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The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen

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The coronavirus crisis has thrown into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism and shown the limits of the neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s. The pandemic has at the same time showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments.

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The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen
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The global coronavirus pandemic has triggered worldwide panic as the numbers of victims explode and economies implode, as physical movement and social interactions wither in lockdowns, as apocalyptic projections of its destructive reach soar, and as unprepared or underprepared national governments and international agencies desperately scramble for solutions.

The pandemic has exposed the daunting deficiencies of public health systems in many countries. It threatens cataclysmic economic wreckage as entire industries, global supply chains, and stock markets collapse under its frightfully unpredictable trajectory. Its social, emotional, and mental toll are as punishing as they are paralysing for multitudes of people increasingly isolated in their homes as the public life of work spaces, travel, entertainment, sports, religious congregations, and other gatherings grind to a halt.

Also being torn asunder are cynical ideological certainties and the political fortunes of national leaders as demands grow for strong and competent governments. The populist revolt against science and experts has received its comeuppance as the deadly costs of pandering to mass ignorance mount. At the same time, the pandemic has shattered the strutting assurance of masters of the universe as they either catch the virus or as it constrains their jet-setting lives and erodes their bulging equity portfolios.

Furthermore, the coronavirus throws into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism, as the pandemic leaps across the world showing no respect for national boundaries, and countries seek to contain it by fortifying national borders. It underscores the limits of both neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s, and populist nationalisms that have bestrode the world since the 2000s, which emerged partly out of the deepening social and economic inequalities spawned by the former.

These are some of the issues I would like to reflect on in this essay, the political economy of the coronavirus pandemic. As historians and social scientists know all too well, any major crisis is always multifaceted in its causes, courses, and consequences. Disease epidemics are no different. In short, understanding the epidemiological dimensions and dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic is as important as analysing its economic, social, and political impact. Moments of crisis always have their fear-mongers and skeptics. The role of progressive public intellectuals is to provide sober analysis.

In the Shadows of 1918-1920

The coronavirus pandemic is the latest and potentially one of the most lethal global pandemics in a long time. One of the world’s deadliest pandemics was the Great Plague of 1346-1351 which ravaged larges parts of Eurasia and Africa. It killed between 75 to 200 million people, and wiped out 30 per cent to 60 per cent of the European population. The plague was caused by fleas carried by rats, underscoring humanity’s vulnerability to the lethal power of small and micro-organisms, notwithstanding the conceit of its mastery over nature. The current pandemic shows that this remains true despite all the technological advances humanity has made since then.

Over a century ago, as World War I came to an end, an influenza epidemic, triggered by a virus transmitted from animals to humans, ravaged the globe. One-third of the world’s population was infected, and it left 50 million people dead. It was the worst pandemic of the 20th century. It was bigger and more lethal than the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century. But for a world then traumatised by the horrors of war it seemed to have left a limited impact on global consciousness.

Photo. British Red Cross – American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919

Some health experts fear Covid-19, as the new strain of coronavirus has been named, might rival the influenza epidemic of 1918. But there are those who caution that history is sometimes not kind to moral panics, that similar hysteria was expressed following the outbreaks in the 2000s and 2010s of bouts of bird flu and swine flu, of SARS, MERS and Ebola, each of which was initially projected to kill millions of people. Of course, nobody really knows whether or not the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will rival that of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, but the echoes are unsettling: its mortality rate seems comparable, as is its explosive spread.

The devastating power Covid-19 is wracking and humbling every country, economy, society, and social class, although the pervasive structural and social inscriptions of differentiation still cast their formidable and discriminatory capacities for prevention and survival. In its socioeconomic and political impact alone, Covid-19 has already made history. One lesson from the influenza pandemic that applies to the current coronavirus pandemic is that countries, cities and communities that took early preventive measures fared much better than those that did not.

Doctors’ Orders

Since Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019, international and national health organisations and ministries have issued prevention guidelines for individuals and institutions. Most of the recommended measures reflect guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.

But the pandemic is not just about physical health. It is also about mental health. Writing in The Atlantic magazine of March 17, 2020, on how to stay sane during the pandemic one psychotherapist notes, “You can let anxiety consume you, or you can feel the fear and also find joy in ordinary life, even now”. She concludes, “I recommend that all of us pay as much attention to protecting our emotional health as we do to guarding our physical health. A virus can invade our bodies, but we get to decide whether we let it invade our minds”.

A Kenyan psychology professor advises her readers in the Sunday Nation of March 23, 2020, to cultivate a positive mindset. “Take only credible sources of information . . . Don’t consume too much data, it can be overwhelming. You may be in isolation but very noisy within yourself. Learn to relax and to convert your energy into other activities in order to nurture your own mental health . . . Such as gardening, learning a language, doing an online course, painting or read that book. Do the house chores, trim the flowers, paint, do repairs, clean the dust in those corners we always ignore . . . Exercise . . . Talk to someone if you feel terrified, empty, hopeless, and worthless. These are creeping signs of depression. This too will pass: Believe me that there will be an end to this”.

Scramble for Containment

Many governments were caught unprepared or underprepared by the coronavirus pandemic. Some even initially dismissed the threat. This was particularly the case among populist rightwing governments, such as the administrations of President Trump of the United States, Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom, and President Bolsonaro of Brazil. As populists, they had risen to power on a dangerous brew of nationalist and nativist fantasies of reviving national greatness and purity, xenophobia against foreigners, and manufactured hatred for elites and experts.

To rightwing ideologues the coronavirus was a foreign pathogen, a “Chinese virus” according to President Trump and his Republican followers in the United States, that posed no threat to the nation quarantined in its splendid isolation of renewed greatness. Its purported threat was fake news propagated by partisan Democrats, or disgruntled left-wing labour and liberal parties in the case of the United Kingdom and Brazil that had recently been vanquished at the polls.

Such was the obduracy of President Trump that not only did he and his team ignore frantic media reports about the pandemic leaping across the world, but also ominous, classified warnings issued by the U.S. intelligence agencies throughout January and February. Instead, he kept assuring Americans in his deranged twitterstorms that there was little to worry about, that “I think it’s going to work out fine,” that “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”.

Photo. Martin Sanchez/Unsplash

Trump’s denialism was echoed by many leaders around the world including in Africa. This delayed taking much-needed preemptive action that would have limited the spread and potential impact of the coronavirus firestorm. In fact, as early as 2012 a report by the Rand Corporation warned that only pandemics were “capable of destroying America’s way of life”. The Obama administration proceeded to establish the National Security Council directorate for global health and security and bio-defense, which the Trump administration closed in 2018. On the whole, global pandemics have generally not been taken seriously by security establishments in many countries preoccupied with conventional wars, terrorism, and the machismo of military hardware.

In the meantime, China, the original epicenter of the pandemic took draconian measures that locked down Wuhan and neighbouring regions, a measure that was initially dismissed by many politicians and pundits in “western democracies” as a frightful and an unacceptable example of Chinese authoritarianism. As the pandemic ravished Italy, which became the coronavirus epicenter in Europe and a major exporter of the disease to several African countries, regional and national lockdowns were embraced as a strategy of containment.

Asian democracies such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore adopted less coercive and more transparent measures. Already endowed with good public health systems capable of handling major epidemics—which capability was enhanced by the virus epidemics of the 2000s and 2010s—they developed effective and vigilant monitoring systems encompassing early intervention, meticulous contact tracking, mandatory quarantines, social distancing, and border controls.

Various forms of lockdown, some more draconian than others, were soon adopted in many countries and cities around the world. They encompassed the closure of offices, schools and universities, and entertainment and sports venues, as well as banning of international flights and even domestic travel. Large-scale disinfection drives were also increasingly undertaken. The Economist of March 21, 2020 notes in its lead story that China and South Korea have effectively used “technology to administer quarantines and social distancing. China is using apps to certify who is clear of the disease and who is not. Both it and South Korea are using big data and social media to trace infections, alert people of hotspots and round contacts”.

Belatedly, as the pandemic flared in their countries, the skeptics began singing a different tune, although a dwindling minority complained of overreaction. Befitting the grandiosity of populist politicians, they suddenly fancied themselves as great generals in the most ferocious war in a generation. Some commentators found the metaphor of war obscene for its self-aggrandisement for clueless leaders anxious to burnish their tattered reputations and accrue more gravitas and power. For the bombastic, narcissistic, and pathological liar that he is, President Trump sought to change the narrative that he had foreseen the pandemic notwithstanding his earlier dismissals of its seriousness.

His British counterpart, Prime Minister Johnson vainly tried Churchillian impersonation which was met with widespread derision in the media. Each time either of them spoke trying to reassure the public, the more it became clear they were out of their depth, that they did not have the intellectual and political capacity to calm the situation. It was a verdict delivered with painful cruelty by the stock markets that they adore—they fell sharply each time the two gave a press conference and announced half-baked containment measures.

Initially, many of Africa’s inept governments remained blasé about the pandemic even allowing flights to and from China, Italy and other countries with heavy infection rates. Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media about Africa’s immunity because of its sunny weather, the curative potential of some concoctions from disinfectants to pepper soup, the preventive potential of shaving beards, or the protective power of faith and prayer.

But as concerns and outrage from civil society mounted, and opportunities for foreign aid rose, some governments went into rhetorical overdrive that engendered more panic than reassurance. It has increasingly become evident that Africa needs unflinching commitment and massive resources to stem the rising tide of coronavirus infections. According to one commentator in The Sunday Nation of March 22, “It is estimated that the continent would need up to $10.6 billion in unanticipated increases in health spending to curtail the virus from spreading”. He advises the continent to urgently implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, and work with global partners.

Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media

In Kenya, some defiant politicians refused to self-quarantine after coming from coronavirus-stricken countries, churches resisted closing their doors, and traders defied orders to close markets. This forced the government to issue draconian containing measures on March 22, 2020 stipulating that all those who violated quarantine measures would be forcefully quarantined at their own expense, all gatherings at churches, mosques were suspended, weddings were no longer allowed, and funerals would be restricted to 15 family members.

The infodemic of false and misleading information, as the WHO calls it, was of course not confined to Africa. It spread like wildfire around the world. So did coronavirus fraudsters peddling fake information and products to desperate and unwary recipients. In Britain, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau was forced to issue urgent scam warnings against emails and text messages purporting to be from reputable research and health organisations.

The coronavirus pandemic showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments. The neo-liberal crusade against “big government” that had triumphed since the turn of the 1980s, suddenly looked threadbare. And so did the populist zealotry against experts and expertise. The valorisation of the politics of gut feelings masquerading as gifted insight and knowledge, suddenly vanished into puffs of ignoble ignorance that endangered the lives of millions of people. People found more solace in the calm pronouncements of professional experts including doctors, epidemiologists, researchers and health officials than loquacious politicians.

Populist leaders like President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson and many others of their ilk had taken vicarious pleasure in denigrating experts and expert knowledge, and decimating national research infrastructures and institutions. Suddenly, at their press conferences they were flanked by trusted medical and scientific professionals and civil servants as they sought to bask in the latter’s reassuring glow. But that could not restore public health infrastructures overnight, severely damaged as they were by indefensible austerity measures and the pro-rich transfers of wealth adopted by their governments.

Economic Meltdown

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, many countries were unprepared for it. There were severe shortages of testing kits and health care facilities. Many also lacked universal entitlement to healthcare, social safety nets including basic employment rights and unemployment insurance that could mitigate some of the worst effects of the pandemic’s economic impact. All this ensured that the pandemic would unleash mutually reinforcing health and economic crises.

Photo. Rick Tap/Unsplash

The signs of economic meltdown escalated around the world. Stock markets experienced a volatility that run out of superlatives. In the United States, from early February to March 20, 2020 the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by about 10,000 points or 35%, while the S&P fell by 32%. In Britain, the FTSE fell by 49% from its peak in earlier in the year, the German GDAXI by 36%, the Hong Kong HSI by 22%, and the Japanese Nikkei by 32%. Trillions of dollars were wiped out. In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama, depriving the market-obsessed president of one of his favourite talking points and justifications for re-election.

There are hardly any parallels to a pandemic leading to markets crumbling the way they have following the coronavirus outbreak. They did not do so during the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, although they fluctuated thereafter. Closer to our times, during the flu pandemic of 1957-1958 the Dow fell about 25per cent, while the SARS and MERS scares of the early 21st century had relatively limited economic impact. Some economic historians warn, however, that the stock market isn’t always a good indicator or predictor of the severity of a pandemic.

The sharp plunge in stock markets reflected a severe economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic as one industry after another went into a tailspin. The travel, hospitality and leisure industries encompassing airlines, hotels, restaurants, bars, sports, conventions, exhibitions, tourism, and retail were the first to feel the headwinds of the economic slump as people escaped or were coerced into the isolation of their homes. For example, hotel revenues in the United States plummeted by 75 per cent on average, worse than during the Great Recession and the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined.

In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama

Other industries soon followed suit as supply chains were scuppered, profits and share prices fell, and offices closed and staff were told to work from home. Manufacturing, construction, and banking have not been spared. Big technology manufacturing has also been affected by factory shutdowns and postponing the launch of new products. Neither was the oil industry safe. With global demand falling, and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia escalating, oil prices fell dramatically to $20.3, a fall of 67 per cent since the beginning of 2020. Some predicted the prospect of $5 oil per barrel.

The oil price war threatened to decimate smaller or poorer oil producers from the Gulf states to Nigeria. It also threatened the shale oil industry in the United States because of its high production costs, thereby depriving the country of its newly acquired status as the largest oil producer in the world, to the chagrin of Russia and OPEC. Many of the US shale oil companies face bankruptcy as their production costs are fourteen times higher than Saudi Arabia’s production costs, and they need prices of more than $40 per barrel to cover their direct costs.

Falling oil prices combined with growing concerns about climate change, dented the prospects of several oil exploration and production companies, such as the British company Tullow, which has ambitious projects in Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. This threatened these countries’ aspirations to join the club of major oil-producing nations. In early March, 2020, one of Tullow’s major investors, Blackrock, the world’s biggest hedge fund with $7 trillion, made it clear it was losing interest in fossil fuel investment.

Such are the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic that 51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe “the world faces a major recession, even if COVID-19 kills no more people than seasonal flu. Only 5% said they did not think it would.” According to a survey reported by the World Economic Forum, “The public sees coronavirus as a greater threat to the economy than to their health, new research suggests. Economic rescue measures announced by governments do not appear to be calming concern . . . The majority of people in most countries polled expect to feel a personal financial impact from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results. Respondents in Vietnam, China, India and Italy show the greatest concern”.

51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe the world faces a major recession

Many economies spiraled into recession. The major international financial institutions and development agencies have revised world, regional, and national economic growth prospects for 2020 downwards, sometimes sharply so. Estimates by Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy firm, show that world GDP which grew by 3.5% in 2018 and 2.9% in 2019, will slide to 1.7% if the coronavirus pandemic becomes prolonged and severe, and it might take up to a year or more for the world economy to recover. The OECD predicts that “Global growth could drop to 1.5 per cent in 2020, half the rate projected before the virus outbreak. Recovery much more gradual through 2021”.

The OECD Economic Outlook, Interim Report March 2020 notes,

Growth was weak but stabilising until the coronavirus Covid-19 hit. Restrictions on movement of people, goods and services, and containment measures such as factory closures have cut manufacturing and domestic demand sharply in China. The impact on the rest of the world through business travel and tourism, supply chains, commodities and lower confidence is growing.

It forecasts “Severe, short-lived downturn in China, where GDP growth falls below 5% in 2020 after 6.1% in 2019, but recovering to 6.4% in 2021. In Japan, Korea, Australia, growth also hit hard then gradual recovery. Impact less severe in other economies but still hit by drop in confidence and supply chain disruption”.

Compared to a year earlier, the once buoyant Chinese economy shrank by between 10 and 20 per cent in January and February 2020. The Economist states,

In the first two months of 2020 all major indicators were deeply negative: industrial production fell by 13.5% year-on-year, retail sales by 20.5% and fixed-asset investment by 24.5% . . . The last time China reported an economic contraction was more than four decades ago, at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

In the United States, the recovery and boom from the Great Recession that started in 2009 came to a screeching halt. Some grim predictions project that as businesses shut down and more than 80 million Americans stay penned at home unemployment, which had dropped to a historic low of 3.5 per cent, might skyrocket to 20 per cent. This spells disaster as consumer spending drives 70 per cent of the economy, and 39 per cent of Americans cannot handle an unexpected $400 expense.

This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy

Various estimates indicate that in the next three months the economy will shrink by anywhere between 14 and to 30 per cent, ushering in one of America’s fastest and deepest recessions in history. This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy.

UNCTAD has added its gloomy assessment for the world economy and emerging economies. Launching its report in early March, the Director of the Division on Globalisation and Development Strategies at UNCTAD noted that,

One ‘Doomsday scenario’ in which the world economy grew at only 0.5 per cent, would involve ‘a $2 trillion hit’ to gross domestic product . . . There’s a degree of anxiety now that’s well beyond the health scares which are very serious and concerning . . . To counter these fears, ‘Governments need to spend at this point in time to prevent the kind of meltdown that could be even more damaging than the one that is likely to take place over the course of the year’, Mr. Kozul-Wright insisted.

Turning to Europe and the Eurozone, Mr. Kozul-Wright noted that its economy had already been performing ‘extremely badly towards the end of 2019’ . . . It was ‘almost certain to go into recession over the coming months; and the German economy is particularly fragile, but the Italian economy and other parts of the European periphery are also facing very serious stresses right now as a consequence of trends over (the last few) days’.

The UNCTAD announcement continues,

So-called Least Developed Countries, whose economies are driven by the sale of raw materials, will not be spared either. ‘Heavily-indebted developing countries, particularly commodity exporters, face a particular threat’, thanks to weaker export returns linked to a stronger US dollar, Mr. Kozul-Wright maintained. ‘The likelihood of a stronger dollar as investors seek safe-havens for their money, and the almost certain rise in commodity prices as the global economy slows down, means that commodity exporters are particularly vulnerable’.

Africa will not be spared. According to Fitch Solutions, a consultancy firm,

We have revised down our Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) growth forecast to 1.9% in 2020, from 2.1% previously, reflecting macroeconomic risks arising from moderating oil prices and the global spread of Covid-19. While the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in SSA remains low thus far, African markets remain vulnerable to deteriorating risk sentiment, tightening financial conditions and slowing growth in key trade partners. The sharp decline in global oil prices resulting from the failure of OPEC+ to reach agreement on additional production cutbacks will undermine growth and export earnings in the continent’s main oil producers, notably Nigeria, Angola and South Sudan.

In Kenya, there were widespread fears that the coronavirus pandemic would bring the national airline carrier and other companies in the lucrative tourism industry to their knees. Similarly affected will be the critical agricultural and horticultural export industry. Aggravating the sharp economic downturns, some commentators lamented, is widespread corruption. Domestically, the ubiquitous matatu transport industry is groaning under new regulations limiting the number of passengers.

The economy was already fragile prior to the coronavirus crisis. In the words of one commentator in the Sunday Standard of March 23, 2020,

Companies were laying off, malls were already empty even before the outbreak and shops and kiosks and mama mbogas were recording the lowest sales in years. Matters are not helped by the fact that our e-commerce (purchase and delivery) does not account for much due to poor infrastructure and low trust levels.

Another commentator in the same paper on March 17, 2020 wrote, “It’s a matter of time before bleeding economy goes into coma”. He outlined the depressing litany: increased cost of living, gutting of Kenya’s export market, discouragement of the use of hard cash, producers grappling with limited supply, a bleeding stock market, irrational investor fears, and moratorium on foreign travel.

As the crisis intensified, international financial institutions and development agencies loosened the spigots of financial support. On March 12, 2020 the IMF announced,

In the event of a severe downturn triggered by the coronavirus, we estimate the Fund could provide up to US$50 billion in emergency financing to fund emerging and developing countries’ initial response. Low-income countries could benefit from about US$10 billion of this amount, largely on concessional terms. Beyond the immediate emergency, members can also request a new loan—drawing on the IMF’s war chest of around US$1 trillion in quota and borrowed resources—and current borrowers can top up their ongoing lending arrangements.

For its part, the World Bank announced on March 17 that,

The World Bank and IFC’s Boards of Directors approved today an increased $14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19. The package will strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis, and treatment, and support the private sector.

On March 19, the European Central Bank announced,

As a result, the ECB’s Governing Council announced on Wednesday a new Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme with an envelope of €750 billion until the end of the year, in addition to the €120 billion we decided on 12 March. Together this amounts to 7.3% of euro area GDP. The programme is temporary and designed to address the unprecedented situation our monetary union is facing. It is available to all jurisdictions and will remain in place until we assess that the coronavirus crisis phase is over.

Altogether, The Economist states,

A crude estimate for America, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, including spending pledges, tax cuts, central bank cash injections and loan guarantees, amounts to $7.4trn, or 23% of GDP . . . A huge array of policies is on offer, from holidays on mortgage payments to bail-outs of Paris cafés. Meanwhile, orthodox stimulus tools may not work well. Interest rates in the rich world are near zero, depriving central bank of their main lever . . . What to do? An economic plan needs to target two groups: households and companies.

Some of the regional development banks also announced major infusions of funds to contain the pandemic. On March 18, “The Asian Development Bank (ADB) today announced a $6.5 billion initial package to address the immediate needs of its developing member countries (DMCs) as they respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”.

On the same day, the African Development Bank announced “bold measures to curb coronavirus”, but this largely consisted of “health and safety measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in countries where it has a presence, including its headquarters in Abidjan. The measures include telecommuting, video conferencing in lieu of physical meetings, the suspension of visits to Bank buildings, and the cancellation of all travel, meetings, and conferences, until further notice”. No actual financial support was stipulated in the announcement.

Trading Ideological Places 

As the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic escalated, demands for government support intensified from employers, employees and trade unions. The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times. As noted above, across Kenya jobs were already being lost before the coronavirus epidemic. Those in the informal economy are exceptionally vulnerable because of the extensive lockdown the government announced on March 22, 2020.

Those earning a precarious living in the gig economy face special hurdles in making themselves heard and receiving support. With the lockdown of cities, couriers become even more essential to deliver food and other supplies, but they lack employment rights, so that many cannot afford self-isolation if they become sick. Customer service workers at airports and in supermarkets have sometimes been at the receiving end of pandemonium and the anxieties of irate customers.

The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times

The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight. For example, as one author puts it in a story in The Atlantic of March 11, 2020, “It’s not hard to feel like the coronavirus has exposed the utter smallness of Brexit . . . Ultimately, Brexit is not a matter of life and death literally or economically. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is killing people and perhaps many businesses”.

The same could be said of many trivial political squabbles in other countries. In the United States, one observer notes in The Atlantic of March 19, 2020,

In the absence of meaningful national leadership, Americans across the country are making their own decisions for our collective well-being. You’re seeing it in small stores deciding on their own to close; you’re seeing it in restaurants evolving without government decree to offer curbside pickup or offer delivery for the first time; you’re seeing it in the offices that closed long before official guidance arrived.

The author concludes poignantly, “The most isolating thing most of us have ever done is, ironically, almost surely the most collective experience we’ve ever had in our lifetimes”. And I can attest that I have seen this spirit of cooperation and collaboration on my own campus, among faculty, staff, and students. But the pandemic also raises questions about how effectively democracy can be upheld under the coronavirus lockdowns. Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?

Also upended by the coronavirus pandemic are traditional ideological polarities. Right-wing governments are competing with left-wing governments or opposition liberal legislatures as in the United States to craft “big government” mitigation packages. Many are borrowing monetary and fiscal measures from the Great Recession playbook, some of which they resisted when they were in opposition or not yet in office.

In terms of monetary policy, several central banks have cut interest rates. On March 15, 2020, the US Federal Reserve cut the rate to near zero in a coordinated move with the central banks of Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The Fed also announced measures to shore up financial markets including a package of $700 billion for asset purchase and a credit facility for commercial banks. Three days later, as noted above, the European Central Bank launched a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme. These measures failed to assure the markets which continued to plummet.

The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight

As for fiscal policy, several governments announced radical spending measures. On 20 March, the UK announced that the government would pay up to 80 per cent of the wages of employees across the country sent home as businesses shut their doors as part of the drastic coronavirus containment strategy. This followed the example of the Danish government that had earlier pledged to cover 75 per cent of employees’ salaries for firms that agreed not to cut staff.

In the United States, Congress began working on a $1 trillion economic relief programme, later raised to $1.8 trillion. The negotiations between the two parties over the proposed stimulus bill proved bitterly contentious. For President Trump and Republicans it was a bitter pill to swallow, given their antipathy to “big government”. It marked the fall of another ideological pillar of Trumpism and Republicanism. For some, the demise of these pillars marks the end of the Trump presidency, which has been exposed for its deadly incompetence, autocratic political culture, and aversion to truth and transparency. We will of course only know for sure in November 2020.

Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?

In Kenya employers, workers, unions and analysts have implored the government to undertake drastic measures to boost the economy by providing bailouts, tax incentives and rebates, and social safety nets, as well as increasing government spending. Demands have been made to banks to extend credit to the private sector and to the Central Bank to lower or even freeze interest rates for six months. The Sunday Nation of March 22 reported pay cuts were looming for workers as firms struggled to keep afloat, and that the government had scrambled a war chest of Sh140 billion to shore up the economy and avert a recession.

Home Alone

Home isolation is recommended by epidemiologists as a critical means of what they call flattening the curve of the pandemic. Its economic impact is well understood, less so its psychological and emotional impact. While imperative, social isolation might exacerbate the growing loneliness epidemic as some call it, especially in the developed countries.

According to an article in The Atlantic magazine of March 10, 2020, the loneliness epidemic is becoming a serious health care crisis.

Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A lack of social relationships is an enormous risk factor for death, increasing the likelihood of mortality by 26 percent. A major study found that, when compared with people with weak social ties, people who enjoyed meaningful relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over time.

The problem of loneliness is often thought to be prevalent among older people, but in countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, “The problem is especially acute among young adults ages 18 to 22”. Research shows that the feeling of loneliness is not a reflection of physical isolation, but of the meaning and depth of one’s social engagements. Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media.

Photo. Anaya Katlego/Unsplash

Several studies have pointed out that social media may be reinforcing social disconnection, which is at the root of loneliness. This is because while social media has facilitated instant communication and made people more densely connected than ever, it offers a poor substitute for the intimate communication and dense and meaningful interactions humans crave and get from real friends and family. It fosters shallow and superficial connections, surrogate and even fake friendships, and narcissistic and exhibitionist sociability.

Loneliness should of course not be confused with solitude. Loneliness can also not be attributed solely to external conditions as it is often rooted in one’s psychological state. But the density and quality of social interactions matters. The current loneliness epidemic reflects the irony of a vicious cycle, a nexus of triple impulses: in cultures and sensibilities of self-absorption and self-invention, some people invite or choose loneliness either as a marker of self-sufficiency or social success, while the Internet makes it possible for people to be lonely, and lonely people tend to be more attracted to the Internet.

Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media

But technology can also help mitigate social distancing. To quote one author writing in The Atlantic on March 14, 2020, “As more people employers and schools encourage people to stay home, people across the country find themselves video-chatting more than they usually might: going to meetings on Zoom, catching up with clients on Skype, FaceTime with therapists, even hosting virtual bar mitzvahs”. Jointly playing video games, watching streaming entertainment, or having virtual dinner parties also opens bonding opportunities.

Besides the growth and consumption of modern media and its disruptive and isolating technologies, loneliness is being reinforced by structural forces including the spread of the nuclear family, an invention that even in the United States has a short history as a social formation. This is evident in sociological studies and demonstrated in the lead story in the March 2020 edition of The Atlantic.


The article shows that for much of American history people lived in extended clans and families, whose great strength was their resilience and their role as a socialising force. The decline of multigenerational families dates to the development of an industrial economy and reached its apogee after World War II between 1950 and 1975, when it all began falling apart, again due to broader structural forces.

One doesn’t have to agree with the author’s analysis of what led to the profound changes in family structure. Certainly, women did not benefit from the older extended family structures, which were resolutely patriarchal. But it is a fact that currently, more people live alone in the United States—and in many other countries including those in the developing world—than ever before. The author stresses, “The period when the nuclear family flourished was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired to obscure its essential fragility”.

He continues, “For many people, the era of the nuclear family has been a catastrophe. All forms of inequality are cruel, but family inequality may be the cruelest. It damages the heart”. He urges society “to figure out better ways to live together”. The question is: what will be the impact of the social distancing demanded by the coronavirus pandemic on the loneliness epidemic and the prospects of developing new and more fulfilling ways of living together?

Coronavirus Hegemonic Rivalries

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, China bore the brunt of being both the victims and the victimised. The rest of the world feared the contagion’s spread from China and before long the disease did spread to other Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Iran. This triggered anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in Europe, North America, and even Africa.

For many Africans, it was a source of perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent. Many wondered how Africa and Africans would have been portrayed and treated given the long history, in the western and global imaginaries, of pathologising African cultures, societies, and bodies as diseased embodiments of sub-humanity.

Disease breeds xenophobia, the irrational fear of the “other”. Commenting on the influenza pandemic in The Wall Street Journal, one scholar reminds us, “As the flu spread in 1918, many communities found scapegoats. Chileans blamed the poor, Senegalese blamed Brazilians, Brazilians blamed the Germans, Iranians blamed the British, and so on”. One key lesson is that to combat pandemics global cooperation is essential. Unfortunately, that lesson seems to be ignored by some governments in the current pandemic, although like in other pandemics, good Samaritans also abound.

For many Africans, it was a source perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent

As China, South Korea, and Japan gradually contained the spread of the disease, and Italy and other European countries turned into its epicenter, and as the contagion began surging in the United States, the tables turned. While the Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways, it is China that took centre-stage in the global narrative. As would be expected in a world of intense hegemonic rivalries between the United States and China, the coronavirus pandemic has become weaponised in the two countries’ superpower rivalry.

On March 19, 2020, China marked a milestone since the outbreak of the coronavirus when it was announced that there were no new domestic cases; the 34 new cases identified that day were all brought in by people coming from abroad. An article in the New York Times of March 19, 2020, reports,

Across Asia, travellers from Europe and the United States are being barred or forced into quarantine. Gyms, private clinics and restaurants in Hong Kong warn them to stay away. Even Chinese parents who proudly sent their children to study in New York or London are now mailing them masks and sanitizer or rushing them home on flights that can cost $25,000.

The Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways

Even before this turning point, as coronavirus cases in China declined, the country began projecting itself as a heroic model of containment. It anxiously sought to furbish its once battered image by exporting medical equipment, experts, and other forms of humanitarian assistance. Such is the new-found conceit of China that, to Trump’s racist casting of the “China virus” some misguided Chinese nationalists falsely charge that the coronavirus started with American troops, and scornfully disparage the United States for its apparently slow and chaotic containment efforts.

Another article in The New York Times of March 18, 2020, captures China’s strategy for recasting its global image.

From Japan to Iraq, Spain to Peru, it has provided or pledged humanitarian assistance in the form of donations or medical expertise — an aid blitz that is giving China the chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis. In doing so, it has stepped into a role that the West once dominated in times of natural disaster or public health emergency, and that President Trump has increasingly ceded in his ‘America First’ retreat from international engagement.

The story continues,

Now, the global failures in confronting the pandemic from Europe to the United States have given the Chinese leadership a platform to prove its model works — and potentially gain some lasting geopolitical currency. As it has done in the past, the Chinese state is using its extensive tools and deep pockets to build partnerships around the world, relying on trade, investments and, in this case, an advantageous position as the world’s largest maker of medicines and protective masks . . . On Wednesday, China said it would provide two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 testing kits to Europe . . . One of China’s leading entrepreneurs, Jack Ma, offered to donate 500,000 tests and one million masks to the United States, where hospitals are facing shortages.

Some analysts argue that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the decoupling of the United States from China that began with President Trump’s trade war launched in 2018. American hawks see the pandemic as bolstering their argument that China’s dominance of certain global supply chains including some medical supplies and pharmaceutical ingredients poses a systemic risk to the American economy. Many others believe Trump’s “America First” not only damaged the country’s standing and its preparedness to deal with the pandemic, but also to create the international solidarity required for its containment and control.

In the words of one author in The Atlantic of March 15, 2020,

Like Japan in the mid-1800s, the United States now faces a crisis that disproves everything the country believes about itself . . . The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor. When human life is in peril, we are not as good as Singapore, as South Korea, as Germany.

Some commentators even go further, contending that the pandemic is facilitating the process of de-globalisation more generally as countries not only lock themselves in national enclosures to protect themselves, but seek to become more economically self-sufficient. It is important to note that throughout history, there have been waves and retreats of globalisation. The globalisation of the late 19th century, which was characterised by massive migrations, growth of international trade, and expansion of global production chains with the emergence of modern multinational and transnational corporations, retreated in the inferno of World War I and the Great Depression.

The globalisation of the late 20th century, engendered by the emergence of new information and communication technologies and value chains, the rise of emerging economies as serious players in the world system, among other factors, had already started fraying by the time of the Great Recession. The latter pried open not only the deep inequalities that neo-liberal globalisation had engendered, but also gave vent to a crescendo of nationalist and populist backlashes.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism. It underscores global interconnectedness, that pathogens do not respect our imaginary communities of nation-states, that the ties that bind humanity are thicker than the threads of separation.

Universities Go Online

The coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted many industries and sectors, including education, following the closure of schools, colleges and universities. However, fear of crowding and lockdowns has also boosted online industries ranging from e-commerce and food delivery to online entertainment and gaming, to cloud solutions for business continuity, to e-health and e-learning.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices. Before the pandemic the gig economy was already a growing part of many economies, so were e-health and e-learning.

According to the British Guardian newspaper of March 6, 2020, General practitioners (GPs) have been “told to switch to digital consultations to combat Covid-19”. The story elaborates,

In a significant policy change, NHS bosses want England’s 7,000 GP surgeries to start conducting as many remote consultations as soon as possible, replacing patient visits with phone, video, online or text contact. They want to reduce the risk of someone infected with Covid-19 turning up at a surgery and free GPs to deal with the extra workload created by the virus . . . The approach could affect many of the 340m appointments a year with GPs and other practice staff, only 1% of which are currently carried out by video, such as Skype.

Another story in the same paper also notes that supermarkets in Britain have been “asked to boost deliveries for coronavirus self-isolation”.

The educational sector has been one of the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic as the closure of schools and universities has often been adopted by many governments as the first line of defense. It could be argued that higher education institutions have even taken the lead in managing the pandemic in three major ways: shifting instruction online, conducting research on the coronavirus and its multiple impacts, and advising public policy.

Ever since the crisis broke out, I’ve been following the multiple threats it poses to various sectors especially higher education, avidly devouring the academic media including The Chronicle of a higher EducationInside Higher EducationUniversity BusinessTimes Higher Education, and University World News, just to mention a few.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism

These papers and magazines alerted me early, as a university administrator, to the need to develop early coronavirus planning in my own institution. A sample of the issues discussed in the numerous articles can be found in the following articles in The Chronicle of a higher Education (see textbox below).

Clearly, if these fifty articles from one higher education magazine are any guide, the higher education sector has been giving a lot of thought to the opportunities and challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Some prognosticate that higher education will fundamentally change. An article in the The New York Times of March 18, 2020 hopes that “One positive outcome from the current crisis would be for academic elites to forgo their presumption that online learning is a second-rate or third-rate substitute for in-person delivery”. There will be some impact, but of course, only time will tell the scale of that impact.

Certainly, at my university we’ve learned invaluable lessons from the sudden switch to learning online using various platforms including Blackboard, our learning management system, Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype, not to mention email and social media such as WhatsApp. This experience is likely to be incorporated into the instructional pedagogies of our faculty.

But history also tells us that old systems often reassert themselves after a crisis, at the same time as they incorporate some changes brought by responses to the crisis. As the author of the article on “7 Takeaways” (see textbox below) puts it, “Many forces exerted pressure on the traditional four-year, bricks-and-mortar, face-to-face campus experience before the coronavirus, and they’ll still be there when the virus is conquered or goes dormant”.

It is likely that at many universities previously averse to online teaching and learning, online instructional tools and platforms will be incorporated more widely, creating a mosaic of face-to-face learning, blended learning, and online learning.

Whither the Future

Moments of profound crisis such as the one engendered by the coronavirus pandemic attract soothsayers and futurists. The American magazine, Politico, invited some three dozen thinkers to prognosticate on the long-term impact of the pandemic. They all offer intriguing reflections. For community life, some suggest the personal will become dangerous, a new kind of patriotism will emerge, polarisation will decline, faith in serious experts will return, there will be less individualism, changes in religious worship will occur, as well as the rise of new forms of reform.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices

As for technology, they suggest regulatory barriers to online tools will fall, healthier digital lifestyles will emerge, there will be a boon for virtual reality, the rise of telemedicine, provision of stronger medical care, government will become Big Pharma, and science will reign again. With reference to government, they predict Congress will finally go digital, big government will make a comeback, government service will regain its cachet, there will be a new civic federalism, revived trust in institutions, the rules we live by won’t all apply, and they urge us to expect a political uprising.

In terms of elections, they foresee electronic voting going mainstream, Election Day will become Election Month, and voting by mail will become the norm. For the global economy, they forecast that more restraints will be placed on mass consumption, stronger domestic supply chains will grow, and the inequality gap will widen. As for lifestyle, there will be a hunger for diversion, less communal dining, a revival of parks, a change in our understanding of “change”, and the tyranny of habit no more.

In truth, no one really knows for sure.

Textbox


  1. American Colleges Seek to Develop Coronavirus Response, Abroad and at Home, January 28, 2020. Focuses on limiting travel to China and preparing campus health facilities.
  2. Coronavirus Is Prompting Alarm on American Campuses. Anti-Asian Discrimination Could Do More Harm. February 5, 2020. Focuses curbing anti-Asian xenophobia and racism on campuses.
  3. How Much Could the Coronavirus Hurt Chinese Enrollments? February 20, 2020. Focuses on the possible impact of the coronavirus on Chinese enrollments the largest source of international students in American universities.
  4. Colleges Brace for More-Widespread Outbreak of Coronavirus, February 26, 2020. Focuses on universities assembling campuswide emergency-response committees, preparing communications plans, cautioning students to use preventive health measures, and even preparing for possible college closures.
  5. Colleges Pull Back From Italy and South Korea as Coronavirus Spreads. February 26, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  6. An Admissions Bet Goes Bust: For colleges that gambled on international enrollment, now what? March 1, 2020. Focuses on the dire financial implications of the collapse in the international student market because of the coronavirus crisis.
  7. The Coronavirus Is Upending Higher Ed. Here Are the Latest Developments. March 3, 2020. Focuses on universities increasingly moving classes online, asking students to leave campus, lobbying for stimulus package from government, imposing travel restrictions, and worrying about future enrollments.
  8. CDC Warns Colleges to ‘Consider’ Canceling Study-Abroad Trips. March 5, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  9. Enrollment Headaches From Coronavirus Are Many. They Won’t Be Relieved Soon. March 5, 2020. Focuses on the financial implications of declining prospects for the recruitment of international students.
  10. The Face of Face-Touching Research Says, ‘It’s Quite Frightening’. March 5, 2020. Highlights research on the difficulties for people not to touch their faces, one of the preventive guidelines against the coronavirus.
  11. U. of Washington Cancels In-Person Classes, Becoming First Major U.S. Institution to Do So Amid Coronavirus Fears. March 6, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  12. How Do You Quarantine for Coronavirus on a College Campus? March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on who should be quarantined, what kind of housing should be provided for quarantined students, the supplies they need, and what to when students fall ill.
  13. As Coronavirus Spreads, the Decision to Move Classes Online Is the First Step. What Comes Next? March 6, 2020. Provides advice on making the transition to online classes.
  14. With Coronavirus Keeping Them in U.S., International Students Face Uncertainty. So Do Their Colleges. March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to help with the travel, visa, financial and emotional needs of international students.
  15. Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start. March 9, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to prepare for course online assignments, assessment, examinations, course materials, instruction, and communication with students quickly.
  16. Will Coronavirus Cancel Your Conference? March 9, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  17. What ‘Middle’ Administrators Can Do to Help in the Coronavirus Crisis. March 10, 2020. Provides advice to middle managers in universities on how to community with their people, be more responsive and available than usual, convene their own crisis response teams, and keeping relevant campus authorities informed of major problems in your unit.
  18. Communicating With Parents Can Be Tricky — Especially When It Comes to Coronavirus. March 10, 2020. Provides advice on how to provide updates to parents some of who might oppose the closure of campus.
  19. Are Colleges Prepared to Move All of Their Classes Online? March 10, 2020. Notes that this is a huge experiment as many institutions, faculty members, and even students have little experience in online learning and provides some guidelines.
  20. Why Coronavirus Looks Like a ‘Black Swan’ Moment for Higher Ed. March 10, 2020. Offers reflections on the likely impact of the move to online teaching in terms of prompt universities to stop distinguishing between online and classroom programs.
  21. Teaching Remotely While Quarantined in China. A neophyte learns how to teach online. March, 11, 2020. A fascinating personal story by a faculty member of his experience with remote teaching while living under strict social isolation, which has gone better than he expected.
  22. When Coronavirus Closes Colleges, Some Students Lose Hot Meals, Health Care, and a Place to Sleep. March 11, 2020. On the various social hardships campus closures bring to some vulnerable students.
  23. How to Make Your Online Pivot Less Brutal. March 12, 2020. Offers advice that it’s OK to not know what you’re doing and seek help, keeping it as simple and accessible as you can, expect challenges and adjust.
  24. Preparing for Emergency Online Teaching. March 12, 2020. Provides resources guides for teaching online.
  25. Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine. March 12, 2020. Discusses the added pressures facing faculty because of the sudden conversion to online teaching.
  26. Shock, Fear, and Fatalism: As Coronavirus Prompts Colleges to Close, Students Grapple With Uncertainty. March 12, 2020. Reports how college students are reacting to campus closures with shock, uncertainty, sadness, and, in some cases, devil-may-care fatalism.
  27. As the Coronavirus Scrambles Colleges’ Finances, Leaders Hope for the Best and Plan for the Worst. March 12, 2020. Reflects on the likely disruptions on university finances from reduced enrollments and donations.
  28. What About the Health of Staff Members? March 13, 2020. Discusses how best to ensure staff continue to be healthy.
  29. As Coronavirus Drives Students From Campuses, What Happens to the Workers Who Feed Them? March 13, 2020. Discusses the challenges of maintaining non-essential staff on payroll during prolonged campus closure.
  30. 2020: The Year That Shredded the Admissions Calendar. March 15, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  31. How to Lead in a Crisis. March 16. Insightful advice from the former President of Tulane University during Hurricane Katrina.
  32. Colleges Emptied Dorms Amid Coronavirus Fears. What Can They Do About Off-Campus Housing? March 16, 2020. Reports on how some institutions have taken a more aggressive approach to limiting the spread of the virus in off-campus housing.
  33. How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online. March 17, 2020. The author discusses his positive experiences to move a lab course quickly online and still meet his learning objectives through lab kits, virtual labs and simulations.
  34. University Labs Head to the Front Lines of Coronavirus Containment. March 17, 2020. Discusses how university medical centers have taken the lead in coronavirus research and due to the national shortage of testing kits used tests of their own design to begin screening patients.
  35. Hounded Out of U.S., Scientist Invents Fast Coronavirus Test in China. March 18, 2020. An intriguing story of how the US’s crackdown on scholars with ties to China has triggered a reverse brain drain of Chinese-American scholars to China inadvertently promoting China’s ambitious drive to attract top talent under its Thousand Talent program. It features a scholar and his team that are leading the race to develop coronavirus treatment.
  36. Coronavirus Crisis Underscores the Traits of a Resilient College. March 18, 2020. Discusses the qualities of resilient institutions including effective communication, management of cash flow, and investment in electronic infrastructure.
  37. Coronavirus Creates Challenges for Students Returning From Abroad. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  38. As Coronavirus Spreads, Universities Stall Their Research to Keep Human Subjects Safe. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  39. The Covid-19 Crisis Is Widening the Gap Between Secure and Insecure Instructors. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  40. Here’s Why More Colleges Are Extending Deposit Deadlines — and Why Some Aren’t. March 18, 2020. Discusses how some universities are changing their admission processes.
  41. How to Help Students Keep Learning Through a Disruption. March 18, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to keep students engaged in learning and support instructors throughout the crisis.
  42. As Classrooms Go Virtual, What About Campus-Leadership Searches? March 19, 2020. Discusses how senior university leadership searches are being affected and ways to handle the situation by reconsidering the steps, migrating to technology, and staying in touch with candidates.
  43. If Coronavirus Patients Overwhelm Hospitals, These Colleges Are Offering Their Dorms. March 19, 2020. Discusses how some universities are offering to donate their empty dorms for use by local hospitals.
  44. As Professors Scramble to Adjust to the Coronavirus Crisis, the Tenure Clock Still Ticks. March 19, 2020. Discusses how at many universities junior faculty remain under pressure to meet the tenure timelines despite the various institutional disruptions.
  45. ‘The Worst-Case Scenario’: What Financial Disclosures Tell Us About Coronavirus’s Strain on Colleges So Far. March 19, 2020. Reports the financial straights facing many universities and that Moody’s Investors Service issued a bleak forecast this week for American higher education.
  46. As the Coronavirus Forces Faculty Online, It’s ‘Like Drinking Out of a Firehose’. March 20, 2020. Recorded video interviews with four selected instructors by The Chronicle to collect their thoughts on how they are managing the sudden change.
  47. A Coronavirus Stimulus Plan Is Coming. How Will Higher Education Figure In? March 20, 2020. The article wonders how universities will fare under the massive stimulus package under negotiation in the US Congress. It notes “Nearly a dozen higher-education associations have also asked lawmakers for about $50 billion in federal assistance to help colleges and students stay afloat” and an additional $13 billion for research labs.
  48. Covid-19 Has Forced Higher Ed to Pivot to Online Learning. Here Are 7 Takeaways So Far. March 20, 2020. The takeaways include the fact that “What most colleges are doing right now is not online education,” “Many of the tools were already at hand,” “The pivot can be surprisingly cheap,” “This is your wake-up call,” The pandemic could change education delivery forever…”, “… but it probably won’t”
  49. ‘Nobody Signed Up for This’: One Professor’s Guidelines for an Interrupted Semester. March 20, 2020. An interesting account on how one faculty changed his syllabus and communicated with his students.
  50. The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up. March 20, 2020. Makes many of the same observations noted above.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger.

Long Reads

Taking Stock of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Forty Years On

In celebrating this 40th birthday of the African Charter, it is worthwhile to adequately appreciate the context and the historical background of the African Charter.

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Taking Stock of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Forty Years On
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The month of June 2021 marks the 40 years anniversary of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter). The African Charter was adopted during the 18th ordinary session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on 27 June 1981 in Nairobi, Kenya. On 28 June 2021, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body established to oversee the implementation of the African Charter, convened a high-level event to take stock of the four decades journey of the African Charter.

The African Charter occupies a historical, political and symbolic significance at par with such similar instruments as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the one hand, it affirms, as part of the continental legal architecture, the pan-Africanism conviction that fundamental rights and freedoms should apply to all human beings. On the other hand, the African Charter printed those rights issues distilled from the continent’s experience of oppression and unfreedom into the tapestry of internationally recognized fundamental rights and freedoms.

In celebrating this 40th birthday of the African Charter, it is worthwhile to adequately appreciate the context and the historical background of the African Charter. Here, as in other areas of life in contemporary Africa, history matters. It does so profoundly as it co-constitutes our present context. A doctrinal approach to the catalogue of rights, freedoms and duties articulated in the Charter offers us only a very limited understanding of both their meaning and content and significantly their political, socio-economic and international importance vis-à-vis contemporary challenges of respect for and protection of human and peoples’ rights.

Historical and politico-legal significance of the African Charter 

So why the African Charter? Why its adoption by the OAU in June 1981? These are questions for which there is no single answer but are worthy of serious investigations and study. I therefore would not wish to go into details. I would rather limit myself to noting briefly some of the fundamental conditions that led to the adoption of the African Charter.

In one way, the African Charter represents an exercise of African agency in defining the essence and meaning of the rights that give full expression to Africa’s long struggle and aspirations for dignity, freedom, equality and justice. The articulation of the African Charter made up for not only the lack of representation of the peoples of the continent in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) but also for the failure in the UDHR to recognize foreign rule or colonial domination as the antithesis of human rights and hence manifestation of a lack of recognition of the inherent dignity and equal worth of people under colonial rule or foreign domination. Unlike the UDHR, which in its Article 2 proclaims the application of the rights in the Declaration irrespective of the status of a peoples as a subject of colonial rule, for peoples on the continent there could be no human rights without freedom from colonial rule or foreign domination. It is worth recalling that in Africa’s political history as far back as the 1919 Pan African Congress and the works of the foremost thought leaders including Frantz Fanon, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah colonial rule and foreign domination were treated as negation of human rights.

Accordingly, the African Charter addresses itself to both colonial rule/foreign domination and the oppression of people in the hands of independent governments.

Second, the African Charter was also a response to, as one historical study on the political background of the African Charter put it, ‘the shame and embarrassment’ that some African leaders felt about the activities of some governments, in particular those of Amin, Bokassa and Nguema. This is best illustrated by what the Chairperson of the OAU President Tolbert said in 1979 in his opening address to the AOU summit – ‘the principle of non-interference had become ‘an excuse for our silence over inhuman actions committed by Africans against Africans…The provisions concerning human rights must be made explicit.’ That this shame and embarrassment was a factor behind the OAU decision for the elaboration of a ‘Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ was buttressed by the late Adem Kojo, then the Secretary-General of the OAU. He said the African Charter ‘came about as the result of the ordeals which certain African peoples had suffered at the hands of their governments.’ Accordingly, the African Charter addresses itself to both colonial rule/foreign domination and the oppression of people in the hands of independent governments.

At this point, it is worth recalling that a similar experience in the 1990s led the continent to the adoption under the AU Constitutive Act of the paradigmatically novel principle of intervention in cases of grave circumstances under Article 4 (h). The parallel becomes apparent from President Mandela’s speech during the 1994 OAU summit in Tunis where he expressed this sense of ‘shame and embarrassment’ when he said ‘Rwanda stands out as a stern and severe rebuke to all of us for having failed to address Africa’s security problems. As a result of that, a terrible slaughter of the innocent has taken place and is taking place in front of our very eyes.’

These historical references make it clear that the African Charter is the first legal instrument to pierce the veil of sovereignty that excluded any scrutiny of how independent African states treated people under their jurisdiction. In doing so, the African Charter served as the legal predecessor to and laid the foundation for Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act, hence as the foundation for the principle of non-indifference.

One of the drafters of the African Charter, The Gambian jurist Hassan Jallow thus remarked in his book The Law of the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights ‘the very notion of creating machinery for the promotion and protection of human rights was itself nothing less than revolutionary in a continent where and at a time when the African states were ultra-jealous of their national sovereignty even and brooked no interference in what they regarded as their internal affairs.’

The African Charter also affirms that human rights are not simply an embodiment of abstraction from an ideal theory about the human. Importantly, they are products of specific historical experiences and civilizations. In this sense, at one level the African Charter is an illustration of the late Christof Heyns theory of the struggle approach to human rights. Viewed from this perspective, the African Charter is in part an exercise to articulate catalogue of rights geared towards the conditions of oppression that historically robbed the peoples of the continent of their humanity as Africans and continue to impede their access to full measure of fundamental rights and freedoms. The African Charter thus gives recognition to the need to ‘eliminate colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, Zionism, and to dismantle aggressive foreign military bases and all forms of discrimination, particularly those based on race, ethnic group, color, sex, language, religion or political opinion’.

The African Charter represents an exercise of African agency in defining the essence and meaning of the rights that give full expression to Africa’s long struggle and aspirations for dignity, freedom, equality and justice

At another level, the Charter echoes the opening remarks of President Leopold Sedar Senghor at the first expert meeting for the drafting of the Charter in Dakar in 1979, where he counselled the experts to draw inspiration from and keep constantly in mind ‘our beautiful and positive traditions and civilization’ and ‘the real needs of Africa.’ The result of this has been not only the articulation of duties of individuals by the Charter premised on the Ubuntu philosophy of coexistence and harmony between the individual and the society, but also the recognition of the inseparability and interdependence of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.

In terms of ‘the real needs of Africa’, the African Charter accorded a prime place of honor to peoples’ rights on par with human rights as vividly captured in the title of the African Charter. In so doing, President Senghor pointed out, ‘We simply meant …to show our attachment to…rights which have a particular importance in our situation of a developing country.’ Elaborating further, he pointed out, ‘[w]e wanted to lay emphasis on the right to development and the other rights which need the solidarity of our states to be fully met: the right to peace and security, the right to a healthy environment, the right to participate in the equitable share of the common heritage of mankind, the right to enjoy a fair international economic order and, finally, the right to natural wealth and resources.’

While much of its promises have been honored by breach rather than compliance, the African Charter thus broke new ground in both the politico-legal evolution of the continent and international legal recognition of fundamental rights and freedoms. At the global level, it contributed to the enrichment of the international corpus of human rights. It did so both by giving equal legal status to civil and political rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other hand and by enshrining the collective rights of peoples and the duties of individuals.

Contemporary status and significance of the African Charter 

Today, the African Charter enjoys not only a status of customary international law but also that of being akin to the basic law of the continent. It is not simply one of the few OAU/AU treaties with universal ratification. It is perhaps the only human rights instrument that is widely cited not only in large number of continental legal and policy documents but also at sub-regional and national levels. The African Charter also inspired the adoption of various human rights and democracy and governance norms within the OAU and its successor the African Union in the 1990s and since. Along with other human rights instruments it inspired, the African Charter continues to serve as source of inspiration in the elaboration of national bills of rights and various laws giving effect to specific human rights.

The African regional human rights system that the African Charter established also contributed to the recognition of the legitimacy of the works of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, political opposition and the media, despite the increasing assault to which they have in recent years been subjected. Accordingly, the African Commission has accorded institutional recognition by extending observer status to large number of non-governmental organizations working in the field of human rights pursuant to Article 45 (1)(c) of the African Charter.

The African Charter is not simply a historically grounded human rights treaty that speaks to both the generality of human rights issues and the human and peoples’ rights issues in Africa emanating from our specific historical experiences and socio-economic and political conditions. It is also a living document. As such, it operates to respond to the human and peoples’ rights issues also of the present and the future.

Article 45 (1) (b) tasks the African Commission ‘to formulate and lay down principles and rules aimed at solving legal problems relating to human and peoples’ rights and fundamental freedoms.’ Additionally, in mandating the African Charter to apply the rights and duties in the Charter to specific cases that may be referred to the Commission by States or ‘other communications’, the Charter recognises the need for its constant interpretation and application to make the rights and duties in the charter responsive to both the specific cases and the evolving needs of Africa. In commanding the African Commission under Article 60 to draw inspiration from international law on human and peoples’ rights, the Charter affirms its interconnectedness with international human rights. In doing so, the Charter also opens its provisions to be enriched through cross-fertilization. Based on Articles 45 (1) (b), 47, 55 and 60 of the African Charter, the jurisprudence of the African Commission and since 2006 the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, have clarified some of the gray areas in the African Charter and the ‘claw back clauses’ attached to some of the rights in the Charter, which inspired the most criticism against the Charter in the early years of the Charter’s life.

The African Charter is unique in combining its particularistic and internationalist features in other symbiotic ways as well. Thus, in articulating duties of individuals as embodying one of its distinguishing features, it states in Article 27 (1) that individuals owe duties, among others, to the international community.

The trinity of Africa’s burdens and the African Charter

Like other human rights treaties, the main target of the African Charter is the state. The experience of the grievous human rights violations to which Africans in independent states have been subjected to before and since the adoption of the Charter, as is evident from ongoing unconscionable atrocities in some of the conflict settings, make it evident why the misuse and abuse of the authority of the state has to be the center of gravity for the African Charter as it is for other human rights instruments.

In the European experience, it was the totalitarianism to which the state is disposed and the threat this posed both to the rights and freedoms of individuals and to peace and security that inspired the development of a system of human rights. However, for the African Charter the authoritarian impulses of the state is only one (but never the only) source of threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

As I observed in the opening statement for the 28th extra-ordinary session and further highlighted below, indeed authoritarian rule and the bad governance and repression arising from it represents the first of the trinity of burdens militating against the rights and dignity of the peoples of Africa. The second of the trinity of burdens is the burden of history (arising from slavery, colonial subjugation and apartheid). That the burden of history constitutes an important area of preoccupation as a source of unfreedom for the African Charter can be gathered both from the preamble and the substantive text of the African Charter.

A doctrinal approach to the catalogue of rights, freedoms and duties articulated in the Charter offers us only a very limited understanding of both their meaning and content and significantly their political, socio-economic and international importance vis-à-vis contemporary challenges of respect for and protection of human and peoples’ rights

In the landmark case, SERAC v. Nigeria, our Commission, thus remarked that the origin of some of the provisions of the African Charter, in the particular instance Article 21, is to be traced to ‘colonialism, during which the human and material resources of Africa were largely exploited for the benefit of outside powers, creating tragedy for Africans themselves, depriving them of their birthright and alienating them from the land.’ On how this experience affects present day Africa, the Commission stated that the ‘aftermath of colonial exploitation has left Africa’s precious resources and people still vulnerable to foreign misappropriation.’

As pointed out above, in the African experience, the historically grounded normative foundation for human and peoples’ rights has been the absence and deprivation of self-governing statehood to the peoples of Africa. The structural weaknesses and flaws that characterizes the post-colonial African state is a manifestation of this burden of history.  As Adom Getachew highlighted, in her landmark study Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-determination, this inherited burden makes ‘new and weak postcolonial states vulnerable to arbitrary interventions and encroachments at the hands of larger, more powerful states as well as private actors,’ thereby severely inhibiting their capacity for shouldering their responsibilities to meet the human rights needs of the peoples of the continent.

The third of the trinity of burdens is thus the power architecture of the international system that operates to deny Africa from getting its fair share from international economic relationship. In stating in the preamble that the peoples of Africa ‘are still struggling for their dignity and genuine independence,’ the African Charter is expressing its recognition of the adverse impact not only of the past but also the burden Africa bears from the unjust power arrangement of the international system. It thus affirmed that ‘it is henceforth essential to pay particular attention to development …and that the satisfaction of economic, social and cultural rights is a guarantee for the enjoyment of civil and political rights.’ These preambular statements and the substantive rights, in particular collective rights of peoples, expand the conception of injustice undermining the full enjoyment of human rights to encompass the ways in which the international system frustrates the rights of peoples to freely determine their economic and social development according to the policy they have freely chosen as envisaged in Article 20 of the African Charter.

Today as we mark the 40th year anniversary of the African Charter, there is nothing more than the COVID19 vaccine injustice that vividly illustrates how this skewed power architecture of the international system brings peoples in Africa to an existential crisis.

The third wave of COVID19 pandemic is gathering pace, with more devastating impact than previous waves. It claims the lives of increasing number of peoples including the highly limited skilled health care workers due to lack of access to the COVID19 vaccine and deals a serious blow to the economies of the continent. African countries, like others in the global South, are witnessing that their concerns – that the protection given to pharmaceutical companies under the treaty on intellectual property rights will prevent them from protecting the right to health of their citizens – is being born by events. Together with major European countries, pharmaceutical companies are blocking the temporary waiver of the application of patent protection to COVID19 vaccines, key for making the generic production of these vaccines on the continent for ending the current artificial scarcity. As Strive Masiyiwa, chief of AU’s vaccination acquisition task team pointed out, Africa’s inability to access the vaccine is ‘a product of the deliberate global architecture of unfairness.’

No. We are not all together on this. Africa, we are on our own. Again. In the 1990s with civil wars and the implosion and collapse of states ravaging parts of Africa, the continent was left on its own. In the apt description of the late former Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan, Africa was left ‘to fend for itself’. As in the past, Africa rose to this challenge. The OAU transformed into the AU. In pursuit of fending for itself, Africa put in place institutions and processes for resolving conflicts, anchored on the Protocol to the Constitutive Act Establishing the Peace and Security Council.

In the face of the existential crisis facing Africa from the COVID19 vaccine injustice today we have to ask the difficult questions including – what leadership and policy failures have led Africa to be exposed to this existential threat? Will today’s leaders rise to this challenge, as earlier leaders did, by creating the conditions for building the requisite strategic infrastructures for protecting the health people so that Africa will never again face the injustice of denial of access to medical supplies including vaccines, born out of the skewed power structure of the international system?

The generation marking the 40th anniversary of the African Charter, betraying its mission? 

The 40th anniversary is an occasion for thanks giving for those who bequeathed us this fine African Charter. I wish in particular to pay homage to first the distinguished Senegalese Jurist Judge Keba Mabaye who, more than any other, played the role of being on the one hand a strategist and campaigner for securing the buy in within the OAU of the idea of the African Charter and on the other hand the lead drafter of the African Charter.

I also equally wish to extend our profound gratitude to President Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal and President Dawada Jawara of The Gambia for initiating the resolution for the adoption of the African Charter and for providing the guidance and support for the drafting of the African Charter. It is worth noting that Senghor’s opening address to the first expert meeting for the drafting of the African Charter served not only as the terms of reference but also as the intellectual guide for elaborating the contents of the Charter.

Our deep gratitude also goes to the then Secretary-General of the OAU Adem Kojo who threw his full weight behind the implementation of OAU Decision 115(XVI) mandating the drafting and worked tirelessly for its adoption.

The generation of Mbaye, Senghor and Kojo discovered its mission and fulfilled it. We owe today’s celebration of the 40 years birthday of our Charter to this.

For the generation celebrating the 40 years of Our Charter, have we discovered our mission? Will we fulfil it, or betray it?

As to the mission of this generation, to which we are all a part, I am sure you agree with me that it lies in rendering the rights and freedoms of the African Charter meaningful in the lives of the masses of our peoples. Will we fulfill this mission by overcoming the challenge of implementation of the African Charter and by confronting the human rights challenges of our time namely – the deadly democratic governance deficit, widespread poverty and deepening inequality, pervasive gender oppression, the rising insecurity and violence and the climate emergency?

All the indications are that, we are on course for betraying this mission.

‘How else can we explain the fact that in 2021 as in the 1990s we have the conditions forcing ‘millions of our people, including women and children, into a drifting life as refugees and internally displaced persons, deprived of their means of livelihood, human dignity and hope’?

Second, the African Charter was also a response to, as one historical study on the political background of the African Charter put it, ‘the shame and embarrassment’ that some African leaders felt about the activities of some governments, in particular those of Amin, Bokassa and Nguema

How else can we explain 29 million people and counting being displaced and forced to flee their country unless states are failing to shoulder their responsibilities under the African Charter?

How can this be possible unless those entrusted with managing the affairs of our societies are betraying the trust of the public in pursuit of their own narrow self-interest thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle of misgovernance and authoritarianism?

It cannot be that we continue to have millions of our brothers and sisters forcibly displaced in states with even the most basic attributes of statehood, in societies with responsible leadership and in a continent with effectively functioning institutions.

It is indeed an indictment on all of us that we have sisters and brothers who expressed their thanks to the COVID19 virus for being provided with water, a basic necessity to which they have been denied access by leadership and policy failure of our governments. How is it that while the resources of the continent are fueling the development of other parts of the world, we are not able to provide even for the most basic necessities of life for the masses of our people? How is it that the leaders entrusted with the management of our affairs indulge in the embezzlement of resources that are meant for securing health workers and the public from the COVID19 pandemic?

What more represents the betrayal of the mission of this generation for translating the African Charter into reality than the way the Charter is observed by being routinely breached through not only the closing of the civic space, the assault on civil society, human rights defenders and the media but also the indiscriminate attacks against civilians and the display of complete lack of regard to the sanctity of human life in the various conflict settings on our continent and the attendant total impunity?

What is more to show how the leaders of the continent are failing the public than the deepening sense of despair that is pushing our people, particularly the youth, to embark on the perilous journey across the Sahara for crossing the Mediterranean Sea despite the death of no less than 20,000 migrants in only five years on this sea?

It is indeed a betrayal of epic proportions that our societies could not assure women and girls a life free from violence so much so that there is no place, from home to the work place and even places of worship, where they can feel safe and free from violence. How else can we explain the fact that sexual and gender-based violence have become the other pandemic within the COVID19 pandemic in nearly all our societies?

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BBI, Jubilee Orphans and Raila Diehards

They say Uhuru lied to them. They say Raila has been played. Disillusioned, dispossessed, disaffected, the youth, Kenya’s largest voting constituency, are wary of the handshake.

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BBI, Jubilee Orphans and Raila Diehards
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Four years ago, David Njenga graduated from University of Nairobi (UoN) with an upper second-class honour’s degree in biochemistry. A year to the August 2018 presidential elections, his mother reminded him that electing Uhuru Kenyatta for a second term represented his best chance of getting a job. Apolitical and not one to argue with his mother, he cast his vote for President Uhuru. Four years on, he has yet to find employment.

Ambitious, intelligent and optimistic, Njenga’s hopes of getting a job, any job, are fading fast. From his class of 103 students, only five have found steady work, and many of his former classmates are engaged all manner of hustles – the latest politically twisted jargon for one’s means of eking out a living. Njenga told me that the five that had found work had powerful connections in President Uhuru’s Jubilee government.

“One of them is a pastor’s daughter whose father is one of the evangelical pastors who attends the national annual prayer breakfast with President Uhuru,” said Njenga. “The pastor’s daughter is my friend. I used to help her with her class assignments and writing term papers, so occasionally she will call me to have lunch.”

Njenga’s background is a world apart from that of his friend, the pastor’s daughter, but she befriended him at Chiromo campus because of his big brains; symbiotic relationship is the best way to describe their platonic friendship – he wrote her schoolwork and she regularly bailed him out financially. “C’est la vie,” said the 25-year-old Njenga. “She’s the one who got a job and I’m still writing assignments and term papers for rich students.”

I asked Njenga about the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a document that, if implemented, is supposed to ameliorate the lives and prospects of his peers. “Have you read the report?” He gave me a blank stare, the kind of stare that says, “You even have the temerity to ask me that question?” “Should I be reading a political document or researching about my students’ homework? If my parents had powerful connections, I’d not be suffering like this. That’s all what matters in today’s Kenya. My degree counts for nothing, I might as well have ended up being a plumber.”

Njenga was among the students who graduated top of their class, but even hoping to get a job in the corporate sector has become a flight of fancy. “It is the same as in the government – you must know people.” Njenga said the situation got worse with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. “Many companies have used coronavirus as an excuse to sack their employees. How then do you go to ask for a job when people are being laid off? We’re on our own and all what Uhuru is interested in, is how to succeed himself and safeguard his family’s empire and political interests post-2022.”

He gave me a blank stare, the kind of stare that says, “You even have the temerity to ask me that question?

Still living in his mother’s house — “I never imagined I’d still be staying with my mother, four years after campus.” — Njenga said none of his former campus mates cared about BBI: “They’ve not read it, some really don’t know what it’s all about, I mean even as students, we couldn’t find time to read stuff on our degrees. Can you imagine me finding time to read an obsequious document? For what?” But the real issue, I gathered from Njenga, wasn’t even finding time to read the BBI; it was the disdain that he and his former campus mates had for President Uhuru and his government, their disconnect with the political processes in the country, their lack of interest in how government is run or ought to be run.

“What can Uhuru claim to have done for the country, for the young people in the eight years he has been president?” posed Njenga. “I’m worse off than when I entered campus, the country is reeling in utter corruption, the economy is tumbling down, people now steal openly from the government and he has no idea how to fix anything. The youth’s biggest problem is the economy. We don’t care about anything else. The president said he knows how much is stolen from the state coffers every day, yet he doesn’t know what to do about it. Why is he the president then?”

Njenga said he voted for Uhuru because his mother asked him to. “I was just doing my duty and of course, it was a tribal thing.” The biggest problem with the youth, reckoned Njenga, is that they will vote for you tribally, if they have to, but if you won’t fix the economy, they will have no time for you. “This is where the Kenyan youth is right now with Uhuru’s incompetent government. Many of them contemplate migrating daily, to seek greener pastures wherever they will find them.”

Mwangi Waithera, 29, is just like Njenga — he voted for Uhuru because his beloved mother told him to. “I don’t care about politics, I wasn’t going to vote because politics is not my thing, but my mother repeatedly reminded me, even on the material day, that I should vote for the president.” A mitumba (second-hand clothes) seller with assorted customers — civil servants, lawyers, college students, among others — he has seen his business dwindle since 2017 when President Uhuru was voted in for a second term. He has listened to his customers, usually men of his generation, come to grumble in his tiny downtown shop.

“Do you know our salaries now come late?” laments one of Mwangi’s client, a civil servant. “Nobody cares about this BBI nonsense in the ministry offices,” he said. “Uhuru can afford to pay hundreds of millions of shillings to some so-called consultants to write a useless document called BBI, but our meagre salaries are being delayed up to the 10th of the following month?” The civil servant told Mwangi that his colleagues scoff at the report and have no time for President Uhuru. “He is the most colourless president Kenya has ever had. He is not respected among the younger cadre of the public officers, even worse among the older civil servants.”

Njenga said he voted for Uhuru because his mother asked him to.

One of Mwangi’s customers, a lawyer, showed up one evening as we were talking in his small shop. Barely 30, Denis voted for President Uhuru twice. “That’s how much I believed in him. I couldn’t stand anybody criticising him. I couldn’t countenance Raila being the President, so I made sure I voted again on October 26. I wasn’t going to let down my parents on this. They had warned us children on how we should vote.” said Denis, adding, “My parents told all four of us children that the greatest disaster that would ever befall this country was allowing Raila to be president. ‘I know some of you have liberal ideas’ said my father. The liberal ideas remark was a stab at my brother, who had voiced his disenchantment with President Uhuru’s first term performance.”

Then the “handshake” happened and his parents baulked. The children often meet for dinner at their parents’ home, a middle-class couple from Kiambu County. “During one of those dinner meetings, my ‘dissenting’ brother asked my parents, ‘so what is going on?’” The bubble had bust — the economy was tanking and the handshake with the devil had taken place. “For once my parents didn’t seem so sure and my younger brother looked like he could have been right after all,” said Denis.

But Denis’s parents knew things were going south when their firstborn lawyer son started struggling. He postponed his wedding. He was increasingly going back to his parents to borrow money. “I’d so much expectations, I did a few ‘stupid’ things with some of my cash. I knew good times were coming, so I didn’t worry, we’d re-elected Uhuru and I believed big legal work was beckoning.” Denis said that today some of his lawyer colleagues are doing so badly they literally chase for work that pays as little as KSh3000.

Denis is so angry with President Uhuru, he told me, that he “is done with voting. It’s a complete waste of time and energy. I’m also very angry with my parents for misleading us, only that I can’t pick it up with them. But my bold brother did, especially on their berating of Raila. ‘Please dad, explain to us why Raila is suddenly now a darling of Uhuru?’ My parents looked abashed. ‘Uhuru has been such a huge disappointment’ is all they could muster to tell us over dinner.”

As a lawyer, Denis told me he had taken the trouble to read the BBI document. “It is a document meant to entrench President Uhuru’s powers. Some of my colleagues and I easily saw through it. By the way, I know some of the lawyers who participated in its writing. For them, it’s all about making hay while the sun shines. They were paid handsomely – any lawyer likes to make real good money quickly.”

Denis’s declaration that he will never voting again has become a standard response among the youth I interviewed; they vowed that they would not expend their energies engaging in a predetermined outcome again. “I voted for the first and possibly the last time,” said Njenga. “Everybody knows what happened during the elections, the refusal to open the servers, even my mother knows the games that were played, but we can’t discuss that. Her vote has since shifted to Ruto.”

I asked Mwangi whether he had read the BBI document. “I’m a busy person and my work doesn’t allow me to engage in meaningless ventures,” he said dismissively. “I hear we may have to vote for it in a referendum. On that day, I’ll stay at home if I can’t open my shop, and that’s what I’ll do in 2022, during the elections.” Mwangi said he would never again wake up early to please both his mother and Uhuru. “I’ve learned my lesson, I’ve no time for politics, let me concentrate on my life and business.”

Denis told me President Uhuru was keen on a referendum “so that he can extend his term. I’ve become the wiser. At the dinner meetings, I’ve become bold like my brother. My parents are no longer as enthusiastic about Uhuru as they were before. They are completely miffed with him. They cannot explain, leave alone understand, how Raila is now supposed to be the darling of the Kikuyu people. My parents form part of the generation that took the Gatundu oath of never ceding state power to Luos.”

…………

The graduate touts

Allan Kinuthia is, just like Njenga, a UoN graduate. Kinuthia graduated from Kabete campus in 2019 with an agricultural economics degree but he is a matatu tout. He started touting when he was a student “because I needed to raise some money for myself. Then it was a hobby and a hustle.” He voted for Uhuru and Jubilee in 2017. “I did it because that’s how my family voted. I voted on tribal basis, I couldn’t care less. If it worked for my family, why couldn’t it work for me?” Three and half years later, the truth of the matter is that it isn’t working for the family, much less for him. “There was this expectation by my family that, by the time I was graduating, I’d get a job – what with having voted for Uhuru and I having an economics degree,” said Kinuthia. “So even as I touted, I knew it was just a matter of time. I looked forward to a salaried job.”

“I’ve written countless job applications and I’ve given up,” said Kinuthia. “Jobs are there for those who are well-connected, not for people like me.” So far, none of those who were in his class has found a job. “As people trained to be professionals, it is important to get a job, practice what you learned in college, even as Kenyans keep on telling us students that we should think outside the box, meaning we shouldn’t always think of getting a salaried job.”

A happy-go-lucky, jolly fellow, Kinuthia tells me that the other touts are always taunting him; here’s a university graduate who is facing the reality of life outside the cosy world of college. “What do you think of BBI?” I asked him. Have you read the report? “No and I don’t have the time to,” he replied. So, how will you know whether it’s good for you or not? “You think I’m touting because I’m having fun? Uhuru is a failure. I studied economics; we’re where we are because of his incompetence. After taking the country down, Uhuru is busy crafting how to remain in power. That’s what BBI is all about.”

When not touting, Kinuthia is an online writer. “One time, I met a fellow student at UoN, who saw me touting in Kikuyu town. He asked me, ‘do you tout all the time? I can open an online writing account for you. Would you like to write and earn some decent cash?’ I took the deep end, learned the ropes and I’m doing it. My friends I was with in college don’t know or care about BBI, just like I don’t want to know about it. To many young people, Kenyan politics is b***s*** Instead of addressing the massive theft, BBI document is apparently advocating for more executive seats.”

Noisy and every inch the tout, Jimmy Kanogo is actually an entrepreneurship graduate from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT). Until you engage him, it is impossible to tell he has ever stepped inside a lecture hall. “But it is what it is”, said Jimmy. After graduating in 2018, he quickly realised there were no jobs for graduates. “Those days are long gone, even medical students are nowadays not assured of getting a job.”

“Jobs are there for those who are well-connected, not for people like me.”

“Have you acquainted yourself with the BBI report,” I asked him. “Don’t get me started,” Jimmy said. “What is BBI? My elder brother graduated from university in 2016, he has yet to get a job. How does BBI contribute to the GDP in our house? My parents thought that once they sent us to university and we graduated, we’d be a relief to them. We thought so too, but look at where we are,” moaned Jimmy.

It was the same story repeated in many Kikuyu homesteads: vote for Uhuru, he will straighten the path for you young guys, their parents told them. “And of course, we listened,” said Jimmy. “He lied to our parents, he lied to all of us, they are so angry they keep on cursing and vowing revenge. My mother can’t believe I’m indeed a tout, that after going to university I’ve been reduced to the level of the ne’er-do-wells, whom she always sees hanging around matatu stops and who she has utter disdain for.”

Jimmy said he struggled to read long essays throughout his university studies, “so you’ve to be nuts to expect me to read a document that has no relevance to my life. To fix the economy, you need a report? To curb massive looting, you need a report? To provide youths with jobs, you write a report? What is it that Uhuru wants?” His questions are rhetorical questions but it is obvious that the drafters of the BBI document have lost Jimmy and his peers.

“It’s been a long time since I saw my parents quarrelling, now they seem to quarrel so often,” said Jimmy. “My father cannot believe the money he leaves weekly for my mother is finished so quickly. ‘What’s these you are buying?’ he angrily asks her. Life has become triple difficult and it’s not a pleasant thing to see your folks quarrelling over cash. It isn’t that my mother is overspending or buying things she has not been asked to. But I also understand where my father is coming from.”

Jimmy isn’t interested in BBI, in Kenyan politics, in elections, in referendums. “My survival is my utmost interest. Let Uhuru do whatever he wants to do with power, but one thing is guaranteed – I’m never trooping to a voting booth again.” Jimmy said he wasn’t even really expecting to be employed per se, “but I’d hoped that by the time I was leaving university, the country’s economic climate would be such that it would allow for creativity and imagination for some of us to set up shop.”

Peter Chege is the opposite of Jimmy: slight of build, quiet, reflective, speaking only when spoken to. A UoN graduate, it is difficult to believe he touts, yet he does. “What options did I have?” he asks. Peter graduated in 2019 with a degree in sociology. The following year COVID-19 struck. Peter is from a poor peasant background and this meant that he had to quickly decide what to do with his life post-university. “My parents had struggled to put me through university; they were, in a manner of speaking, through with me.”

So he came down to Limuru, where he had friends among the manambas (conductors) and matatu drivers. They took him under their wing and taught him the ropes. “Can you imagine the people who inducted me into the industry are guys who left school either at primary level or at most secondary school?” When I asked him what BBI means to him, he said, “It means nothing, I don’t know what it is. I hear people talk about it. I keep away from such discussions. I don’t want to be upset and left with a foul taste in my mouth.”

Until you engage him, it is impossible to tell he has ever stepped inside a lecture hall.

Peter told me that his friends at the matatu stop taunt him: “Peter, please tell us, what’s the use of a university education? The drivers, manambas and fellow touts are the ones who like discussing BBI. So they ask me, ‘Peter, you’re the one who’s educated amongst us here; can you explain this document for us? If Peter is the most educated among us, and he isn’t interested in the report, why should we be interested?’” Peter and his matatu friends are agreed on one thing: none has read the report, and they will never read it, but they know one thing for sure: “BBI is about power arrangements and dynamics by the political elites that want to hold onto it, even as they organise us for 2022. It has got nothing to do with us. It is a route being mapped by Uhuru and his cabal to retain power.”

…………

Apologists for Uhuru

“Raila has been played,” said Victor Oluoch, “but you know what? We can’t say it loud; this is supposed to be an ethnic project, so no Luo should be heard badmouthing it. But there’s a discomforting disquiet around the issue; all’s not well on the home front. We welcomed the handshake and its appendage the BBI in 2018, but three years down the line, we are not sure any more.” Victor, a 33-year-old IT specialist, said the handshake had stopped the killing of Luo youth by the state security apparatus and rescued the community from being used by all and sundry as the bogeyman of opposition politics.

“Opposition politics in this country [is] anathema: you’re anti-development, anti-state, anti-communal cohesion. The Luo community were branded all these and it reaches a point where you say, ‘Ok guys, somebody else can carry the cross,’” said Victor. “So we welcomed the handshake and its relative the BBI. We were also quietly told that BBI would bring development to Luoland and we said hoorah, why not? The many years of fighting the state had denied the region development.”

Development is a loaded word; it can mean many things. “But whatever it meant, we the Luo people needed it,” pointed out Victor. “Therefore, it was very odious to hear Raila say the other day that the developments that have apparently been taking place in Nyanza counties, courtesy of the handshake, were after all not meant to be a favour, but a countrywide thing. I didn’t understand where that came from, but certainly, it is not the only misgiving that some of us now have with BBI.”

On 7 June 2021, Raila was quoted as having said, “None of the projects launched or mentioned during the Madaraka period are owned by or meant to serve Kisumu alone. They are meant to, and will serve the entire Kenya.”

The ongoing development projects in the Nyanza region are something that BBI supporters in the region are pointing to as a positive. Ojijo Orido said to me that, over and above everything else, BBI was good because it had brought development to Nyanza. “Factories are being opened up, roads are being built, the port is being resuscitated, the railway line is alive once again, the airport is being expanded . . . development is now being shipped to Nyanza more than everywhere else in the country. We Luos have benefited from BBI and that’s why we support it.”

“But was that the real agenda of the handshake and its aftermath the BBI?” asks Victor. “I’ve taken the trouble to read the document. Nothing could be further from this proposition. Instead, the report, which has mutated a couple of times, proposes other things.” The issue of an additional 70 constituencies, for example, is very troubling, said Victor. “How is it that Nairobi and Mt Kenya region end up with more than 33 new constituencies, while the entire Nyanza region gets less than 4 extra seats? Is this not gerrymandering?”

Victor said the handshake had stopped the killing of Luo youth by the state security apparatus.

According to the BBI proposal, the extra constituencies will be distributed as follows: Nairobi 16, Kiambu 6, Nakuru 5, Meru 2, Embu 1, Kirinyaga 1, Murang’a 1 and Laikipia 1. In contrast, Homa Bay has been allocated 2 seats, Siaya 1 and Kisumu 1. The rest of the new seats are to be distributed across the rest of the country.

Yet Victor told me that among the Luo people this disturbing question is not supposed to be raised. Why? “Oh, you know, I’ve heard it being whispered in Raila’s inner sanctum that mzee has been promised the big one, so it’s imprudent to bring up the offending question. So, what’s BBI really about? Is it about “favoured” development, which Raila is now denying? Was it about ensuring the Luo youth are not gunned down? Is it about being promised the ‘big one’?”

Woe unto the Luo people if BBI doesn’t succeed, warns Victor. “Because it will mean the Luo youth could again be fodder for the police, development will be stopped forthwith and the promise of the ‘big one’ will vanish just like that. Is that how we should be conducting our national politics?”

“It is unfortunate the Luo people have become the biggest apologists for President Uhuru’s incompetent government,” said Ken Owiti. “We behave as if the indiscriminate killings of our people didn’t occur in 2017. We’ve forgotten all the violence that was visited upon the Luo people, prior to the repeat presidential elections on October 26, 2017. We have all forgotten the Baby Pendo incident. We can’t continue to live in the past, some of my folks say, but what does the future hold? The future of the Luo people is pegged on Raila cosying up to the system and being promised the presidency. That’s all.”

Ken showed me a video clip of Orido, a journalist, waxing poetic about President Uhuru’s development record. In the clip, Orido cites Outer Ring Road as an example of the strides President Uhuru has made in developing Kenya. “Is that all what Orido can talk about? Outer Ring Road is a project started under President Kibaki. Development is not a favour to Kenyans; it’s their right because the money borrowed to build and expand these roads is used in their name. But anything to prove you’re a BBI and a Raila cohort.”

The self-flagellation of the Luo people during President Uhuru’s visits to Kisumu has been a trifle embarrassing, said two Boda Boda riders. “What point have we been trying to convey? That we’ve forgotten the brutal violence that took place in Kibera and Kondele not too long ago? That we’re now loyal followers of President Uhuru and his inept government? That we’re a pragmatic, forward-looking people? That we should forgive and forget? Just like that? No questions asked?” The boda boda riders said that among a section of the Luo people, the force of reason seems to have been trumped by reason by force. “If you raise these critical questions, Raila’s adamant followers threaten you with violence, ‘you must be a Ruto supporter – are you a Luo? Who are you to question Raila? BBI is Raila and Raila is ours’.”

Raila’s magnetism among the Luo people is waning, especially among the younger generation, said Otieno Magak. “His politics has ceased to be spellbinding and the handshake didn’t help matters. You can’t question BBI. To question BBI is to question Raila. You can’t ask how supporting BBI, wholly, unquestioningly, will translate into determining the price of sugar in your house. You must support it because Raila has said so. If you prod, nasty epithets are thrown at you. You’re deemed a traitor to the cause, you can be physically attacked.”

Woe unto the Luo people if BBI doesn’t succeed.

The Luo people are being corralled into supporting BBI because this could be the “bullet”, pointed out Magak. “How many ‘one bullets’ can one possibly have? How many times can you promise a political tsunami? The younger generation of Raila supporters are saying ‘we’ve done our civic duty. We’ve lent our unwavering loyalty to him and his political cause, but there comes a time when we must think about our own future and our own future cannot be tied to an aging opposition doyen.’”

Magak said to me that indeed there is a quiet movement sweeping across the Luo nation, of the millennial and generation Z that is keen on charting their own political path away from BBI, away from Raila’s stranglehold, away from the politics of patronage. “Raila has really fought hard, no one can take that away from him, even his greatest detractors concede the man has been resilient, even as he has been cheated out of victory several times. But BBI is a con game which, if it backfires, will have much wider ramifications on a community that has never sat well with status quo politics.”

As BBI proponents and antagonists square it up in court, engaging in legalese and subterfuge, Kenya’s largest voting constituency, the youth — disillusioned, dispossessed, disaffected — have given the report a wide berth.

Postscript

The 2 June 2021 decision of the seven-judge bench to issue their ruling on 20 August 2021 doesn’t augur well for BBI said Magak. “Whichever way you may want to look at it, at the end of the day, one party seems to have been lied to all throughout. It is significant to note that immediately after the judges gave their date, after the final submissions, the IEBC chair reiterated, soon after, that the general elections will be held on 9 August 2021. It is not for nothing that Wafula Chebukati found it prudent to remind Kenyans at this juncture that the election calendar is on course. But don’t take my word for it.”

This article is part of The Elephant BBI Judgement Series done in collaboration with Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBF), Dialogue and Civic Spaces Programme. Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the HBF.

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Return to the Land of Jilali: Reflections From Kenya’s Northern Frontier

As the rest of us figure out how to cope with the long-term changes now overtaking the biosphere, the world’s most resilient survivors will play an influential role in the collective response.

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Return to the Land of Jilali: Reflections From Kenya’s Northern Frontier
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The locusts appeared near the barrier to the Lake Turkana Wind Farm. They did not form a massed cloud and they did not appear to be that interested in feeding on the semi-desert vegetation. But they were everywhere, a diffuse scattering of red juveniles that gave the sky a slightly speckled cast over the next five kilometres of road.

Desert locusts were one of the obsessions of colonial administrative officers, many of whom sought to preserve the Northern Frontier District in its natural state to protect its ancient communities and abundant wildlife. The preoccupation with the region’s eco-cultural integrity was predicated on two basic assumptions: 1) if allowed, local herders would degrade the range beyond repair through overgrazing; and, 2) should the vast region be treated like the rest of the colony, outsiders would flood in and corrupt the cultural ecology of the region’s ennobled nomads.

An assortment of explorers, wanderers, and opportunists had crisscrossed the northern region during the latter decades of the 19th century. Ivory hunters brought up the rear, followed by Kamba and Somali competitors in search of the region’s last untapped population of tuskers. By the turn of the century the Rendille and Borana had also become involved in the trade, albeit reluctantly.

The paternalism of British colonial administrators serving in remote areas was in part response to the unrestrained mercantilism of their freelancing European predecessors, but it also reflected their recognition of the local communities’ expressed desire to maintain their way of life.

The local pastoralists didn’t mind the relative isolation in the beginning. They mainly wanted to be left alone in their vast, wide-open spaces. For the most part, the colonial administration respected this. But as Kenyan independence approached, isolation gave way to calls for secession.

The Kenyatta government’s sovereignty over the potentially turbulent northern rangelands started badly after the rejection recorded in the 1962 pre-independence referendum. The Shifta insurgency commenced under the shadow of emergency laws gazetted several weeks after Uhuru. This extended a state of occupation across a large swath of territory including Lamu and Tana River Districts. Shifta banditry followed.

It has been a long way coming back from this inflection point.

For ruling elites based in the region’s capitals, the rangelands mainly offered the hope of the hidden resources lurking underneath the surface. Governing the rangelands of the former NFD, the northern Rift Valley, and the North Eastern Province became a holding game—an exercise based on the probability that returns on the investment in controlled conflict management would materialise someday.

It took over five decades for the first manifestations of that pay-off to appear. It began with official recognition of the rangelands’ importance for the livestock sector’s commercial value articulated in a speech President Kibaki made after winning the 2002 elections. Prospecting for oil, natural gas, and wind power came next. This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.

The Land of Jilali

None of this was on the radar as the new millennium approached. The La Niña drought that followed the deluge of the 1998 El Niño had restored the political ecology narrative dominating the rangelands since the colonial era. Desertification was back, and the primary culprit were the proto-modern nomads, with some help from capricious nature.

Two decades ago, I had crisscrossed the expanses of Marsabit without hearing any mention of Schistocerca gregaria, or nzige, to use the Swahili term for the locusts. Years of conversations across northern Kenya had not yielded a single mention of the scourge. But then again, the last outbreak was seventy years ago. At the time, I was part of a team of Kenya researchers based at Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre investigating desertification and its potential mitigations.

In The Land of Jilali, an account of our field trips across the district, originally published in 2001, the spectre of deepening drought and famine followed us everywhere we went.

The essay featured multiple references to dark rockscapes, arboreal denudation, and the expanding discs of desertified land ringing the settlements. Permanent manyattas elsewhere displayed a similar pattern. The environmental crisis was undermining traditional livelihood strategies, fulfilling the prophecies Western scientists had promulgated after the Great Sahel drought of the mid-1970s.

This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.

The conclusion to The Land of Jilali traced the problems to the economic stasis resulting from the decades of laissez-faire policy, widening the separation of the NFD from the highlands to the south.

Our verdict: the problem is not so much environmental degradation as lack of economic diversification. There are untapped resources in these remote regions, including nutrient-rich salt from the Chalbi, gum arabic, stunning landscapes for the high-end adventure tourist. But exploiting them has been constrained by a combination of poor infrastructure, restrictive laws, a lack of services, and the social prejudice engendered by separation. Isolation has bred war parties that roam the land with the unpredictability of rain-bearing clouds.

Now it is 2021 and I returned to retrace some of the steps recorded in the Land of Jilali narrative. The world has witnessed massive shifts and changes over the past two decades. At first glance, however, Marsabit appears to be insulated from many of the trends. The lowland range looked relatively unaltered, certainly less degraded than scientists like Hugh Lamprey had predicted back in 1976 when he claimed the Sahel was advancing at a rate of over five kilometres per year.

At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland. Lamprey’s warning came with a scenario of social collapse overtaking the unstable grasslands and fragile drylands due to surging population growth.

The northern rangelands played their part by recording the country’s highest birth rates over the last two decades. But everywhere we went the tree cover was improved, the pasture ok, and although the peripheries of settlements remain bare, the vegetation and tree cover within them has expanded.

Among other things, these trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.

The areas adjacent to the recently tarmacked road that now connects the northern slopes of Mt. Kenya to Moyale on the Ethiopian border conveyed an impression of environmental stability. Highway towns like Archers Post, Merille, and Logologo are larger but look much the same except for the expanding band of small block houses spreading out into the bush behind them. The stacked sacks of charcoal along the roadside are gone.

These trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.

Although such landscapes can be deceptive, the environmental stasis conveyed by these roadside settlements appeared to be in step with the fast-moving tropes of Kenya’s transition from an agrarian society, where the majority of the population is no longer directly dependent upon rainfall and vegetation.

The data accumulating over time would come to show that the state of vegetation and population growth is not necessarily congruent with long-term land change. But at the beginning of the 1980s, the negative trends documented by researchers working across the Sahel had the unchallenged certainty of Western science on their side.

The Age of IPAL

The Great Sahel famine of 1974-76 struck from the shores of the Atlantic to the Horn of Africa. The death and devastation wrought magnified the significance of the drought and portrayed the famine as the harbinger of a larger environmental crisis. The 1976 United Nations conference on desertification in Nairobi officially established environmental degradation as the leading issue threatening the planet.

It was science to the rescue. Externally conceived schemes to combat desertification, seen as a root cause of the increasing incidence of drought, dominated the response. Lamprey’s picture of a man getting ready to cut down a solitary tree stranded on a barren plain of dark rocks had made Marsabit an international exemplar of desertification, and the goat by the man’s side became the movement’s poster child.

Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity. The government sought to exploit the shock by promoting an audacious shift from livestock to investment in marine fisheries. Its proactive efforts faced formidable headwinds. Two ambitious interventions to kick-start an industrial fishery from above were eventually overtaken by the internal dynamics of Syad Barre’s doomed government.

Some of the fiberglass boats from these projects turned up later in the hands of the vigilantes and pirates patrolling the country’s offshore waters.

In Kenya, the call to arms led to the establishment of the Integrated Project for Arid Lands in Marsabit. Initiated under the aegis of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1977, IPAL was designed as a multi-disciplinary, human-focused project that improved on the design of the integrated project template of that period. Over the course of its three phases, the research compiled useful baseline data on vegetation change and climate patterns, livestock disease vectors, studies on the dynamics of traditional range management, and the sociology of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.

Little changed on the ground in the interim. The rains had returned, and the new jobs IPAL created were welcome. The project’s facilities and research mandate were transferred to the Government of Kenya in 1984. Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre in Marsabit came into existence as the stepchild of IPAL.

Now the ward of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), KARIMAR, as the Centre became known, continued to actively conduct field research, but the scientific output generated by the Centre’s researchers was compromised by the way the Institute worked. Because salaries, which were pegged to civil service pay scales, were low, the per diems for time spent in the field were high to compensate. KARIMAR staff spent a lot of time crisscrossing the landscape collecting data, much of which remained on the shelf.

At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland.

During my time at the Centre, its research focused on animal health, typologies of camel productivity based on indigenous technical knowledge, the ongoing problem of environmental degradation, assessment of optimal dosages of herbal livestock remedies, meat and milk preservation, and sociocultural changes in the area’s growing settlements.

Most of the data did not make its way into publications. But the Centre did operate strong outreach activities, sharing the research findings through periodic meetings with Marsabit’s lowland communities. This was a positive move away from the ivory tower knowledge model, even if the uptake of the technological prototypes on offer was not high.

KARIMAR outreach coincided with the surge in local associational life in the form of the Community Based Organisation and other variations on participatory development like the environmental and security committees. All of this contributed to the onset of a more auto-catalytic, or self-starting developmental phase. This was aided by the rise in education and the increasing movement of locals beyond district and national borders.

The small settlement of Ngurunit, situated at the base of the Ndoto Range, was originally a base for the region’s ancient hunter-gatherer community. It became one of the primary focal points for small-scale projects in vogue at that juncture, and the most noteworthy was the Salato Women’s Group.

Salato was a prime beneficiary of the donor support for gender-based projects at that time.  It ran one of the several mini-dairies supported by KARIMAR, and was producing nyiri nyiri (a variation on dried meat jerky preserved in oil, traditionally made for ceremonial occasions like weddings) for local export. At its height Salato was operating a bakery, selling crafts, facilitating a camel restocking plan, and was racking up citations in the local press, and in developmental and academic publications.

But Salato, once the exemplar of local women’s entrepreneurial zeitgeist, was gone when we passed through Ngurunit. No one was interested in talking about it, as if its fate had always been common knowledge—there were always frictions among its leadership. Only the citations remained. The KARI research station was also kaput, which made me very sad.

The facility’s main veranda was one of those places in Kenya sanctified by the volume of fascinating and esoteric discussions it had absorbed over the past several decades. Those conversations about the region’s history, culture, politics, and economy were part of a vernacular narrative that, from a complex systems perspective, was often more revealing than the insights generated by the formal research.

The Age of LAPSSET

LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior. Traders fanned out across the basin spanning Malawi and Tanzania, northern Kenya the lowlands of Ethiopia, and the borderlands of southern Sudan in search of ivory, human captives, and other high-value commodities.

The name of the game was extraction, and the tales of treasure in the African interior percolating into Europe attracted western explorers. In the western Sahel, the locals set the terms for explorers attracted by the gold-clad city of Timbuctoo, as Mungo Park famously describes in his journal. The Scottish explorer was harassed, threatened, and detained in a pen with a pig by a Berber chieftain. He was so spooked after being released that by the time his boat finally approached the mythical city, the explorer sped by with all guns blazing.

Mungo Park met a watery death during the final leg of his journey down the Niger River; his journals were retrieved by his faithful guide, preserving his fascinating account for future generations. Many others perished crossing the Sahara or while trying to enter the interior from the West Africa coast, which became known as the White Man’s Grave.

Historically, the western Sahel had given rise to states that integrated herders and agro-pastoralists into the region’s cross-Sahara trade-driven economy. The Sahel zone remains integral to the politics and economy of the new countries created by the colonial disruption. The opposite pattern prevailed in the eastern Sahel, where populations were still on the move during the 19th century, and the region’s stateless pastoralists remained on the periphery after colonial intervention favoured the promotion of agricultural economies.

Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity.

Explorers venturing into the interior of East Africa faced formidable changes, but less hostility from the natives. The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation that followed insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.

The LAPSSET project and its elaborate grid of proposed roads, pipelines, airports, railroads, the new Lamu port at Magogoni, and “tourist” cities is a prime example. Designed to open up the region for capital penetration, the fantastic scheme hatched by the Kibaki government’s planners was never tabled for debate in Parliament, or formally introduced to communities on the ground. But the Lake Turkana Wind Power and two berths at the Magogoni Port are the only projects that have come to fruition so far.

Renewable energy is one industry that can actually mesh with the region’s pristine environment. The wind farm initially appeared to be the kind of project residents and proponents of rangeland development would approve of. The LTWP offered the hope that it would promote greater integration of the area’s inhabitants into the national economic grid. Instead, the outcome reinforced the skewed state-society power relations defining the last century of highland-lowland relations.

Sarima sits beneath the escarpment descending towards the lake. The corridor framed by Mt. Kulal to the north and the Ndoto Range in Samburu forms a powerful wind tunnel that inspired a Dutch expatriate to undertake a basic feasibility study. He established that the winds in this area, known in Rendille as Kurti Haafar or the Hill of the Winds, are stronger than anywhere in Europe.

The quasi-legal acquisition of the land lease from the Marsabit County Council in 2007 through political brokers and the convoluted implementation process proved to be a recipe for conflict and unrelenting contestation. What could have been a relatively non-intrusive and mutually beneficial investment based on an initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare electricity plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.

The environmental and social impact assessment was completed in 2009. The World Bank bailed on the project in 2012. This removed some of the more cumbersome hurdles to implementation, like the poor terms of the project’s power purchase with Kenya’s Ministry of Energy. The World Bank’s withdrawal also expedited financing for the consortium of private investors, who expected to have the 310-megawatt facility operational by 2014.

Africa’s largest wind farm was finally completed in 2017, but due to tendering scandals and the usual delays, it took the better part of two years to connect the wind turbines to the national grid. As predicted by the World Bank, the Kenya Treasury committed to pay the LTWP investors €127 million (KSh14.5 billion) for the unused electricity generated during this period, which inflated the cost of the project’s electricity for the Kenyan consumer.

LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior.

Projects that tick most of the developmental boxes tend to engender controversy in Kenya’s marginalized areas. The Turkana County government fought a protracted battle to increase their small share of the expected revenues from the oil found there. In Lamu, civil society advocates have been forced to fight for basic compensation in court for the land and livelihoods lost to the Magogoni port. Marsabit County received nothing in return and was denied access to the electricity that the Project Consortium’s application boasted will light up 2.5 million Kenya households.

A case brought by Rendille activists contesting the land allocation and petitioning for its reversion to community land upon expiration of the lease has been delayed, even after being accepted for review by Kenya’s Supreme Court. The encroachment of Turkana and the preferential hiring of Samburu for the 339 permanent jobs created by the project has, however, complicated the case predicated on the rights of all of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.

The pastoralists’ lawyers argued that the allocation failed to follow the guidelines mandated in Kenya’s Trust Lands Act, and it represented an even more serious violation of the community land principles embedded in Kenya’s new Constitution.

For their part, the LTWP Consortium’s lawyers argued that the law grants communities the right to access communal grazing resources, but not formal ownership of the land. This blatant revisionism anchored their dismissal of any local claim to the benefits accruing from the utilisation of the wind passing over the land in question.

Such cynical ploys contribute to why citizens of Kenya B remain poor and the value of their production low by the standards of Kenya’s agricultural majority. But communities in the areas that first experienced Uhuru under the draconian emergency laws like the Special Districts Act are now awake and increasingly organised. They are also armed. None of this augurs well for the belated integration of these areas under the extraction and carbon-based investment model the Kenya government is promoting under its Vision 2030 blueprint.

Return to the Land of Jilali – Part Two

The View from the Lake, Then and Now

We approached Sarima on an overcast morning. The day before we had been warned of a clash between Samburu and Turkana. The incident claimed a boda boda rider transporting miraa and a Samburu moran, the victims adding to the growing body count resulting from an extended series of conflicts erupting across local ethnic fault lines. Upon approaching the edge of the project’s land we passed small groups of elders walking towards what was apparently a peace meeting being convened in a glade of acacia.

The configuration of the wind farm, unlike the lines and grids of similar projects elsewhere, consisted of clusters of the tall white towers scattered in an uneven pattern across the landscape. The blades of these giant pinwheels appear to spin at a lazy pace out of synch with the fiercely gusting wind.

The once rugged road has been paved up to the final stretch to the Lake, and the road following the shore to Loiyangalani has been improved. This made for a leisurely, two-hour drive to the town that has always struck me as one of Kenya’s most eclectic settlements.

When I first travelled this route for the first time in 1975, it took nine days traveling by public means and hitchhiking to make it to the lake. Two days were spent on buses and seven were spent hanging out with the locals on the side of the road in Baragoi and South Horr during the day. The traffic never exceeded five vehicles a day: the typical sample comprised of lorries, GK Land Rovers, and the occasional private vehicle which would speed raising a cloud of dust.

After three nights camping in a laaga on the edge of town, we got a lift to South Horr in a pick-up transporting goats. South Horr was at that time a small hamlet of some fifteen shops and storage structures set in a woody glade. Most of the Samburu herders carried semi-precious stone knotted in their shukas. We failed to see why they spent their days loitering along the road, until a German-speaking man stopped, methodically inspected the rocks with a special eyeglass, made a few purchases, and sped off after spurning our request for a lift.

It was at that point, on our fourth day in South Horr, that we decided to walk the final 90 kilometres to Loiyangalani. Local sources told us there is a 25km stretch of savanna woodland before entering the desert. So we hatched a plan to do half the walk at night, find a tree to rest under, and complete the remaining distance the next day when the sun was low.

The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation subsequently insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.

We packed some sugar, tea leaves, posho, and purchased a small spear at a high price from a one of the rock-hunting Samburu morani. We should have employed him as a spear-carrier and guide instead, but we had no idea what was awaiting us ahead.

The next day, forty minutes before our planned departure, a European tour group stopped and told us they would make room in their Landcruiser if we did not mind being squeezed. We accepted this offer with great relief.

The vegetation thinned out after passing the Kurunga River, confirming the intel we had collected. The Sarima corridor was near-treeless at that time; it certainly was not the “lush plain” described in the LTWP literature, and the Turkana village that has been a magnet for inter-communal conflict since the project began did not exist. We disembarked further down the road so the car could negotiate the staircase, a series of terraces that for decades enabled vehicles to bump their way down this most difficult section of the escarpment.

It was five o’clock yet still incredibly hot. Fifteen minutes under the sun amidst this sea of rocks, the Jade Sea beckoning in the distance, was enough to see us consume half of the water we were carrying. This point roughly marked the rest stop of our walk, and there was not a single tree with a canopy offering respite from the sun in sight. The rest of the route to Loiyangalani was even harsher, bereft of any sign of shade or habitation.

Like the fate of many of the meticulously planned expeditions passing through the region in the late 19th century, we would have survived the trek, but only barely. With this realisation came renewed respect for the long-time inhabitants who figured out how to survive and prosper in this stark and rugged land.

Now I was retracing these steps, forty-five years later. Acacia nilotica and seyal dotted the once barren lakeside. The lake had receded into the distance when I visited here during the turn-of-the-millennium La Niña drought. Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had now returned. The large informal settlement that had sprung up on the extended beachfront was gone; the only reminder of the lakeside suburb was a partially submerged bar and restaurant.

An initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.

Some things only change slowly: I took a picture of a small raft of doum palm trunks, the archetypal vessel the El Molo use to fish these turbulent and croc-infested waters. But Loiyangalani was otherwise vibrant, and undergoing a makeover.

The piles of rocks for sale on the lakeside approach were new. I used to see the sight of animals foraging on this denuded shoreline as confirmation of the desertification narrative—until closer inspection revealed that the rocks hide spikey shoots of grass shielded from the burning sun. Now the Turkana boys herding goats are diversifying their income by selecting stones with the right size and shape for constructing houses to sell to the new builders.

Loiyangalani now features facilities that provide reasonably priced accommodation and meals for the groups of down-country Kenyans who are now exploring the Marsabit lowland loop. Ngurunit and South Horr also have similar tourist bomas, enabling access to the remote vistas along a route that was formerly the province of low-budget travellers touring in mini-mog trucks. Many of the settlements are setting up mini-grids based on solar power, obviating the need to access the LTWP electricity. Off-grid technologies for harvesting the sun provide a low-cost alternative to the government-investor ‘owned’ wind.

The roads are better; I stood next to where the staircase used to be and watched a Toyota Vitz drive down to the Lake.  Such examples of change offer hope that, after decades of media-framed perceptions of the north as a crisis-prone region, other Kenyans see the north for themselves and empathise with their neighbours’ quest for an equitable return from their land and natural resources.

The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development. Before leaving Loiyangalani, we learn that elders attending the peace meeting produced the foils from the box lunches provided to the security personnel at the site of the attack as evidence showing that LTWP guards were behind the raid two days before.

The Land of Jilali Revisited

This brings us to a revised verdict based on a long view of developments in the Land of Jilali.

The desertification thesis, which emerged out of the French occupation of the western Sahel, traces the blame to culturally conservative herders and management practices like the use of fire and overstocking. The Francophone desertification thesis was exported to the Horn of Africa following the great famine of the mid-1970s. Since then, scholars like Tor Benjminsen have exposed the combination of opportunism and flawed science used to delegitimise the adaptive and resilient practices of pastoralists developed over the centuries. His article on the subject documents how since the 1920s the myth has been revived during protracted droughts, only to fade away during the resumption of normal rainfall.

A contrasting case of extreme climate set the locust invasion in motion. Two cyclones in quick succession had pushed far beyond the normal range for such storms. This supercharged the expansion and reproduction of the locusts, the unusually high rainfall launching the jump from the insects’ southern Arabia breeding grounds while optimising conditions across the Horn of Africa for their spread.

Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the Lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had returned.

The media duly repeated claims that the locusts represented an existential danger to the Horn of Africa, threatening millions of producers with starvation. Documentation of the devastation to agricultural and pasture resources has been less forthcoming. This tallies with reports from sources in affected areas, who verified the appearance of swarms, but claimed the damage to crops and pasture was minimal.

Did we once again fail to fully comprehend a non-linear ecological event?

The 2020 locusts appear to be recyclers who fed off the excess vegetation generated by the heavy rains, while providing a temporary source of protein for birds and wildlife and local communities who convert the insects into a healthy version of fast food. The locusts are also a rich source of chemicals known as phytosterols that boost immunity and help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The response to combatting the locusts did provide a positive example of international cooperation, even though the use of insecticides was a greater threat to human health than the vegetation they consumed. The nzige invasion dovetailed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed the cupidity and corruption of the state-based cartels who exploited the international response to the virus for personal benefit.

The retrogressive behaviour of the region’s states comes with important implications for the Horn of Africa, which is entering a new phase of political economy after several decades of communal conflict, unencumbered market economy, and donor-supported democratisation. The expanded scope for global capital under this arrangement represents the latest challenge for the region’s pastoralists’ fight to own their future.

Explorers and military map makers’ accounts dominated the first phase of modernity in the north. Their descriptions of the region as Africa’s last remaining Garden of Eden dovetail with the Lake Turkana version of the Eve hypothesis. The environs where our earliest ancestors frolicked entered the twentieth century as a rangeland ghetto sustaining decades of socioeconomic malaise.

The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development.

The second, developmental phase of modernity was driven by Western science. Researchers amassed a large body of useful information, including the baseline data sets underpinning remote sensing and survey methodologies that now support the monthly reports on the frontier counties’ vegetation and human food security. Jilali is now a data-defined phenomenon. But they also failed to identify the critical dynamics operating on the human-environmental interface.

The new school of range ecology eventually rectified the biased assumptions responsible for the procession of failed drylands policy experiments. Recognition of the inherent uncertainty of such non-equilibrium environments went a long way towards rehabilitating the pastoralist’s opportunistic utilisation of ephemeral resources availed by the unpredictable climate. Strategies combining maximisation with resilience are common to the diverse plant, animal, and human populations who colonised the Horn of Africa’s arid and semi-arid lands.

This occurred under wetter conditions, when Mauretania still had swamps and giraffes roamed lower Egypt. Then they spent the last 800 years adapting to the increasingly drier environment.

Climate is the great driver of life on earth. Generations of environmental stability culminated in the European expansion. The societal operating system it imposed on the world has run its course, relegating a large portion of humanity to a precarious existence on a non-equilibrium planet. Humanity needs a new civilisational operating system.

We do not know how the world’s most resilient survivors will negotiate the current interlude of top-down capitalism. In the end, they will be the authors of this third phase of rangeland development now unfolding. I also expect that their indigenous sensibilities will play an influential role in the collective response as the rest of us figure out how to cope with the long-term changes now overtaking the biosphere.

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