beverage since it was introduced to Victorian high society as a cultural fad by the Portuguese royalty Catherine of Braganza.

As Sara Rose would later recount in How England Stole the World’s Favourite Drink and Changed History, Fortune was approached by a representative of the East India Trading Company to smuggle tea seedlings, Chinese tea experts and tea technology out of China into British-controlled India. The theft would become the most critical economic espionage of the 19th century and would effectively shift the global centre of economic power from the East to the West for the next 130 years. (China wouldn’t recover until the late 1970s.)

Stealing technology as a model for growing economically isn’t just a distinctly British trait. In 1258, as the 13th century Islamic scholars Al-Tabari and Ibn al-Nadim would recount, intellectual property exports were fueled by what’s now known as the Translation Movement of the late 800s AD. The project saw much of the Greek Hellenistic intellectual, economic and commercial capital translated into Arabic, a move that partly aided the rise of the Islamic Golden Age from the 12th to the 15th century. Done under the guise of integrating the large Greek-speaking populations into the expanding Islamic kingdoms, the translations helped chronicle the contributions of Greeks, Indians, and Persians to science, mathematics, trade, and philosophy.

Stealing technology as a model for growing economically isn’t just a distinctly British trait. In 1258, as the 13th century Islamic scholars Al-Tabari and Ibn al-Nadim would recount, intellectual property exports were fueled by what’s now known as the Translation Movement of the late 800s AD.

Beginning in the 600s AD, the Islamic Umayyad Empire swayed more towards militaristic conquest which, while broadening its borders, brought into its fold numerous disparate groups speaking different languages. The Abbasid Empire that followed after in the 800s benefited from the intellectual curiosity of the Buddhist-Iranian Royal Islamic family, the Barmakids, whose translation efforts rendered much of the ancient scholarly work into the Arabic language and nuances.

Soon enough the Arabic translations plus the resultant Islamic innovations made their way to Christian Europe via Sicily, Andalusia in the Mediterranean, Toledo in Spain and Venice in Italy. This Islamic conquest of Europe precipitated a Norman-Arab-Indo-Byzantium culture through which Eastern ideas seeped their way West via trade, wars and industrial espionage. This contradicts long-time Harvard professor and political scientist Samuel Huntington’s claim in the Clash of Civilizations that Islam and the West have always been incompatible and fundamentally opposed to each other.

Venice, the glassmaking capital of the ancient world, grew its commercial stature on the back of the industrial skills found in those translated texts in the Byzantium Empire and the Orient. The Venetians, well aware that industrial espionage fuels the rise or fall of nations, in 1295 passed a Venetian law that banned foreigners from learning the skill and also forbade its most skilled craftsmen from traveling out of the city. They’d go as far as locking them up in the Venetian island of Murano from which we get the legend of Murano glassmaking that has lasted till date.

However, in 1612, a Florentine priest and chemist, Antonio Neri, published his seminal work, L’artra Vetraria (The Art of Glass) that revealed industrial glassmaking secrets and made them accessible to the wider public and foreigners. Over time, the Bohemian Kingdom in the westerly region of the Czech Republic stole the glassmaking technology and so did the French.

The Victorian aristocracy not only swindled industrial tea technology from China to India, it would also loot the Indian subcontinent through the Raj colonial rule. As recounted by former United Nations diplomat Shashi Tharoor in his work Inglorious Empire, under British colonial theft, India’s share of global manufacturing fell from 27 per cent to 2 per cent.

Keep in mind that as British macroeconomist, the late Angus Maddison, had calculated, in the 1800s, China and India together accounted for 52 per cent of global trade. Colonial theft, industrial-scale looting and loss of trade secrets to Euro-American imperial powers brought these two giants to their knees.

How nations prosper

Conventional textbook wisdom dictates that the path of nations to prosperity is dependent on a multitude of variables, key among them being democracy, managed bureaucracy, equitable taxes, property rights, the size of the (in)formal sectors, and the inclusivity of the economy.

Controversial British social historian Niall Ferguson credits what he calls the six killer apps of Western civilization – competition, science, a property-owning democracy, modern medicine, a consumer society, and the Protestant work ethic – as the engines of Euromerican economic power.

Meanwhile, Coolidge lecturer and professor of economics emeritus David Landes credits Western values, primarily hard work, the advancement of scientific knowledge, and a passion for progress, as the keys to a nation’s success. In his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, he makes a treatise for the role of markets and governments, with Landes preferring a statecraft built to intervene only when necessary but one that mostly leaves the nation-state to the power of the markets for good and for ill.

In the 1800s, China and India together accounted for 52 per cent of global trade. Colonial theft, industrial-scale looting and loss of trade secrets to Euro-American imperial powers brought these two giants to their knees.

Christian historian Russell Kirk follows the path of divine discipline, his central claim being that culture itself descends from cult or religion. It’s his belief in Civilization Without a Religion that metaphysics makes it possible to establish basic set of common values out of which emerges public trust that makes greater cooperation and progress possible. Hence out of metaphysics emerges physics from which cultures grow into civilizations. This, he believed, is what gave rise to Western civilization as we know it, traced mostly to the Protestant Reformation of the 1600s when Martin Luther rebelled against the Catholic Church.

Back at the British Empire, if they imagined themselves as unique in the long chain of global industrial theft, then history awaited them. In 1791, as America’s 13 colonies emerged out of the American Revolution, Pennsylvanian economist Tench Coxe and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton were convinced that the only way the young colony could grow was through the age-old route of empire-building industrial tech theft.

In 1787, the American agent Andrew Mitchell had been intercepted by British authorities as he was trying to smuggle new British models and drawings of the latest industrial machines and technology to the US. He fled to Denmark to escape capture. The mission had been funded by Coxe, Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s friend, who’d also go on to encourage George Parkinson to steal the textile spinning machine from Britain. Massachusetts businessman Francis Cabot Lowell too pilfered the automated cloth-weaving designs and later established the massive American textile industrial town of Lowell, which is named after him.

From its inception, America encouraged immigrating foreigners, private citizens, state officers, and travelling traders to smuggle in industrial designs, drawings, and European innovation to aid in state-building. America pursued contradictory paths in which it incentivised industrial espionage and theft abroad while firming up intellectual property rights and protecting innovations at home.

Historian Doron Ben-Altar portrays America’s Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s ambition as an enabler in what he describes in Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power as “unabashed, state-sanctioned flouting of British law”. America at inception fits the model of a den of rogue economic hitmen and intellectual pirates.

The country’s list of bootlegging and contraband capitalism, as portrayed in In Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, is extensive, ranging from West Indies molasses and Dutch gunpowder in the 18th century to British industrial technologies and African slaves in the 19th century, to French condoms and Canadian booze in the early 20th century, to Mexican workers, Colombian cocaine, and Middle Eastern oil in the 21st century.

From its inception, America encouraged immigrating foreigners, private citizens, state officers, and travelling traders to smuggle in industrial designs, drawings, and European innovation to aid in state-building.

The biggest industrial theft in history though was orchestrated by the Soviet Empire and the US Allied Forces against the Nazis. As World War II heated up and Nazis were in retreat, American and Soviet scientists, researchers and analysts teamed up to loot occupied Germany of military, scientific and technological designs. Trailing behind Allied combat troops, technical teams, such as the Technical Industrial Intelligence Branch (TIIB), and the Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee (CIOS), began confiscating and extricating classified research documents and detaining German experts from German corporations like Hoescht, I. G. Farben, Volkswagen, Messerschmitt, Dornier, and hundreds others in the rural towns.


Visualisation by Juliet Atellah

C. Lester Walker’s Secrets by the Thousands chronicles hundreds of instances where Allied researchers and forces stumbled upon Nazi technologies that were lightyears ahead of what Americans, Soviets, and the British had in their respective countries. This ranged from industrial dyes to V-2 bomb technologies, vaccines, infrared technology, and dairy production designs.

It didn’t take long for research teams embedded among the Allied Forces to realise that they were encountering technology that they couldn’t even operate let alone conceive. This gave birth to Operation Paperclip that saw upwards of 1600 Nazi scientists hurriedly scuttled out of the Nazi-occupied regions onto transatlantic flights heading West.

Annie Jacobsen’s account, In Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, proves that the fathers of America’s space technology, Wernher von Braun and Kurt Debus, were senior and controversial Nazi scientists and so were physicists Georg Goubau and Friedwardt Winterberg.

The Soviets too, through Operation Osoaviakhim, repatriated more than 2,200 German specialists to work in the Soviet Union as the Red Army ransacked the other end of the Nazi Empire. The operation conducted under the leadership of Russia’s KGB boss Ivan Alexandrovich Serov on 22 October 1946 targeted mostly military technology, a tragic tunnel vision that fueled their loss during their Cold War against the West.

The Hoover Fellow Norman M. Naimark, in The Russians in Germany, paints the Soviet industrial age dilemma, given that, unlike the Americans and the Allied forces, the Germans weren’t too far from the Soviet border. The capture of the Nazi scientists therefore carried with it urgent anthropological and historical issues for which mythmaking and brainwashing were deemed necessary.

As Lester Walker notes, it’s a disturbing realisation for modern humans that the most creative period in world history may have occurred under the Nazis between 1932 and 1945, and that it was the murderous and racist Nazis’ scientific research breakthroughs that gifted the modern world a significant majority of its current industrial and technological conveniences.

Espionage? Moi?

Still is it even a vice if the French haven’t tried it? In a 2014 WikiLeaks cable Berry Smutny, the head of the German satellite company OHB Technology, called France the top offender when it comes to industrial espionage, terming them worse than China and Russia.

France has consistently been accused over the decades of going after military, space and aviation technology from every country it deems to have superior inventions in these fields. America’s former Defense Secretary Robert Gates asserts that besides China, France is the second most tenacious and capable cybersecurity risk to America’s defences.

It’s a disturbing realisation for modern humans that the most creative period in world history may have occurred under the Nazis between 1932 and 1945, and that it was the murderous and racist Nazis’ scientific research breakthroughs that gifted the modern world a significant majority of its current industrial and technological conveniences.

It’s laughably obtuse, therefore, given the historical economic records, for Europe and America to consistently complain over what they dub China’s massive industrial espionage. According to the US authorities, from 2011 more than 90 per cent of the State Department’s cases alleging economic espionage involving a state pointed at China, and more than two-thirds of the Department’s theft of trade secrets cases were directly linked to China.

For a country with at least 1.2 billion citizens, and 100 cities with at least 1 million people each, and at least 100 firms with a market capitalisation of over $1 billion dollars, China seems unstoppable.

Between 1978 and 2017, China lifted roughly 600 million citizens out of poverty, averaging at 20 million each year, leading to an overall 94.4 percentage points reduction in poverty. By any measure, the economic progress that started with Deng Xiaoping in 1978 remains the greatest economic miracle in the history of mankind. The country’s economic engines might keep pumping for another decade or two before it plateaus out. That’s not how the West view it though. In China, they see a rogue state who steals ideas, and one who’s refused to anchor her growth trajectory on Western patronage and powers, like Japan did in the 80s.

Trade is war

Further south, Africa’s wealth, encumbered by global geopolitical and geo-economic contestations, has consistently been the site of plunder effected through tax havens and illicit financial flows. A significant chunk of this resource theft takes advantage of weak legislation, sleaze, civil wars, population displacement, and weak governance structures. The spread and pervasiveness of this economic carnage can be at best quantified through the over $200 billion in mostly illicit outflows and less than $160 billion inflows through loans and grants.

The Ugandan scholar Yash Tandon, who’s an honorary Professor at Warwick and London Middlesex University, consistently warns African countries that trade is a battle and often a zero sum game often pegged on the scale and efficacy of industrial espionage. Africa, as a crucible of innovation over the last 3,000 years, hasn’t properly calibrated its creative contribution to modern civilization and the resultant loss from corporate espionage.

In Trade is War, Tandon demonstrably shows the Bretton Woods institutions for what they really are: internationally tentacled Western leeches designed to loot African economies and resources. His valuable insider view traces the skewed and aptly misnamed free trade agreements as simply state-sanctioned industrial espionage where economic hitmanship are ratified through charters.

African state bureaucracies, with their inherent mediocrity, often deploy the services of the intellectually weak, the illiterate and the inarticulate and sometimes the naïve among its ranks to represent them in these high stakes intergovernmental forums. The disregard for the fact that it is these global economic institutions who pass regional laws, regulations, pacts and charters ends up favouring their industries, experts, and products over those of the global South.

Crucially, the cyber-espionage bugging of the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, the dramatic break-in at South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear facility, and the KGB-cum-CIA double agent Yuri Loginov’s targeting of the Central Bank of Kenya are pretty much the highest profiled and publicised industrial-scale espionages on the continent. Often planted moles, wiretapping, bugging, spy software and rogue employees or a litany of spy methods get deployed to pilfer sensitive corporate and economic data from African state agencies, their embassies abroad, the military, public contractors, national archives, repositories, and research institutes. Africa has not only failed to protect its industrial, commercial and economic secrets, it has for the most part failed to also deploy its own industrial espionage against far much more innovative states and companies across the globe.

That’s why Tandon’s critique constitutes the single biggest indictment of the African nation-state’s lacklustre approach to global trade, the future of their states, trade secrets, and the economic welfare of their firms and citizenry. A significant cluster of African states and those of the global South seem not to have figured out that shrewd pacts, industrial theft and illicit financial flows may just be the paths that propelled the countries whose economic power Africans admire to their current First World status.


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The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

What is happening in Haiti right now?

Another president. More allegations of corruption at the highest levels. More riots in the streets. More foreigners wringing their hands publicly as they privately feed on the carcass of this once (and potentially future) prosperous part of the world. Haiti is still – as it has been for most of the last 215 years – the cliché summed up in a unitary phrase typically used to describe it in news reports: the-poorest-country-in-the-Western-hemisphere.

A recent episode of Al Jazeera’s news and social media show The Stream took up the question of whether change is possible, whether Haiti might have a future that is better than its past. One of the commentators on this question observed that the popular protests against Haiti’s current president, Jovenel Moïse, had been peaceful for the previous eighteen months and had only now turned violent. The discussion went on to note that violence is a way for people to make their voices heard, echoing the injunction attributed to American president John F. Kennedy that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”.

For long-time watchers of the nation’s politics, it is clear that what is happening in Haiti now is a consequence of the fact that the voices of the Haitian people have never been listened to, never been taken seriously, by those who have the power to clear away the obstacles that prevent people from making their lives better.

Following the current events and politics of this troubled nation easily breeds despair in those of us who watch from afar. The names change, but the misery remains a constant reality. The impulse to turn away is understandable. It is also wrong, and misguided, for at least two reasons. First, because turning away from suffering is immoral, inhumane. Second, because Haiti is not a singular case; it is an illustration of the dangers and difficulties that must be faced by any nation wishing to chart a free and independent future for itself and its people.

Vulture capitalists

Once upon a time, Haiti was a French colony known as Saint Domingue. It produced the sugar and coffee wealth that propped up the pre-Revolution ancien régime. Back then, too, foreigners flooded in to enrich themselves, but in those days the adventurers some now call “vulture capitalists” fed on a body that had plenty of meat on its bones.

That unchallenged feeding frenzy ended when news of the French Revolution and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen passed by a new republican parliament in France arrived in the colony. This declaration asserted, among other things, that all Frenchmen had a right to liberty, and was a harbinger of the 1794 abolition of slavery in France. Inspired by the declaration’s guarantees, the Africans of Saint Domingue, who had been kidnapped from their homes and sold at auctions to be viciously and ruthlessly worked to death as they produced France’s sugar and coffee wealth, became the world’s first and only example of slaves who rose up and freed themselves.

For long-time watchers of the nation’s politics, it is clear that what is happening in Haiti now is a consequence of the fact that the voices of the Haitian people have never been listened to, never been taken seriously, by those who have the power to clear away the obstacles that prevent people from making their lives better.

The path to liberty and the transformation of Saint Domingue into the new nation of Haiti was neither easy nor entirely successful. It is this “not entirely realised” nature of Haiti’s revolution that provides the instructive lesson for all decolonising polities.

The birth of this new nation – an inspiration to all those who have followed in the long struggle to break the shackles of colonialism – was marked by failures to fully achieve both political and economic sovereignty. The economic consequences of the brutal 13-year-long war the former slaves fought against one of the great military powers of Europe were devastated infrastructure and the collapse of their sugar and coffee exports. Politically, the initial decades were characterised by diplomatic isolation, largely due to European belief that Haiti’s independence was an aberration, and that France would eventually reassert control over its wayward colony.

France had acquired from Spain, and at that time still held, the eastern side of the island of Hispaniola (the territory that is today the neighbouring nation of the Dominican Republic) so re-invasion by French forces was a real threat faced by the emergent nation. By 1825, however, the restored French crown was manoeuvring for monetary compensation and indemnity, for their “lost assets” – the land, and the slaves who had freed themselves—rather than reconquest.

Haiti agreed to the indemnity and the bank loans to finance the indemnity payments in the hope that French recognition would translate into diplomatic relations and economic opportunity – a move that drained the country’s coffers of precious tax revenues and foreign currency reserves all the way through until the final payment on related loans was made in 1947. These payments amounted to 122 years of economic parasitism that are valued in current US dollars at approximately $21 billion.

A toxic political tradition

The men who emerged as the revolution’s generals and leaders, first, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and then, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, were both committed to continuing the plantation economy required for the former colony’s sugar production despite overwhelming support of the population for a “cultivateur” economy of small-scale coffee farms and other self-sustaining agricultural operations.

In the waning days of the revolution, as independence was increasingly seen as possible, then likely, Toussaint declared himself Governor-General for Life, inaugurating a toxic political tradition of authoritarian rule that continues to plague Haiti. Dessalines, the general who inherited his leadership mantle after Toussaint was captured and imprisoned by the French, continued to rule as a military dictator, first declaring himself Governor-General (following Toussaint’s example), then Emperor of Haiti (in a move thought to be modelled on Napoleon Bonaparte’s example in France).

Dessalines was the leader who proclaimed both the initial declaration of Haitian independence and its remarkable Imperial Constitution of Haiti, 1805, but his growing unpopularity led to his defeat almost immediately after independence, upon which the nation was divided into a northern kingdom and a southern republic for most of the first two decades of its existence.

In the northern Kingdom of Haiti, Henri Christophe continued the Toussaint-Dessalines policy of trying to impose an authoritarian military regime and an export-based plantation economy. His rival in the southern Republic of Haiti, Alexandre Pétion, only partially cut against this orthodoxy. Trying to develop a new economic model, Pétion broke up the large plantations into smaller parcels and instituted a “sharecropping” system, while simultaneously reforming taxation policy to collect revenues from imports and exports rather than internal economic transactions. However, he also embraced political authoritarianism.

Haiti agreed to the indemnity and the bank loans to finance the indemnity payments in the hope that French recognition would translate into diplomatic relations and economic opportunity – a move that drained the country’s coffers of precious tax revenues and foreign currency reserves all the way through until the final payment on related loans was made in 1947.

The nation was reunified after Christophe’s death in 1820 by Pétion’s successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer, but the model for Haitian governance for most of its subsequent history was set: authoritarian rule that ranged from being unresponsive to the population’s needs to being openly and brutally corrupt.

It was not until 1874 that Haiti had a leader, Jean-Nicolas Nissage Saget, who served his term as president and then retired voluntarily. Nissage Saget, however, had come into office as the result of a coup, so the first truly successful transfer of power from one popularly elected president to another would have to wait until 2001 when René Préval handed the office over to Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The destructive role of Haiti’s powerful neighbour

While all of this external exploitation and internal mismanagement (political and economic) was taking place, Haiti’s most powerful neighbour, the United States, was jockeying for geopolitical advantage. Happy to trade with the colony and with the emerging nation in its early days, the United States nonetheless wanted to discourage further European expansion in the Americas (a position that later became known as the Monroe Doctrine) even as it sought opportunities to acquire territorial possessions from France and Spain.

One manifestation of this was the economic embargo on Haiti by the US from 1806 on, in collusion with France and Spain. Haiti’s American neighbour had in fact profited handsomely from the French defeat in the Haitian Revolution; in financially desperate circumstances partly attributable to the revolution, France negotiated the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, a transfer of lands around the Gulf of Mexico which, at the time, doubled the territory of the young United States.

American antipathy towards Haiti was not just about doing business with the Europeans – for example, currying further favour with the French in order to gain control over Florida; it was also driven by racist pro-slavery factions who could not tolerate the idea of a nation of self-liberated former slaves next door. For all of these reasons, the United States gave Haiti no diplomatic recognition until 1862, halfway through the US Civil War (when the Southern racists, having formed their own break-away government, were no longer in the national legislature).

Since this recognition, however, the United States has militarily occupied Haiti (from 1915 to 1934), propped up brutal dictatorships (supporting the vicious Duvaliers, for instance, as a bulwark against Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba), and colluded in removing popularly-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power (twice). It is almost too obvious and too inadequate to make the same point about Haiti that former Mexican leader Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915) made of his own country: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States!”

Unapologetic blackness: Haiti’s “new man”

The remarkable 1805 Imperial Constitution of Haiti that I alluded to above is an example of the promise that Haiti is still struggling to realise. Dessalines promulgated Haiti’s independence on January 1, 1804, calling on all “native citizens: men, women, girls and children” to defend and take pride in the country of “our birth”. He backed up that declaration with a radical re-thinking of racial hierarchy in the 1805 constitution. Article 14 of the Imperial Constitution of Haiti reads: “[a]ll distinctions of color will by necessity disappear…[and] Haitians shall be known from now on by the generic denomination of blacks..”

It is, I think, worth noting that the basis on which attempts have been made to build solidarity has changed over the years; the post-Duvalier 1987 constitution (that in fact re-constitutes Haiti as a democratic state) attempts to unite Haitians through designating Creole as the country’s common language rather than through assignment of a political “race.”. But, in a hostile and racist world, the 1805 claim that Haitian national identity would be synonymous with blackness can be read as a fundamental (hence, radical) challenge – a compelling attempt to decolonise the mind – and stands as one of the most crucial contributions that the Haitian Revolution has made to progressive struggles around rhetoric and representation.

American antipathy towards Haiti was not just about doing business with the Europeans; it was also driven by racist pro-slavery factions who could not tolerate the idea of a nation of self-liberated former slaves next door.

Arguably, it is a precursor to the non-racial conception of Algerian nationhood that Frantz Fanon celebrated in A Dying Colonialism (published in French as L’An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne, 1959). Where the Algerian conception of national unity (“Every individual living in Algeria is an Algerian”) was empowering because it recognised citizenship and national belonging as a matter of nominal membership in a category (one chooses to name oneself as belonging, therefore one belongs) and a matter of personal choice, rather than postulating some definitive essence that one must possess in order to qualify as a citizen of the new nation, the first Haitian constitution of 1805 sought national unity through disruption of racial categories and hierarchies. The bold declaration of what today we would call “unapologetic blackness” put Haiti at the forefront of the movement towards human liberation.

So is Haiti where we find the “patient zero” of Frantz Fanon’s new man? Perhaps. Fanon tells us – principally and most directly in The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnées de la Terre, 1961) but implicitly in all his writings – that it is decolonisation that brings forth his new man, the liberated, agentic human being who recognises the moral value of all human lives and does not allow others to compromise or restrict his (or her) ability to live fully and freely in this world that is his (or her) birthright.

We can certainly see approximations of this ideal in some of the more stirring actions and rhetoric of those we now remember as the architects of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint and Dessalines, in particular. It is the voice of Fanon’s new man that promulgates the radical rejection of racial hierarchy in the 1805 constitution, and it is the new man who was speaking when Toussaint reproached as futile his capture by the French. “In overthrowing me, only the trunk of the tree of liberty has been cut down,” he is reported to have said. “Its branches will shoot up again, for its roots are numerous and deep.”

Yet another story in anti-war activist Stan Goff’s post ‘The Haitian Intifada’ on his now defunct blog The Feral Scholar, presents Dessalines in the guise of Fanon’s new man. Goff tells the story of Dessalines’s response to French demands that he surrender: Dessalines replied to them that the Haitian people “would turn the island to ashes before they would accept the reimposition of slavery” and, to show that he meant what he said, he reportedly picked up a torch and set fire to his own house. (American podcaster Mike Duncan tells a version of this story that attributes the uncompromising response and the house-burning to Henri Christophe, not to Dessalines, but the point remains.)

But Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe were, as I have noted, all committed to continuing the plantation economy of the former colony. This required authoritarian, hierarchical rule, and forced labour for the masses, arguably a betrayal of the ideals for which the self-liberated people of Haiti had proven themselves to be willing to live and die by. I would argue that Haiti’s first leaders only fitfully embodied Fanon’s new man; he (she) was born in the masses and struggles still to survive.

Duncan, who produces a fascinating podcast series (10 seasons and counting) about political revolutions that have shaped the modern world, devotes season four to the Haitian Revolution. Despite mangling (by his own admission) many of the French and Haitian names of the people and places involved in this revolution, he pulls off the impressive task of telling a reasonably balanced history of the birth and fitful life of this nation that he styles “the avengers of the new world.”. He concludes the 19-episode season by observing:

Today, Haiti is, as everyone is contractually obligated to point out when talking about Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. They got there through the mix of the world screwing them over a lot, their own political and economic mistakes, and then environmental catastrophes caused both by God and their own hands. But they will never not be the country that was born from the only successful slave uprising in the history of the world … they had been created by a group of men and women who would not be slaves anymore, who beat back every major world power who tried to come in and tell them how it was going to be. The history of Haiti is not pretty, and Haiti is not in great shape right now. But I’m proud to know them, proud to know their history.

There is yet another story worth knowing in order to assess what respect and what honour we owe to the people of Haiti. In the colony of Saint Domingue, one French delicacy of choice at fine dinners was said to be pumpkin soup, a delicate strained velouté. One of the decolonising moves of the Haitian people was to create their own pumpkin soup that they now call joumou. Joumou is not the refined, decadent delicacy the French colonisers sipped; it is a hearty meal full of chunks of meat, bones for flavour, pumpkin, gourd, and any other vegetables one has on hand – anything one can think of to put in a soup will find its way into someone’s joumou. It is an everyday soup, and an improvisatory one. Many cooks have their own jealously-guarded special recipes and it is a standard – even obligatory – feature on the menu of Haitian restaurants.

But Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe were, as I have noted, all committed to continuing the plantation economy of the former colony. This required authoritarian, hierarchical rule, and forced labour for the masses, arguably a betrayal of the ideals for which the self-liberated people of Haiti had proven themselves to be willing to live and die by.

But joumou has a deep traditional significance when it is eaten on January 1, the first day of the new year and the anniversary of the day in 1804 that Haiti declared itself a free, independent black republic. On this anniversary, joumou is cooked to be shared with family and neighbours in a ritual of hope and solidarity. In Haitian diasporic communities like the one found in Montréal, Haitian restaurants open early in the morning on New Year’s Day so that members of the diaspora who do not have the time or cooking facilities to make their own soup (often migrant workers) can eat joumou as their own first meal of the year.

As we celebrate another year and all the promise it holds, spare a thought for all the Haitians, at home and in these diasporic communities around the world, who are sharing their joumou with each other in the enduring hope that they will find a path to the full realisation of their revolution that reshaped our world.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

Follow us on Twitter.


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The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

Counter-intelligence analyst Gregory Treverton once described two kinds of problems: puzzles and mysteries.

Puzzles are problems that have definite answers, such as: What is the capital city of Kenya? or How many kiosks in Nairobi sell unga? It might be difficult to pin down an exact number, but the answer can be estimated provided you define what a kiosk is. Puzzles can vary in complexity, but they all share the fact that they have definite answers. Crossword puzzles may be frustrating, but the solver at least has the satisfaction of knowing that the correct answer for the blank boxes exists. This is also the exact kind of problem most of our institutions are optimised to solve.

A mystery, on the other hand, is a problem with no definite answer because the answer depends on a future interaction of an unknown number of factors. For example, will there be kiosks in Nairobi in three years? If yes, how many? Who is going to supply them unga then? The answers are contingent on architecture, policy, or economics, and if you are an aspiring unga trader, they are also contingent on your choices today. This is an unsolvable problem because it contains too much information. To treat this mystery the same way as a puzzle would be akin to trying to thread a needle with water.

Our journey toward urbanisation has been one of using our puzzle-solving abilities to expand our sphere of certainty within an infinitely dark ocean of uncertainties. Our sphere of certainty up until now has included statements such as: “If I go to school and study hard, I will get a nice job and be able to afford to buy unga not only for myself, but for my family as well.” “The unga I buy from the kiosk is healthy.” “There is a hospital to go to in case the unga I ate is not healthy.”

As the answers to these questions become more unclear for many Kenyans in our unstable economy, we are beginning to question the puzzle bias of our education system and seeking to unlearn the current education model and replace it with a creative education model better suited to framing the mysteries of our time.

Unlearning the puzzle bias

The puzzle bias of our education system is reflected in the fortress-like security at the gates of the offices of the Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC). Tragically, as youth unemployment figures steadily rise, the message that has arrived late is that the armed infantry units at the gates of KNEC may be guarding an empty house.

Perfect examination scores are increasingly less correlated to career success. Adaptive intelligence that comes from creative education is becoming a much more reliable predictor of success. This is something that should be shared with exam candidates, many of whom have committed suicide because they perceived exam failure to be the end of their world.

We are in the process of entering an electronically mediated world in which all puzzle problems are being delegated to computer programmes that are more intelligent than our best performing human actuaries. Universities are quickly ceding their role as centres of knowledge creation and distribution to decentralised and distributed networks of creative ecosystems powered by technology. Those universities that survive and thrive will be those that are effective platforms for a creative student body. The shift required is analogous to the shift from “monoculture” farming of pupils that privileges puzzle-solving to a “permaculture” approach to education in which creative ecosystems allow students to creatively collaborate with their peers in solving mysteries in unique ways.

Perfect examination scores are increasingly less correlated to career success. Adaptive intelligence that comes from creative education is becoming a much more reliable predictor of success.

My most recent book, Art of Unlearning, uses the radically powerful medium of comics to literally draw a map of how to get out of our puzzle-minded school fortresses and into creative ecosystems. Unlearning, we inevitably discover, requires profound humility, as recovering addicts already understand.

The map begins from the foundation that all infants are born without a culture – naked, hungry and intensely curious. The principal role of parents is to take this uncultured, naked, hungry and intensely curious being and persuade it, cajole it, and terrorise it until one way or another it is convinced that the way we do things in this tribe is the natural way ordained by God. Anything that you feel like doing that doesn’t fit into tribal customs is considered to be a bad idea. Adults who are thoroughly conditioned in a culture may be genuinely horrified to discover that their children were not born with their taboos already installed. This horror is intensifying so much that the youth and elders might be considered to be inhabiting increasingly separate islands of reality that speak different languages.

An authoritarian framework is the worst possible way to engage with such a dynamic information environment. It has been my observed experience that the self-appointed cultural managers, such as Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) and many county culture ministries, have absolutely no idea what is happening in the information ecosystem that lies beyond their own Twitter feeds. Their perspective is limited to one of traditional rent-seeking from artists in whose creations they have made no investment. The role of investment has been largely abandoned to foreign cultural agencies and embassies.

As the rate of information exchange in our society accelerates, all tribes are beginning to communicate electronically, bringing the conflicts in our agendas to resolution. So, for example, the musician King Kaka is now a much more powerful bridge-builder than the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) ever was.

Now that Kenyans are literally going beyond the limits of marathon times and limited leaders with limited visions, a new locus of understanding must be framed that can address our most pressing challenges: ecological destruction, food insecurity, ending political dynasties, and most of all, educating our children for an exponential world.

Who will frame our mysteries?

The choice to deliver this message in the form of a comic book (or graphic novel to be precise) was crucial. Because if one is going to opine on a vision for creative education in Kenya, one must demonstrate creative experience. We demand no less of our dentists or doctors and we should demand no less of our educators.

Illustration and visual storytelling are a domain in which I have had the most experience over the past ten years and they are well suited to taking difficult conversations out of the academy and onto the street. We must end our unconstitutional limits on creative expression such as Cap 222 (Films and Stage Plays Act). This idea of openness to new information will be unfamiliar and uncomfortable to our conservative culture, but so is all growth.

My best explanation of this point comes without words in an illustration titled “Education Factory”. In it you see in one moment gleeful children entering an education factory on one end only to emerge into a wasteland on the other end, stupefied and drained of creativity. Art of Unlearning contains dozens of such moments of understanding that I believe are critical in a society that has been so violently divided by the differences in our tongues and in words. This moment of understanding is a moment that requires no permission from a “higher authority”. It is a moment that cannot come too soon. Comics are in my view the ultimate mystery-framing tool. Let’s get started!

Unlearning fear

Play is nature’s antidote to the debilitating fear of change. All mammals spend their early life playing constantly to learn their limits. My ten-month-old son is so dangerously unafraid that I cannot take my eyes off him lest he plunge head first from the bed to the floor. At this crucial stage, the extent to which children are allowed to explore their limits imprints a lifelong attitude toward new experiences.

Now that Kenyans are literally going beyond the limits of marathon times and limited leaders with limited visions, a new locus of understanding must be framed that can address our most pressing challenges: ecological destruction, food insecurity, ending political dynasties, and most of all, educating our children for an exponential world.

If as children our guardians allowed us to explore our limits safely, we will likely adopt this posture for the rest of our lives, with all the risks and rewards that this entails. But if, on the other hand – as is too often the case in our Kenyan context – the response to exploration is violence, shaming and exorcism prayers, you are likely to avoid the memory of violence by avoiding conflict or eye contact with strangers and shying away from new experiences.

Our history of extreme political violence and repression remains unacknowledged to this very day by the political dynasties that have ruled this country. They cannot be expected to hold themselves or any initiative they table accountable.

Violence was the foundation of the colonial economy and remains the foundation of our economy to this day. Creative natives were a natural threat to an architecture of exploitation and so they have been made the human refuse of our education system. With the internet, this human refuse (please excuse the slur) of creative natives is set to inherit the world and now is the time to pay attention to what they have to teach us.

What we call artists are people who consistently respond to their encounters with novelty in beautiful ways, such as sculpture, painting, literature and song. They teach us that fear is physical and its transcendance is also physical in the form of the creative human expression. This is why art is so essential to the work of healing from trauma. Art represents the proudest monument of our humanhood and is the first potentiality to be sacrificed at the altar of violence. It is very difficult to recite poetry with a gun pointed at your head.

The metaphorical gun that is currently pointed at the heads of artists in Kenya today is much more economic than it is political. The Kenyan artist fears starvation, anonymity and suicide more than she does Ezekiel Mutua’s censorship crusade that is targeted only at the most visibly successful of Kenyan films, such as Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki. Kenyans have correctly challenged the idea that one unelected bureaucrat’s colonial prejudices should not be allowed to deny mature audiences an opportunity to evaluate works of art for themselves.

Not coincidentally, human survival on this planet, now more than ever before, depends upon our courage to share our creative ideas, as so many of my favourite writers, such as Dr. Wandia Njoya and Dr. David Ndii frequently do in this publication. When we exercise courage and challenge idiocy and cowardice, we have the compounding effect of liberating the courage of fellow human beings, which is expressed creatively in works such as King Kaka’s Wajinga Nyinyi. When we shake off fear, we discover to our amazement that the so-called emperor is wearing no clothes and that his power was always contingent upon our complicity. This is the lesson of our history that is activated by creative education.

Losing your fear is also good business and not merely a political stance. Walk down any average supermarket aisle and notice how many different brands are competing to sell the same product. Uniqueness is the best differentiator. Similarly, creative education allows young people to seek out unique opportunities to thrive in a jobless and degree-saturated economy. This is an insoluble dilemma for a dynastic oligarchy such as ours whose existence depends on the unquestioning obedience and tribal subservience of its citizenry – while at the same time needing a tax base to finance its exorbitant salaries.

Corporal punishment and other fear-based persuasion of children must become a thing of the past. We must discard antiquated notions such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” and with them the idea that all our conduct needs to be governed by a self-appointed priesthood. We cannot continue to studiously trace movements of biblical tribes while we remain ignorant about the migration history of our own ancestors here in East Africa.

The time has come to unburden our minds and bodies from fear and fear-mongering institutions. I believe that democratising creative education for all Kenyan children is the first and most critical step in this direction. Using “creativity and innovation” as a buzzword on the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) website is simply not enough.

Unlearning comparison

From the day a student enrolls in the Kenyan education system, he or she is subjected to examinations. Examination scores are then compared against those of other students in a zero-sum competition organised by KNEC. This zero-sum competitive mindset continues into later life in our workplaces and in traffic jams. It also sits at odds with our natural human tendency to solve problems collaboratively so that the collective can benefit from as many different viewpoints as possible.

We all benefit from culinary, cultural and cosmological diversity. This is why monotheism’s history of violence is so much more bloody than that of polytheistic cultures that tolerated a diversity of cosmologies.

Whatever one’s particular religion, it should be clear that the internet is a platform that is much more stimulating of unique ideas than any medium before it. In an attention-deficient media landscape with numerous options for viewers, the only way to hold sustained attention is by being significantly different.

Luckily, one does not have to try too hard to be different because we already are. Nature does not create duplicates. One simply has to unlearn the habit of comparison that obscures our unique and innate aspirations. We must unlearn the shaming of those we call wajuaji or arrogant for straying away from tribal orthodoxy. The approval of the herd is thin soup compared to the thick gravy that is self-discovery. In Kenya, this means unlearning the habit of borrowing beauty standards, borrowing political frameworks, borrowing religions and borrowing Chinese loans without the consent of the people. Conformity is for sheep, and sheep are led to slaughter — a consistent lesson of Kenya’s experiment in democracy for those old enough to remember. Let us try instead to foster and export our uniqueness.

The time has come to unburden our minds and bodies from fear and fear-mongering institutions. I believe that democratising creative education for all Kenyan children is the first and most critical step in this direction.

In unlearning comparison by embracing uniqueness, one of my most impactful teachers has been the late martial artist Bruce Lee. Bruce was a unique figure with no peers because he was a rare combination of fighter, actor and philosopher. Bruce’s example urges us to seek out precisely those behaviours that set us apart and to develop them.

In my case, graduating with an LLB degree a year after our devastating post-election violence in 2008 was my nudge in the direction of a more unique career. With uninspiring job prospects all round and glaring evidence that my profession was impotent to prevent catastrophe, I began to explore alternatives that would have in previous times been considered unthinkable. Ergo, my current profession of drawing comics and animations. I found my voice in comics and the expression of all the latent abilities that were deemed economically useless.

It is my hope that the sacrifices of my generation in the early blossoming of digital content in Kenya will lead to thriving creative ecosystems. As Muthoni Drummer Queen so eloquently stated in her TED Talk, creativity builds nations. Nation-building can never be done by rent-seeking governments and certainly not by rent-seeking governments as deficient in legitimacy as Kenya’s political dynasties that are desperately trying to remain relevant today. Creative education is a tide that will lift all boats by applying digital technologies to demonetise, dematerialise and democratise knowledge sharing. Creative education challenges our feudal economic structure by placing a value on intellectual property.

In the age of exponential technologies, it has become impossible for even the most highly trained “white collar workers”, such as dermatologists, to rest on their laurels. There are no safe jobs. A deep learning algorithm has the power to recognise millions of skin diseases in a second, whereas the human dermatologist will require multiple lifetimes to approach that number.

The risk of obsolescence becomes more acute the more puzzle-oriented a profession gets. The extent to which Kenyan youth will be able to complement the rise of data science is directly dependent on the investment that we are willing to make in innovation and creativity today. If my experiences as an artist living in Kenya are anything to go by, this investment is only being made by individual parents and foreign cultural agencies, such as the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi.

Unlearning belief systems

The most important three words for someone to become creative are “I don’t know”. Concealing ignorance with inherited assumptions and prejudices that are outside your experience is not an effective strategy for becoming creative. If you are going to do something original, “I don’t know” is the optimal stance to begin from. Those who do things that have never been done before were by definition unqualified to do them the moment before they did. Are we confident enough as a continent to question the Middle Eastern religions that dominate Africa?

The most important three words for someone to become creative are “I don’t know”. Concealing ignorance with inherited assumptions and prejudices that are outside your experience is not an effective strategy for becoming creative.

Original thinkers never believe fully in anyone else’s BS (belief systems), least of all their own. Their only confidence is in their own capacity for keen investigation with the help of books such as Art of Unlearning to frame life’s mysteries creatively. Any belief system we have right now is provisional before it is revised and updated to incorporate new events and perspectives. Only this way can we imagine Africa differently than its colonisers and missionaries did. This, incidentally. is the natural functioning of the human brain and the way children’s minds work before they are distorted by intimidation from the education system.

Unlearning belief systems is as difficult as a right-hander learning to write with his left hand. Human perception was not evolved to see the truth, but rather to see only that which was optimal for survival. But what is optimal for our survival has changed while we were sleeping. 

I do not know the shape of the society we are going to forge, but I do know that I am compelled by a passion for freehand movement to face this mystery creatively.


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The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

Refugee survival in Kenya is inseparable from the dynamics of inequality, finance, and debt embedded in capitalism. This article draws much inspiration from Kevin Sieff’s excellent article in The Washington Post that looks at how debt-ridden refugees are being forced to return to a war zone in Somalia.

I am most interested in the ways that capital – in its money form – supercedes, intervenes, and invades the humanitarian sector. At the site of the refugee camps and in cities like Nairobi, capital claims to free the refugee from the passivity of shelter and assistance through entrepreneurialism. This article explores neoliberal experimentation in the context of refugee survival in Kenya. I argue that refugees represent an experimental population. Their various sites of survival are opened up to financial penetration – a last ditch and piecemeal market-led solution to alleviate poverty.

Kenya hosts approximately half a million refugees in its camps and urban areas and has done this for nearly three decades. Dadaab and Kakuma, two of the world’s largest refugee camps, have become sites of increased xenophobia and structural violence where the Kenyan government continues to threaten their closure in the face of diminished global aid.

Contrastingly, these camps are also sites of finance, debt, and neoliberal-led forms of experimentation. Neoliberalism – the ideological and material power of private interest through the dismantling of state-led solutions for welfare – is highlighted here as a way to understand a global stance and policy focus on self-reliance. In so doing, I situate refugees as a new population for experimentation.

Experimentation is a market-oriented solution to alleviate refugee poverty. It is hinged on self-reliance and propagates the financial interests of the private sector. The intentions of capital accumulation are hidden under the guise of choice and liberty where refugees can use credit to escape poverty and transform themselves into entrepreneurs. Self-reliance is a façade.

Mastercard and the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a public-private coalition to transform refugee settlements into digital communities in 2018. This strategy seeks to “bring together technology, solutions, and experience from multiple sectors to transform refugee settlements into digitally-connected communities’, thereby providing infrastructure-based innovations in terms of mobile phone and internet access vis-à-vis key dimensions of survival such as safety, food, shelter, and water”.

Experimentation is a market-oriented solution to alleviate refugee poverty. It is hinged on self-reliance and propagates the financial interests of the private sector.

Mastercard, along with Western Union, announced a new digital infrastructure model hinged on mobile money, digital vouchers, and card-based solutions that promote refugee “self-reliance”Digitising the refugee camp, and thereby transforming it from an arena of passive aid and shelter to a marketplace allows refugees to access formal financial services. This form of neoliberal experimentation also transforms the refugee camp – previously understood in the logic of the development industry as a forgotten barren space – into one of untapped profit.

For example, as the Mastercard and Western Union report states: “…refugees are responsible for payment…For example, children can go to school, but the family must pay for uniforms and books. It becomes vital to access convenient, easy-to-use financial services. Foreign and domestic remittances received via Western Union or hawalas [a remittance channel that takes place outside of the banking system] are a major source of income.”

Interestingly, the logic of empowerment described in this report is equated to providing a wider array of financial service access – not actually addressing the fact that refugees have to pay for some essential survival services such as healthcare and basic goods.

Actors like Mastercard and Western Union, by diversifying access to financial services, are able to capitalise on financial transactions by providing cheaper rates for remittances in the name of “smart city” development. The same report goes on to highlight that Equity Bank holds 15,000 refugee accounts in their Kakuma branch and most remittances are either received through Western Union or hawala agents—needless to say, there is profit to be made if so-called passive aid recipients are transformed into entrepreneurs who are self-reliant actors.

The transformation of refugees into self-reliant entrepreneurs relies on the logic that these people are complex economic actors who need more diverse financial choices. Missing from this reasoning is the recognition that refugees receive little global attention and constantly face reductions in essential services, which pushes them to precarious forms of income-generation in order to survive.

Interventions by private sector actors fall into age-old neoliberal adages of efficiency, accountability, and freedom of choice. State and international human rights actors, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Kenyan government, in the face of global austerity, are more than happy to have private actors step in and take over responsibility for refugee survival.

The transformation of refugees into self-reliant entrepreneurs relies on the logic that these people are complex economic actors who need more diverse financial choices.

In contrast, the threats of closure of the camps by the Kenyan government, particularly in Dadaab, have not disappeared, and the camp sizes are slowly shrinking. In 2011, at the height of the famine in Somalia, Dadaab’s population rose to 421,000. This number had been reduced to 230,000 in 2018, partly because some refugees went back home voluntarily while others were encouraged to return to Somalia, as per a repatriation agreement between the Government of Kenya and UNHCR.

While Kakuma represents an experimental avenue for profit, Dadaab – home to predominantly Somali refugees – is framed by the Kenyan government as an unaffordable space both in terms of the security threat and the financial burden. The Kenyan government – which has often scapegoated Somali refugees as terrorists and the Dadaab camp as a safe haven for Al Shabaab – justifies the return of refugees by arguing that it will quell social disruption. 36.8 per cent of Kenya’s population lives on $1.90 a day, placing Kenya 8th on the list of top 10 African countries experiencing extreme poverty.

There are apparent tensions regarding refugee hosting. Many of the participants interviewed for my research suggest that the Kenyan government supports encampment because it absolves itself from welfare responsibilities. Looking at this more broadly, it was the forces of structural adjustment in the 1990s that coincided with refugee encampment that prevented the Kenyan state from developing long-term welfare capabilities in the first place.

Nevertheless, the new Comprehensive Refugee Programme (CRP) highlights that refugees should have adequate avenues for job creation, entrepreneurship, and integration in camps and urban settlements. This is a key divergence from previous strategies of encampment – refugees are now a new experimental population who must harness the forces of the market.

While self-reliance is the policy du jour, the militaristic arm of the state that seeks to prevent migration is also alive and well. Biometric Identity Management (BIM) through fingerprinting and iris scans are surveillance technologies indicative of state organisations (along with UNHCR) seeking to prevent new or circulatory migrants. For example, Somalis who are “voluntarily” repatriated, as Sieff points out, just to relieve their own state of indebtedness in Dadaab, seek return to Kenya as Somalia remains unstable. BIM prevents this from occurring thus attempting to make repatriation permanent.

Indeed, as one interview participant noted, if UNHCR and the government are claiming that refugees are able to return to Somalia, then – within this flawed logic – they should no longer accept Somali refugees. If they do, then they accept that Somalia is not a safe country for return. So both international and national actors are complicit in the violence that Somalis face in their struggle for survival.

Much attention is given to refugee survival in camps; however, with the constant threat of their closure, many refugees are permanently relocating to Nairobi and its environs – a move that is illegal without a permit. Since welfare programmes for urban refugees are virtually non-existent, these groups must rely on piecemeal forms of assistance from NGOs and their own communities in the form of cash grants, entrepreneurial training, and microfinance within the ambit of experimentation and self-reliance.

Self-reliance as a solution for assistance is hindered by xenophobia too. For example, many Somali refugees relocate to Eastleigh, which has become an area targeted by the police in light of terrorist attacks in Nairobi. Somalis are unfairly rounded up and sent back to camps or deported while other non-Somali refugees are left to survive in Nairobi in the informal sector. A participant from a government department noted in my research that, “If a refugee wants to stay in Nairobi then they can fend for themselves…the camps are equipped to care for them so if they are in Nairobi it is by choice and they ideally should have a transit permit from the government.” Self-reliance is thus inherent in the national attitude towards refugees, which simultaneously ignores the circumstances of violence, health issues, and poverty in refugee camps.

Much attention is given to refugee survival in camps; however, with the constant threat of their closure, many refugees are permanently relocating to Nairobi and its environs – a move that is illegal without a permit.

Since no welfare support systems exist, many NGOs offer some sort of business training and loan assistance programmes – another example of “disciplinary entrepreneurialism”. In order to access these loans or grants, refugees must go through a training programme where they learn the necessary business skills to set up shop. They must learn how to make a profit so that they can repay the loan, because these loans, in fact, are frequently used for other refugees in the context of shrinking services. NGOs also recognise that refugees are a flight risk for loans because the cash in hand is used for basic consumption needs – a key issue identified in the literature on microfinance.

In short, the use of loans under the spirit of entrepreneurialism dovetails with the security maximisation arm of the state that prevents refugees from entering its territory. These strategies coincide with two central aspects of neoliberalism – austerity and accumulation.

As the story goes, the Kenyan government, along with international actors, prevents refugees from entering the country. These refugees are framed as threats to state security and an unaffordable risk. In turn, refugees that already exist in camps are either sent back to their country of origin or transformed into entrepreneurs where the camp becomes a space of experimentation.

In short, the use of loans under the spirit of entrepreneurialism dovetails with the security maximisation arm of the state that prevents refugees from entering its territory.

Refugees in urban areas are also meant to become entrepreneurs in order to survive without any state-led assistance. Importantly, these strategies have little to no empirical evidence, further pointing to the experimental nature of entrepreneurialism as a key strategy for survival upon relocation (for a greater exploration of these themes see my article here).

The Kenyan case reveals that exclusion and violence continue to facilitate capital accumulation while also preventing long-term refugee survival. The notion of experimentation, briefly sketched here, allows us to frame neoliberalism as an ambivalent process. Capital permeates these spaces of poverty and the logics of entrepreneurialism facilitate some form of accumulation either through debt or through micro-transactions in the form of remittances. Importantly, refugees in the development of so-called smart communities also produce data and this data can be used for the purposes of capital accumulation in other contexts.

Editors Note: This article was first posted in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)


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The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

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The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

More than a century ago, a brash and mostly racist decision created a small tin shack town in the middle of a swamp. Then the town became unstoppable.

The first men and women who landed in Nairobi probably considered the brackish swamp land perfect. The area was picturesque, with hills in the horizon and rivers crisscrossing the plains. While the swampy land was not suitable for farming, and certainly not for settlement, it was perfect for grazing.

For the Maasai and the Kikuyu, the plain was also a meeting ground, cutting between the highland farming community in Central Kenya and the nomadic community in the Rift. For the Kamba and other traders and adventurers, it was the easier part of the journey. The Maasai called it Enkare Nyorobi, ‘the land of cool waters’; other names for the land seems to have evaded history books.

The colony’s vanguard also saw it as one of the easy stretches of a long, much more arduous journey to the Western parts of what would become Kenya. The treeless plain was also curiously empty, particularly on the lush parts towards Central Kenya. They wrote of ‘Nyrobe’ in their letters home, a name which, in a short time, would become the name of the capital of a new country.

It was not empty or deserted though; it was occupied, just not permanently. And even less at that point because smallpox and a few other epidemics had cut down the populations of many Kenyan communities.

In 1896, builders of the Lunatic Line set up a small supply depot and a camp on the plains. The original boundaries of what is now Nairobi were for “the area within a radius of one and a half miles from the offices of the sub-commissioner of the Ukambani Province.” There was no plan beyond that, and Nairobi was merely one in a chain of such supply depots. The railhead reached Nairobi, the small supply depot between Mombasa and Kampala, in 1899.

With it, a new future began.

A cultural melting pot

The railway management picked Nairobi to be their railway headquarters. But this seemingly arbitrary decision that would put the builders at loggerheads with the colonial government did not involve any proper assessment of the site. Public health would be the key issue in those early years, with the lack of proper drainage making the new town the perfect breeding grounds for epidemics.

But the railway engineers did not see Nairobi as becoming anything more than an Indian township which, they argued, could “prosper in spite of unsanitary conditions and chronic plague.”

As more people settled on what had become the railway headquarters, a pattern emerged. Europeans settled to the West, Asians to the Parklands side, and Africans to the East. But segregation laws would not become codified until 1908, after yet another bout of the plague. Within the first five years, what had been a sparsely occupied swampy plain was now home to 10,000 people. After Mombasa, Nairobi was now the cultural melting pot of the young British colony.

The railway management picked Nairobi to be their railway headquarters. But this seemingly arbitrary decision that would put the builders at loggerheads with the colonial government did not involve any proper assessment of the site.

With government funding and rich entrepreneurs like AM Jeevanjee, who had made a fortune supplying material and labour to build the railway, a town sprouted from the swamp. The richest man in Kenya at the start of the 20th century, Jeevanjee would later go on an investment spree, building the first law courts, the original Nairobi Club, the first building that housed the National Museum, and many other buildings.

Before the railhead reached Nairobi, the central economic activity for the young town had been big game hunting. By 1900, the town was a single street, driven by commerce as Asian railway builders settled in tin shacks on the plain. Beyond that street “lay the swamp where frogs lived every night at dusk they used to bark out their vibrant chorus and spread a cloak of deep, incessant sound over the little township” as Elspeth Huxley writes in White Man’s Country. The frogs formed part of the ecosystem, providing a rhythmic croaking during the calm nights of a budding young town. It was free music, if not poetry, but it freaked out public health officials.

A public health hazard

Doctors were particularly concerned about the hazards the soggy grounds carried. At 1,750 metres above sea level, colonialists thought Nairobi’s temperate climate would limit the development of malaria-carrying mosquitos (an oft-repeated myth, most notably in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth). It didn’t, and not just because the soggy grounds allowed pools of stagnant water to collect. Malaria would thrive in the new town, with 14,000 new malaria cases reported in Nairobi in 1913 alone. But malaria was just one of many health concerns that made doctors want the small town moved to higher ground.

In 1902, the small town faced its first major public health problem. An epidemic of the dreaded bubonic plague erupted along Indian Bazaar. With no sanitation or municipal plans, the main street at the time had played host to rodents, and the animals had in turn brought in the plague, killing several people. The plague was diagnosed by the enigmatic zebra-riding Dr. Rosendo Ribiero. The Medical Officer, Dr. Alfred Spurrier, ordered the entire street burnt. Everyone was evacuated, and Nairobi’s first CBD was torched.

This was probably the point in history when the situation could have been salvaged and the young town moved, but that didn’t happen. Instead, lethargy and bureaucracy resulted in a status quo.

At 1,750 metres above sea level, colonialists thought Nairobi’s temperate climate would limit the development of malaria-carrying mosquitos…It didn’t, and not just because the soggy grounds allowed pools of stagnant water to collect.

In May 1903, Dr. Moffat, a principal medical officer of the East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, called Nairobi dangerous and defective. After another plague in 1904, he recommended relocating residents to modern-day Kikuyu Township. But Moffat left in April 1904, and his successors held the costs of relocation too high.

On 18 May 1906, Sir James Sadler, commissioner for the Protectorate, wrote to Winston Churchill, Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, complaining about the emergence of Kenya’s capital: “…at the commencement of the 1902 plague…the then-commissioner, Sir Charles Elliot, was strongly of the opinion that the site, which had been selected three years before by the manager of the Uganda Railway without consulting medical or sanitary authorities, was, with its inadequate drainage, unsuitable for a large and growing population. [It is a] depression with a very thin layer of soil or rock. The soil was water-logged during the greater part of the year.”

The letter further reminds Churchill of the 1902 recommendation to move the city “to some point on the hills.” Sadler told Churchill this was a critical point in Nairobi’s history; that his predecessor had said: “…when the rainy season commenced, the whole town is practically transformed into a swamp.”

But the Board running the city decided instead to try drain the swampy bazaar area.

Six years before, in 1898, a 25-year-old man called John Ainsworth had disembarked from a ship at the Port of Mombasa. He was an employee of the colonising company called the Imperial British East African Company, and was ambitious to make a career for himself. Before that year ended, he travelled from Mombasa up to Machakos, and into the tin shack town called Nyrobe. He built his house at Museum Hill to found the colonial administration, much to the chagrin of influential railway builders. Eager to make the swampy plains work, he planted Eucalyptus trees on the swamp to drain the water. Ainsworth’s legacy remains to date, with most of his efforts being the only reason why more and more parts of the swamp could be occupied.

Nairobi continued to develop quickly and Sadler finally threw in the towel: “It is, I admit, too late to consider the question of moving the town from the plains to the higher position along the line some miles to the north. We had a chance in 1902, and I think it was a pity that we did not do so then as advocated by Sir Charles Elliot.”

But even Sadler did not anticipate the growth – eightfold since 1969, from 500,000 people to 4.4 million today. He said Nairobi would never become “a city like Johannesburg or a large commercial centre, for if there is a rapid development of industries or minerals in any of the new districts, the centres would spring up around them.”

Churchill accepted this idea and made the final decision: “It is now too late to change, and thus lack of foresight and of a comprehensive view leaves its permanent imprint upon the countenance of a new country.”

The colonists had given up, and the town they had once thought would only be occupied by Indians became the centre of the new colony. It would take another six years for the Nairobi Sanitary Commission to be appointed, by which time the city was home to thousands of people. The swampy grounds would pose challenges for builders, medical officers, and town planners.

From tin shack town to city

Settlers like Ewart Grogan believed that the Europeans should have occupied the area from Chiromo up towards and past Westlands. They could then leave the lower plains and its tin shacks to Asians and Kenyan natives. The plan never came to be as the influence of the railway builders carried the day, and by the time it became clear the city would grow, it was too late to move it.

In 1919, Nairobi Township became Nairobi Municipal Council and the boundaries were extended. It would be extended nine years later to cover 30 square miles. Seven years after that, Jim Jameson presented a town planning report with great plans to plant Jacaranda trees. The tin shack town was well on its way to becoming a city, and the future generations of city fathers would have to find a way to deal with the thin layer of soil.

It hired a consultant in the mid-1920s, by which time the town’s economic importance made it a fait accompli. One colonial officer wrote that the new plan was ambitious, but until it bore fruit, “Nairobi must remain what she was then, a slatternly creature, unfit to queen it over so lovely a country.”

More than three decades later, when it became the official capital of a new country, Nairobi still did not have a blueprint.

The initial stubborness of the railway engineers trumped those of the colonial government and its health officials. For that, the latter would pay dearly, facing many epidemics and having to dedicate finances to further drain the swamp. Most of the swamp has now been replaced with skyscrapers and road networks, with insufficient footpaths, drainage and leadership.

The colonists had given up, and the town they had once thought would only be occupied by Indians became the centre of the new colony.

More than a century after its unlikely birth, Nairobi is home to more than 4 million people. The city still reminds that it was once a swamp where rivers criss-crossed at will. One pending idea, which has been revived in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Taskforce report, is to grant the city special status as a capital city. It would mean Nairobi will not have a governor, but the report hopes that it would not “impede the rights of the Kenyan people to representation at the ward and parliamentary levels.”

In this scenario, only a special status would allow the central government “the means to provide the services and facilitation necessary to maintaining as a capital city and as a diplomatic hub.” Whether that’s likely is a toss-up, but whoever runs it will always face the same problems as its first city fathers. Indeed, the city that was never meant to be, and probably should never have been, is now the epicentre of the Kenyan economy and society.

Perhaps the time is ripe to ask ourselves whether Nairobi should be the epicentre of Kenya, because today, amidst the floods raging in the city, poor drainage and the chaotic streets, Nairobi leaves much to be desired as a capital city and is still an unfit slatternly creature to queen over the country, despite what the BBI report claims.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

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The Elephant


The Turbulent 2010s: The Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism and the Rebellion of Nature

By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?

At the risk of bringing the wrath of philosophers upon me, I wish to borrow from the famous maxim cogito ergo sum by French philosopher Rene Descartes – which translates to I think, therefore I am – to define present humankind: I transact, therefore I am. This is no way a reification of consumerism, or a deification of capitalism, and how the market has become definitive of our era; it comes from a deep observation of the single thing that defines us humans today: markets and trade transactions.

Modern civilization is premised on structures and systems that make trading and legal transaction possible. There is no community that does not have markets and that does not have market systems for legal transactions. All communities frown upon any exchange that is not transactional; that is simply called theft.

Though humans have preferred to distinguish themselves from other animals on the basis of their rationality, what really defines us is interdependence – the realisation that we need each other in order to survive, and that we basically cannot do without one another. This common human need for the other transcends the individual to communities and embraces entire nations. Even the most individualistic eccentric, with delusions of self-sufficiency, quickly realises the mutual need humans have for each other, and the primacy of structures for transaction. Nations maintain diplomatic relationships on this principle, and despite the dominance nature of the global powers, forums, such as the United Nations General Assembly, are ideally supposed to be an equitable marketplace of ideas where both the powerful and the not so powerful, the wealthy and the financial minions exchange and interact. The most basic transactional platform is the marketplace.

A while ago, while pondering this piece, I sought opinions from several professionals. I needled them to reflect on the state of markets in Kenya. Each one, without exception, responded by focusing on the financial, stock and commodities markets. My interlocutors were not all economists or engaged in the financial sector; in fact few were, and this is the poignant point.

In the psyche of most people, the “market” is conflated to mean local and international stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets. Few think outside this frame and the managers of our economy are guiltiest on this score. It is not surprising that there was a look of utter surprise when I revealed that the market I was interested in was the kawaida or ordinary market – the soko, chiro, ndunyu that is the massive open air market teeming with kawaida people in Karatina, Kongowea, Gikomba, Muthurwa, Toi, Kapsoit, Luanda, Kibuye and many other places. The livestock markets in Suswa, Koriema, Lubao and Kibokoni that specialise in cattle, goats, dogs and fish, respectively, and the MwembeTayari, SokoMjinga, SokoMoi, Marigiti, Mbero and Rongai markets that have acres and acres of farm produce strewn all over, usually displaying the most unhygienic handling. Even Village Market, Maasai Market, or Kariakor that specialise in curios or material culture, but which are basically outlets for tourists to purchase memorabilia and trinkets, and which hardly provide a forum for engagement with our rich material culture.

Once the surprise faded off their faces, each one was challenged to ponder why it is that the kawaida (ordinary) markets were rendered invisible in discourses around GDP, economic performance and human resource deployment, whereas there were millions of individuals directly or indirectly engaged in markets as traders, service providers and clients. Why is the ordinary market, with the potential to provide the impetus for innovation that would provide much-needed employment for the youth, totally ignored?

In the psyche of most people, the “market” is conflated to mean local and international stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets. Few think outside this frame and the managers of our economy are guiltiest on this score.

The challenge extended to questioning why the resilience of the kawaida markets to sustain the social and economic well-being of communities is not factored in our economic growth models. Why is it that though the monies that circulate within kawaida markets is significant there does not seem to be a fair estimation of it in our economic projections?

I was also most intrigued by the human interaction and the resultant social and cultural dynamics evolving around markets, but found scanty studies on the phenomenon. I further pushed my respondents to think of the reasons that led to the waning in prominence of markets that in the past were important meeting points for communities and their commodities. Today these markets have become totally eclipsed by virtual markets that serve the interests of a minority. Corollary to this is what is lost when these interactions fizzle out. Markets must have created social cohesion premised on co-dependence. Language and common practices evolved to ensure the harmony upon which markets thrived. The intercultural interactions gave rise to multicultural creative and expressive forms.

Angela Ka-yee Leung et.al, in a study published in American Psychologist, empirically demonstrate that exposure to multiple cultures in and of itself enhances creativity. They argue that the extensiveness of multicultural experiences greatly enhances creative performance, as well as the creativity supporting cognitive processes that make an individual more creatively versatile. Cross-cultural exposure, such as what kawaida markets provided, increased the capacity for creativity, invention and innovation.

A confluence of needs and cultures

The centrality of markets in African life can be appreciated from the mention of markets in African literature and even in songs. Activities on designated market day, and at the market are pointers to such significance as proverbs like “Every marketplace has its own madman” denote. Any authentic work of African fiction invariably has a market scene. The marketplace facilitated more than simple economic engagement; it allowed people from diverse communities to interact and exchange. In exogamous communities, market day was an opportunity to forge future romantic relationships. It could be argued that the marketplace was the dating sites that pre-dated the digital era.

Actual markets, in contrast to virtual ones, are physical spaces that evolve to enable transactions between buyers and sellers. There is a confluence of needs: the needs of a seller with commodities to dispose of, and the needs of a buyer who lacks the commodity on sale. Each is driven to the market by their needs. The existence of markets underscores a reality that no individual, community or region is self-sufficient and therefore must transact. A description of the evolution of Dagoretti in Nairobi as a significant meeting point between Kikuyu farmers and the pastoralist Maasai shows how markets fostered both co-existence and rivalry: “19th century Dagoretti was part of the rich food- producing Kikuyu country and was populated with Maasai and Kikuyu people as it lay on the edge of Maasai country. Kikuyu farmed sugarcane and banana among other crops, while Maasai kept cattle. The two groups cohabited and their lives together ebbed between trade and raid.”

“Ebbed between trade and raid” meant that even as they had a transactional relationship, there were times when they would raid each other. This notwithstanding, there was still a strong relationship between the two communities that allowed for social interaction and cross-cultural mingling.

Kisumu, the third-largest city in Kenya, evolved from a marketplace as the Kisuma name suggests. Sumo is a food security strategy practiced by the Luo where regions that have not enjoyed a good harvest would visit relatives in food-secure regions to borrow grain. In subsequent seasons, the favour would be returned.

The knowledge that those with bumper harvests today might face hardship in the next season entrenched the interdependence. What is today Kisumu was a central place that allowed for transactions between different communities around Winam Gulf all the way to the hills of Nyangóri to Nandi Hills and the present day Kericho. Many towns in Kenya have evolved from such humble transactional markets.

On market days, communities were brought together and even hostile neighbours managed a truce to allow for transaction. An important aspect of these transactions is that there arose between the traders an in-between population and language. Languages of commerce also emerged and these elements of culture ensured that there was social cohesion, if not total harmony.

Kisumu, the third-largest city in Kenya, evolved from a marketplace as the Kisuma name suggests. Sumo is a food security strategy practiced by the Luo where regions that have not enjoyed a good harvest would visit relatives in food-secure regions to borrow grain. In subsequent seasons, the favour would be returned.

The para-linguistic nature of the communication between neighbouring communities would be a fascinating area of intercultural studies. Picture a conversation at the Lubao market in Western Kenya between a dog seller and a dog buyer. What attributes of the canine would the seller extoll in order to secure a deal? Each context is unique. For instance, a goat seller in Koriema in Baringo or Kiamaiko in Nairobi, or a cow seller in Suswa, or even a fishmonger and the buyer at Jubilee Market in Kisumu wishing to purchase a specific species of fish develop their own transactional language.

In many Kenyan livestock markets, there is a distinct bargaining method used to arrive at consensus on a price. The seller and the buyer shake hands while mentioning a price and as long as the price is not agreed upon, the hand is let go. This is repeated several times as the two parties haggle to reach a middle point, and once the negotiated price is mutually arrived at, the handshake is held; a deal has been arrived at. Only after this does money and the livestock change hands.

What is demonstrated by this shared common culture and the rules of engagement are two subtle messages: that the parties are equal and that the transaction is negotiated to the satisfaction of both parties. No one leaves the deal feeling like they have been shafted. This is important because social cohesion must be maintained even after the deal is done. This is a far cry from the skulduggery that defines trade outside of the kawaida market where kickbacks, price-fixing, price variation and other unscrupulous practices are the nature of the transactions.

The existence of markets underscores the centrality of equality between the two transacting parties. Both parties must be willing to acknowledge a “deficiency” – something they lack which the other party has. The transaction only works because the buyer has something of value which they offer to the seller in exchange for the desired product. The transaction is only successful if there is a mutual agreement on the equivalence in value of the transacted items. There is an inherent danger if the parties have no consensus on the value of the transacted items.

Another factor of the market is that the interaction between the parties must be premised on a malleability – a willingness to evolve new identities, characteristics and behaviours. No one leaves a market in the same state as they entered it. Since it is a platform for exchange, markets therefore exist on the principle of fairness – both parties in the transaction must agree that the exchange satisfies their notion of equivalent value. In order to arrive at this mutuality and symbiotic co-existence there must be ways in which cooperation and understanding is built and maintained between the two parties. There are shared values that arise from the familiarity between the sellers and the buyers. This cordial relationship promote an ethic of quality products and honest exchange.

Markets are, therefore, an indicator of whether an economy is productive, or has been rendered purely consumer-oriented and parasitic. Whereas the stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets might not reveal the underlying inequalities, the kawaida markets cannot hide the extent of symbiotic co-existence between parties.

Goods available on the market is indicative of what a region produces and consumes, and this balance or imbalance immediately exposes the power dynamics between these communities, nations or regions. The kawaida market is the platform where local contextual everyday problems find solutions. Whether the challenges emerge from energy, water, food security, health or climate, the solutions can only be invented, innovated and made available at the local kawaida market. The local stock exchange will not be able to reflect and respond if a community is facing an energy crisis and the locals cannot boil their githeri or fry their mbuta. Neither will the forex market respond to a water crisis where women have to travel miles to get the precious liquid for their families. Nor can the bond market respond to the food security that might threaten a region when army worms have invaded their maize farms. The securities market cannot respond the to the health challenges caused by malaria. The need to develop innovative solutions actually rests in the kawaida market.

Kawaida markets as hubs for innovation

William Kamkwamba’s story has been immortalised in a film titled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In 2001, Malawi, his home country, was facing a terrible drought, and the subsequent famine was made worse by abject poverty. Imported maize from Tanzania was highly-priced and the desperate locals could not afford their staple nsima. Disaster was imminent.

William, 14 years old at that point, was meant to transition to high school, but his family could not afford school fees and he had to drop out of school. The farming community he hailed from faced a series of combined problems: poverty, food insecurity, unpredictable climate and erratic rain patterns, poor educational infrastructure and unsustainable eco-unfriendly energy.

Markets are, therefore, an indicator of whether an economy is productive, or has been rendered purely consumer-oriented and parasitic. Whereas the stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets might not reveal the underlying inequalities, the kawaida markets cannot hide the extent of symbiotic co-existence between parties.

Driven by the desire to solve his community’s problems, William, inspired by diagrams in a Physics textbook in the local library where he sought refuge after dropping out of school, sought to build a windmill that could generate electricity that could be used for pumping water for irrigation of their farms and also provide lighting and charge mobile phones that a few in their community-owned. Once he built his windmill from discarded scraps from a junkyard, and managed to generate enough electricity to power his family’s radio and a few light bulbs, it can be said, the rest is history. His innovation was scaled up and a water pumping windmill was built that could enable irrigation as well as light up the village, the local school and provide a model for others to copy throughout Malawi. William went on to recruit many other young Malawians into building windmills to solve the problem of lack of sustainable energy, reliance on rain-fed agriculture and resultant poverty.

A few years ago, at the height of the Hyacinth menace in Lake Victoria, Kisumu Innovation Centre (KICK) came into the picture by innovatively using hyacinth to produce paper, ropes and other materials with the weed. The moment of glory for their innovations came during the memorial service for the late Nobel laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai when it was revealed that the unique casket in which her body lay was manufactured by KICK from hyacinth. It is in this eco-friendly casket that she was cremated. The young men and women at KICK responded to the local problems of youth unemployment, environmental degradation, and poor garbage disposal by promoting the recycling and re-use of waste to create environmental sustainability.

Prof. Wangari’s decision to opt for cremation, and to cap it off in a hyacinth casket, showcased two levels of innovative thinking: it made the point that trees need not be cut down to build coffins, and it also challenged people to adopt more environmentally-friendly body disposal methods using eco-friendly solutions. When one thinks of the number of trees felled just to build caskets, which are used just for a short while before ending up being buried in concrete vaults, the hyacinth casket is nothing short of genius.

There are 4.4 million disabled people in Kenya and 67 per cent of these are unemployed and living in poverty. For those who cannot afford basic wheelchairs, their movement is restricted and some end up wasting away. A young Lincoln Wamae decided to tackle this challenge by making electric wheelchairs. He collects most of the parts from junkyards and assembles the motorable wheelchairs. He says that he began his innovations as a hobby and it has now evolved into a thriving business. He obtains the batteries from old discarded laptops and by so doing is actually contributing to solving the problem of e-waste.   His lithium-iron powered wheelchairs have made these life-changing gadgets available to those who would only have dreamt of them.

Prof. Wangari’s decision to opt for cremation, and to cap it off in a hyacinth casket, showcased two levels of innovative thinking: it made the point that trees need not be cut down to build coffins, and it also challenged people to adopt more environmentally-friendly body disposal methods using eco-friendly solutions.

The same can be said of Simon Karumbo who has made a 100 per cent solar-powered vehicle. He responded to the challenge of youth unemployment as well as climate change and energy challenge by innovating on energy-saving solutions. He controversially went ahead to invent a bed that generates energy when animated activity is performed on it.

Innovation is not only in technology-based solutions. Every market in Kenya has a section where the vibrant trade in second-hand clothes happens. There are usually heaps of clothes neatly segregated by type to allow for easier picking. There is even some level of specialisation: shirts, trousers, ladies’ clothes, children’s attire and shoes.

The mitumba traders traverse the county with bales of clothes worth millions of shillings. They hire thousands of youth as clothes sellers. Young men and women sell second-hand clothes in a well harmonised promotional sing-song, urging buyers to explore the displayed wares. “Ni ya leo, ni ya leo, akina baba, akina mama, ni ya leo ni ya leo.” This translates to: It’s today’s fashion, for men and women. It’s today’s item.

The youthful traders have innovated marketing strategies based on an intimate knowledge of their clients’ needs. The youthful sellers, aware of the desire of their clients to purchase the latest fashion trends, use their singing to reassure buyers of the contemporariness of the fashions. At a certain point they tease the buyers by telling them, “Chagualeo, chaguasasa, kuonanakushikashikani bure, kubebandiopesa”, which translates to: Look and touch [items on sale] is free and one only pays if they wish to carry an item away [buy].

The sing-song promotion is picked up by the hundreds of sellers and engulfs the entire market in a well-choreographed performance. At its peak, it’s reminiscent of a pantomime and the sellers even wear some of the clothes on sale to add colour; cross-dressing is common. It reminds one of a Bollywood film segment. In an environment where marketers are competing with multiple sellers, the innovative, attention-grabbing pantomime works more effectively than giant billboards or loud-hailers.

Potential for a thriving cottage industry

Innovation by the youth has demonstrated that there is a great potential for a thriving cottage industry-based economic growth model that will also provide thousands of jobs. A cottage industry is a small-scale, decentralised manufacturing business often operated out of a non-designated industrial complex or purpose-built factory. Cottage industries often focus on production of high-skill, labour-intensive goods as opposed to mass-market items.

Today cottage industries seek to serve a market looking for original hand-crafted products as opposed to mass-produced, name brand products.  In the past, items that found their way to the kawaida market were products from cottage industries. The clay pots, the wicker baskets, leather bags and other household items had a long supply chain that ensured employment for those who dug up clay, kneaded it, moulded pots, fired them and those who transported them. The supply chain of a papyrus mat standing at a market is even longer and includes people harvesting papyrus in boats on floating islands.

Beyond that, the cottage industries maintain a link to traditional artisanal skills passed on from one generation to the next. Cottage industries are responsive to emerging challenges. I recently witnessed some young artisans in Holo Market in Seme repairing handles of pangas and knives using discarded plastic. Anyone who has bought the mass-produced Chinese farming implements know how vexing the short life of their handles are. The youth who once worked in metal foundries, collect the plastic, and then melt and mould it into a handle that will probably outlast the implement.

In many markets today you will encounter young men and women pressing (using innovatively made blenders) and selling fresh sugarcane juice blended with ginger, lemon and mint. Every seller has arrived at a unique recipe and this nameless cocktail is drunk more than the mainstream juices or carbonated drinks. There are those who blend vegetable juices and even groundnut juice laced with omugombera. Mondiawhytei an indigenous tree that acts as an appetiser, breath freshener and is rumoured to be an aphrodisiac. There are refreshing juices made from a combination of all manner of fruits and vegetables.

Innovation by the youth has demonstrated that there is a great potential for a thriving cottage industry-based economic growth model that will also provide thousands of jobs.

In parts of the coastal region, there are the signature cassava crisps, the sweet potato cakes and biscuits from Kabondo. There is a young entrepreneur in Kisumu who is rearing and promoting edible crickets that are added into wheat dough to make highly nutritious biscuits. There are many more innovations in the kawaida markets that are solving local problems, as well as providing solutions to global challenges, such as environmental degradation and climate warming.

There is a colonial hangover in the way that modern African economies perceive markets that is constantly receiving push-back from the innovators. The fixation with stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets while ignoring the markets where a majority of the citizens have developed innovative approaches and ingenious solutions to local as well as global problems is counter-intuitive, counterproductive and inimical to development.

Kawaida markets, which sell the innovative products derived from our cottage industries, also act as purveyors of our culture while presenting a unique solution to the economic as well as the health and environmental challenges facing us. The stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets are important because these open us up to a global economic system, but the space in which we transact our livelihoods is the kawaida market where the traders and buyers meet.

A thriving innovative hub connected to local markets provide platforms for creative solutions to the world’s needs while offering the youth a livelihood. Communality and social cohesion is built premised on the mutual need for one another and fairness is the ethic that guides transactions in kawaida markets. What defines us humans is that we transact: we do so in recognition of mutual needs and inter-dependence, and we negotiate seeking a fair exchange from each other. We transact, therefore we are.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

Follow us on Twitter.